If at first you don't succeed

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: (Published 11 January 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:90
  1. James Hanslip, senior house officer, Royal Liverpool Children's Hospital, Liverpool (jhanslip{at}

    “If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.” The origins of this phrase are not entirely clear, having been quoted as far back as 1840 but popularised in Edward Hickson's Moral Song (1857). Whoever originally coined it, most people would agree with its sentiment. Which is why I was surprised that, at a recent meeting on current changes in postgraduate surgical training, a tutor encouraged trainees not successful at surgical selection stages to “go off and do something else.”

    This made me wonder what the world would be like if everyone who failed to achieve one of their goals did just “go off and do something else.”

    Beethoven's early tutor once remarked of him that, “as a composer he is hopeless.” Beethoven ploughed on regardless, and most would agree that this worked out pretty well for lovers of classical music.

    Michael Jordan, perhaps one of the greatest sportsmen of all time, was cut from his high school basketball team. He also decided to stick to what he wanted to do, and I doubt he regrets not doing something else.

    Elvis Presley was fired after just one show at “The Grand Ol Opry” and told, “You ain't going nowhere, son.” He decided a career in music really was for him, stuck at it, and lovers of sequin jumpsuits and quiffed hair rejoiced.

    John F. Kennedy lost a close run election for class president in his freshman year at Harvard but stayed with it and made do with president of the United States. In fact, if people did give up after one attempt at a career, Americans would have fewer former presidents to remember, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln all ran for public office early in their careers without success.

    But that would be the least of Americans' worries, as the same defeatist attitude would have left them without the famous Dr Seuss books, which were originally rejected by 27 publishing houses.

    So worried trainees who find themselves potentially unable to follow their chosen career should take heed. Sometimes a change is a good move, as it was for Sir John Major, former British prime minister, when his application to be a bus conductor was rejected. Or, indeed, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who failed to achieve much success in the field of medicine but whose eccentric sleuth Sherlock Holmes assured him a certain immortality.

    However, if you have really got your heart set on a particular specialty and things don't quite work out at the first attempt, it is worth persevering. Thomas Edison patented more than 1000 inventions, not all of which were good, before he thought of the light bulb.

    View Abstract

    Sign in

    Log in through your institution

    Free trial

    Register for a free trial to to receive unlimited access to all content on for 14 days.
    Sign up for a free trial