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Stories abound about how geniuses like Albert Einstein and highly successful entrepreneurs like Bill Gates were failures and dropouts.

Some of these stories are not entirely accurate. True, Bill Gates did not complete his university education. But he left during his third year to pursue a career in computer software development and to start a business with his friend – a business that eventually became Microsoft Corporation. His decision to leave was not because he could not cope with his studies.

Bill Gates had left Harvard University, which is widely considered to be the top university in the world! He was reported to have gained admission to Harvard with a SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) score of 1590 – a score that would have placed him among the top 0.1 percent of candidates. He was not the regular "college dropout".

In the same "class" as Bill Gates is Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computers. He did not do well in school and one of his teachers had commented that he "would probably never go anywhere in life".

While at the University of Texas at Austin studying to become a doctor, Dell started a computer company called PC's Limited. The company did so well that, at the age of 19, Dell stopped his studies to run the business full-time.

Today, PC's Limited has become Dell Computer Corporation, the largest personal computer manufacturer in the world. And Michael Dell was ranked by Forbes Magazine in 2006 as the 12th richest man in the world.

The case of Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is a bit more complicated. His "failure" in mathematics was, in fact, due to a confusion caused by a change in the way grades were assigned.

Einstein was not weak in mathematics. He actually showed an aptitude for mathematics at an early age. Einstein attended the Luitpold Gymnasium, a secondary school in Munich, Germany, and he began to learn mathematics when he was about 12 years old. He taught himself Euclidean plane geometry from a school booklet and also began to study calculus.

He was, however, considered a "slow learner". This could have been due to dyslexia, a learning disorder whereby sufferers have difficulty recognising alphabets and words. It could also have been Einstein credited his development of the theory of relativity to this slowness, saying that by pondering space and time later than most children, he was able to apply a more developed intellect.

In 1894, following the failure of his father's electrochemical business, the Einsteins moved from Munich to Pavia, a city in Italy. Einstein remained behind in Munich to finish school, but he completed only one term before leaving to join his family in Pavia. Einstein quit school – by obtaining a medical note from a friendly doctor – a year and a half before the final examinations. Thus, he did not have a secondary-school certificate.

Einstein took the entrance examination of the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) and excelled in science and mathematics. However, he failed the liberal arts portion of the exam. His family sent him to Aarau, Switzerland, to finish secondary school. There, he studied electromagnetic theory and received his diploma in September 1896.

So, whether or not Einstein was in fact a "slow learner", he still went on to become arguably the greatest scientist of the 20th century; the icon of genius and intelligence!

Albert Einstein, Bill Gates and Michael Dell are the more famous examples of "successful dropouts", even though they were not dropouts in the true sense of the word. There are many more, including those who did badly in school as well as those who dropped out for other reasons. How many?

One website that lists "Noted High School and Elementary School Dropouts" counted 699 as of February 2006.

Many of the people on the list are movie stars and pop or rock singers. They include 63 Oscar winners, 103 Oscar nominees and uncounted numbers of other award winners. Sports personalities also featured prominently on the list, including 7 Olympic gold medalists.

Significantly, the list of "famous dropouts" also includes:
  • 18 billionaires and uncounted numbers of millionaires
  • 8 US Presidents and several other world leaders
  • 10 Nobel Prize winners (6 Literature, 2 Peace, 1 Physics, 1 Chemistry)
  • 55 bestselling authors
  • 27 knighthoods and 3 damehoods

Yet this impressive list includes mainly people who are well-known within the English-speaking world. In Europe, Asia and elsewhere, I am sure there are lots more successful dropouts.

For instance, Li Ka Shing, the richest man in Asia, is one famous billionaire not (yet) on this list. In China, so I was told but could not verify, the majority of the country's richest and most successful entrepreneurs are people with minimal education.

It has to be noted that "dropouts" in this case refer to people who left the education system for a variety of reasons, not necessarily due to a lack of academic ability. Some were too poor to continue their studies, some stopped schooling because of war, family dislocation, poor health, and other reasons.

Thus, the list also includes a number of people who subsequently obtained at least the equivalent of a high school diploma, as well as degrees and doctorates. But they form a minority – 138 out of 699 people, or about 20 percent. The rest never made it past high school. But they made it in life!

The compilers of the list write:

"While it is a fact and very important to stress that more opportunities exist for individuals who have at least a high school diploma, the names on these lists also add considerable weight to the discussion of what constitutes markers of human intelligence and a person's potential worth to society and, historically, civilization as a whole.

These names represent examples of human perseverance, creativity, and, in a great many instances, genius."

You can read the stories of "Famous Failures" in SUCCESS SECRETS.

Colonel Harland Sanders (1890-1980)

Colonel Sanders is the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), one of the biggest fast food chains in the world today. He dropped out of elementary school in his fifth year, but later earned a law degree through a correspondence course.
Sanders’ father died when he was six years old, and he had to cook for the family as his mother worked. He worked on many jobs during his teenage years, including firefighter, steamboat driver, insurance salesman and as a private in the Cuban army.
At the age of 40, he ran a service station in Corbin, Kentucky, and cooked chicken for people who passed by. His popularity grew and he moved to a motel and restaurant and began working as the chef.
But not all was well. In 1952, Sanders was in his 60s and reportedly penniless. He travelled across the US to licence his special method of frying chicken in a pressure cooker, sleeping in his car to save money. His proposal was that restaurant owners would pay him a nickel (five cents) for every piece of chicken sold.
Over a two-year period, he was rejected 1,008 times before the 1,009th person said “Yes”. And so KFC was born.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (1947-)

Schwarzenegger left school at 14 to focus on bodybuilding and to work as an apprentice carpenter. He became one of the world’s greatest bodybuilders, a successful actor and film producer and, since November 2003, the Governor of California, USA.
Born in Austria, Schwarzenegger played many sports as a child and discovered his passion for bodybuilding when, during his teens, his soccer coach took the team for weight training.
At 18, Schwarzenegger served in the Austrian army. One day, he sneaked off from the army base to compete in his first bodybuilding competition. He won the junior title of Mr Australasia. He was punished for sneaking off, but reportedly earned the respect of his army superiors.
In September 1968, Schwarzenegger moved to the United States. He had little money and limited knowledge of English. But he had a dream — to become the greatest bodybuilder in the world by winning the prestigious Mr Olympia contest.
He failed in his first attempt in 1969, but won for the next six consecutive years, from 1970 to 1975. In 1980, as a late entry with only eight weeks to prepare for the competition, Schwarzenegger again won the Mr Olympia title.
Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger embarked on a successful Hollywood career and is best known for the movies, Terminator and Terminator II: Judgement Day.
Lesser known about Schwarzenegger is that he became a millionaire at age 22, before his bodybuilding and Hollywood successes. He made his money through a brick-laying business which he co-founded with another bodybuilder in 1968. The duo later started a mail order business for bodybuilding equipment and instructional tapes and Schwarzenegger also invested in real estate.
In addition, Schwarzenegger was a founding “celebrity investor” in the Planet Hollywood chain of theme restaurants, launched in 1991. He severed his ties with the business in 2000. In 2003, Schwarzenegger was elected Governor of California. Along his career path, as a 32-year-old adult in 1979, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Superior with degrees in International Marketing of Fitness and Business Administration.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

Churchill, the British Prime Minister during World War II, is widely regarded as the country’s greatest Prime Minister of all time.
As a young boy, he sat for the entrance examination for Harrow School, a public school in London. When he took the Latin paper, a young Churchill carefully wrote the title, his name, and the number 1 followed by a dot — and nothing else!
Despite this, he was accepted at Harrow but placed at the bottom division. He generally did badly and was often punished for poor work and lack of effort. He failed some courses several times and refused to study the classics — Latin and Ancient Greek. But he excelled in English and also sometimes topped his class in History and Mathematics.

Churchill attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and joined the army at age 20. In 1899, at age 25, he entered politics but failed to get elected, and subsequently worked as a newspaper war correspondent.
Churchill was elected to Parliament in 1900 and became Prime Minister only 40 years later, during World War II. Britain had lost confidence in the way Neville Chamberlain, who was then Prime Minister, was handling the war. On 10 May 1940, Chamberlain resigned.
Chamberlain wanted a successor who would command the support of all three major parties in the House of Commons. After meeting with the other two party leaders, he asked Churchill to be Prime Minister and form an all-party government.
Two lesser-known facts about Churchill are worth highlighting: (1) he became Prime Minister again from 1951 to 1955; and (2) he also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 for his many books on English and world history.

Walt Disney (1901-1966)

Walt Disney, the creator of Disneyland and Mickey Mouse, spent most of his childhood days playing on a farm. His father’s ill health led to the family selling their farm and moving to the city. There, they purchased a newspaper route and Disney and his brother had to wake up at 3 a.m. every morning to deliver newspapers.

Disney began attending grammar school in 1910, and later enrolled in classes at the Kansas City Art Institute. Because of his early-morning newspaper runs, he often fell asleep in class and was prone to daydreaming and doodling.

In high school, Disney was the cartoonist for the school newspaper, The Village Voice. He also began taking night courses at the Chicago Art Institute.
Disney dropped out of high school at age 16 to join the US Army, but was too young to enlist. Later, he tried to join the American Red Cross and the St John’s Ambulance, and finally got in by forging his birth certificate, changing his birth date from 1901 to 1900.
Ray Croc, the founder of MacDonald’s, was a buddy of Disney in the army. He once commented:
“Whenever we had time off and went on the town to chase girls, he stayed in the camp drawing pictures.”

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Picasso is not only one of the best known modern artists, but also the most prolific — with about 13,500 paintings, 100,000 prints and engravings, 34,000 book illustrations and 300 sculptures. Given that many of the prints and ceramics were released in an average of 75 editions, the total number of original Picasso works is over a quarter of a million.

Picasso’s father was an art teacher and he attended mostly art schools where his father taught. He never finished his college-level course of study at the Academia de San Fernando (Academy of Arts) in Madrid, leaving after less than a year.
As an interesting side-note, Picasso also suffered from dyslexia, a learning disorder which causes difficulty with reading and writing.

Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)

Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish writer and poet famous for his fairy tales, grew up in poverty. His father was a sickly shoemaker and his mother, an alcoholic. The entire family lived and slept in a single tiny room.
Andersen displayed great intelligence and imagination as a young boy. However, his father died when he was 11 and the young Andersen had to start earning a living. He worked as an apprentice weaver and a tailor, and later in a cigarette factory.At 14, with his young soprano voice, Andersen became an actor in the Royal Danish Theatre. His career ended when his voice broke, and a colleague referred him to a poet. Andersen then began to write.
A chance meeting with King Frederick VI of Denmark was to change his life. The King took an interest in Andersen and sent him to grammar school.
Andersen was said to have been a backward and unwilling pupil, possibly with a learning disability. He was much older and the odd man out among his fellow students. He later stated that his schooling years were the darkest and most bitter parts of his life.
Before he went to school, however, Andersen had already published his first story, The Ghost at Palnatoke’s Grave,in 1822.

Li Ka Shing (1928-)

Li, a Hong Kong entrepreneur said to be the richest man of Chinese descent, was the son of a primary school head. Yet, he had little opportunity for education. Li stopped schooling in 1940 when Japan invaded China, and his family fled to Hong Kong. He was then 12 years old. At 15, his father died of tuberculosis and Li had to support himself and his family.
In Hong Kong, Li’s first job was selling watches at his uncle’s store. His hard work made him the best salesman at age 17, and general manager at age 19. He then left to join another company to sell metal wares. He was said to have been so successful that his sales commission was seven times that of the second best salesman.
When he was 21, Li opened a factory to produce plastic flowers, and he soon became the largest supplier of plastic flowers in Asia. In 1958, when his landlord raised the rent, Li decided to develop his own property. Thus began his venture into real estate.
Today, his real estate company, Cheung Kong, is the biggest landowner in Hong Kong, responsible for developing one out of every 12 households. The various Cheung Kong companies account for more than 11 percent of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
 
In Hong Kong, it is said that out of every dollar spent, five cents go to Li’s coffers. He controls property, banking, construction, plastics, cellular phones, satellite television, cement production, retail (pharmacies and supermarkets), hotels, domestic transportation (sky train), airports, electric power, steel production, ports and shipping.
Hutchison Whampoa, another of Li’s companies, controls 12 percent of all container port capacity in the world, including ports in Hong Kong, China, Rotterdam, Panama and Bahamas. It is also the world’s largest retailer of health and beauty products, including the A S Watson group, with over 6,800 stores.
Li is ranked by Forbes Magazine as the 10th richest man in the world and the richest man of Chinese descent. In 2006, Li became the first recipient of the Malcolm S. Forbes Lifetime Achievement Award for his entrepreneurship and business success. To his fellow residents of Hong Kong, Li is “Superman”.
 
Konosuke Matsushita (1894-1989)

Matsushita, founder of Matsushita Electric (one of the world’s largest manufacturers of electrical and electronic goods), not only grew up poor and had limited education, but he actually decided not to study — and he never regretted it.

At age 9, he had to leave his family to work in another city. A chance to study arose when Matsushita was 11 years old. His sister had found work as a clerk in the postal savings bureau and the bureau advertised for an office boy.
His sister and mother thought he should apply for the job, as it provided an opportunity for education. But his father told him:
“You should continue your apprenticeship because, in time, you can start your own business and become independent. I believe this is the best option for you; don’t change course mid-stream.
I know many people who cannot even write their own letters, but they are good businessmen and they can afford to hire people to do such tasks. If you succeed in business, you can employ people to make up for the skills you lack. Don’t throw yourself in an office boy job that has no future.”
Looking back, Matsushita saw that his father was right. He said:
“Had I quit my apprenticeship and become an office boy, I might not have become what I am today.”
When he was in his early 20s, Matsushita started his business with the equivalent of US$50, went to the verge of bankruptcy, and eventually grew it to having assets worth US$42 billion at the time of his death. His personal wealth was a staggering US$3 billion.
 
Despite his limited education, Matsushita also became highly respected as a management guru and philosopher. In 1979, he established the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, an educational institution whose innovative approach has been described as avant-garde. The Japanese regard Matsushita as “the god of management”.
 
Thomas Edison (1847-1931)

Edison is hailed as the greatest inventor of all time, with 1,093 patents awarded in his name, including the light bulb and the entire system for generating and distributing electricity. He is credited with “inventing” the Modern Age.
Edison is regarded as a genius. Yet some medical experts speculate that he might have been plagued by serious learning difficulties because, in spite of his brilliant mind, he was strangely weak in areas such as cognition, speech and grammar.
In school, Edison displayed symptoms of what is nowadays called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. His teachers frequently lost patience with him and, noting that Edison had an exceptionally broad forehead, concluded that his brain must have been “scrambled”. His mother, however, was convinced that his large forehead was a sign of superior intelligence. Whether Edison was intelligent or mentally handicapped, he was always thinking differently from other people. He was always “thinking out of the box”.
 
Edison was largely taught at home by his mother. He read history, literature, general science and chemistry, and was fond of poetry. At one stage, a young Edison even planned to read every book on his father’s bookshelf, and his parents had to direct him to be more selective.
From young, he was always experimenting. He set up his laboratory in the basement of his home, but his mother soon complained about the strong smell of chemicals and the dangers they posed.
At that time, Edison had started working on a train — he sold newspapers, snacks and candy and had other children sell fruits and vegetables. At 14, he published his own newspaper, the first ever to be typeset, printed and sold on a train.
So he moved his chemicals to a train cabin. During one bumpy journey, some phosphorus dropped on the floor and ignited. The angry conductor hit Edison on the head, aggravating his hearing loss sustained from scarlet fever. Yet, being deaf did not stop Edison from later producing one of the greatest inventions related to sound — the phonograph.
In 1869, Edison was working as a telegrapher with Western Union and he was about to be fired for spending too much time on his experiments. At age 22, he resigned to become a full-time inventor. By 29, he had more than a hundred patents to his name.
In 1879, after hundreds of experiments, Edison produced a light bulb that could last 13 hours. He eventually improved it until it could last over a hundred hours. On 4 September 1882, Edison opened the world’s first commercial electric power station for electric lighting, at Pearl Street, New York — the Modern Age dawned.