When we think about people who have clawed their way up to the greatest heights of success and fame from the very lowest places, we should probably put Jay Z on that list. Born Shawn Carter, in 1969, in the projects of Brooklyn, the man we now know as Jay Z was raised by a single mother with his three older siblings after being abandoned by their father. His neighborhood wasn’t the best. Crime was rampant. Jay Z himself dropped out of high school, despite showing a great deal of potential, to sell crack to make money. He even shot his brother in the shoulder once during an argument.
Luckily, Jay Z was able to turn some of this depravity into art. An incredibly talented lyricist, he would compete and win freestyle competitions, making a reputation for himself. He’d even read the dictionary cover to cover on multiple occasions, scouring for better rhymes. He was able to start telling his story through his music.
After being shot at on a few occasions, and tiring of the drug life, Jay Z partnered with a fellow rapper on a single called “The Originators,” which earned him a feature on MTV. He kept working with DJs to try and get more tracks recorded, but had little to no success securing a record deal. Every major label in the country turned him down. It became clear that he would never make a living as a hip-hop performer.
Rather than let that news get him down, and turn him back to his old life and all the crime, Jay Z tried it from another angle. He became a producer himself and started his own label—aspirationally titled Roc-A-Fella—with two friends. It was a rocky road. Almost all of their artists left the label before making an album. By 1997, only Jay Z had managed to release one. But they persisted. They worked with Notorious B.I.G., and when he died, Jay Z was asked to collaborate on the posthumous album Life After Death, allowing Roc-A-Fella to get a little press.
The following year, in 1998, Jay Z released Vol. 2 and the song “Hard Knock Life” and, well, the rest is history. Roc-A-Fella shot up and became quite successful, and was later sold to Def Jam Records for millions of dollars. As for Jay Z, he became the President and CEO and took the whole merged label by storm. He is now worth roughly $520 million, and was ranked the 6th most powerful celebrity of 2014 by Forbes. He has sold over 75 million records, won 19 Grammies, owns a record company, designs clothes, owns or part-owns real estate, hotels, businesses, even an NBA team, among other claims to fame.
In his book Decoded, he says this about his song “This Can’t Be Life” and about failure:
“It was a verse about fear of failure, which is something that everyone goes through, but no one, particularly where I’m from, wants to really talk about. But it’s a song that a lot of people connect to: The thought that “this can’t be life” is one that all of us have felt at some point or another, when bad decisions and bad luck and bad situations feel like too much to bear, those times when we think that this, this, can’t be my story. But facing up that kind of feeling can be a powerful motivation to change. It was for me.”
So the next time you start to feel down on yourself, thinking of all the ways in which the deck was stacked against you: bad parents, bad poverty, bad everything, just remember a man named Shawn Carter turned everything around for himself and became a household name. He even got to marry Beyoncé. How’s that for failure being a productive force for success?
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