10 of the Worst Decisions Ever Made

It's a safe bet that the 12 publishing firms who turned down J.K. Rowling's first "Harry Potter" book are all regretting the decision.
©Graeme Robertson/Getty Images

Sometimes we make bad decisions about who we date or what movie to see -- and those shoes? Too late to return them now. But sometimes, we make really bad decisions.

For example, Thomas Austin didn't consider the consequence of introducing rabbits to Australia; he just wanted a five-star meal. And NASA knew the Challenger had O-ring problems, but decided to launch the space shuttle anyway. And all 12 of the publishing firms that rejected J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"? Since their first printing in 1997, the Harry Potter books have broken publishing records; they are now considered the fastest-selling books ever.


The next time you make a bad decision, remember: It probably could have been worse -- you could have accepted the Trojan Horse or tried to invade Russia. In no particular order, we've collected 10 of the worst decisions ever made. Hold on to your sweet tooth because we're starting with those little candies aliens just can't resist. No, not M&Ms.

10: Mars Turning Down the Chance to be in 'E.T.'

Mars didn’t see the profit potential of casting their candy as a supporting character to a little boy and an alien puppet, but Hershey sure did.
©Universal/Getty Images

"Is he a pig? He sure eats like one," quipped Gertie when she first laid eyes on the small brown alien, E.T., in Steven Spielberg's 1982 blockbuster movie. E.T. may have had a sweet tooth, but those brown, orange and yellow candies he was snacking on weren't M&Ms.

It could have been M&Ms, but Mars passed on the chance to use their candy in "E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial" when Spielberg asked. Instead, Hershey smartly stepped in with Reese's Pieces when opportunity knocked. The good fortune for knowing when to say yes? Sales of Reese's Pieces jumped 65 percent in June 1982, the same month E.T. was released [source: Time, Conradt].


9: Decca Records Declining to Sign the Beatles

The Beatles, shown here during a press tour for "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in May 1967, could have been a smashing success for Decca Records, but Dick Rowe dropped the ball.
©Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

In 1962, Dick Rowe, an executive at Decca Records, thought guitar groups were falling out of favor. On New Year's Day that year, The Beatles – though at that time Pete Best was their drummer and they called themselves the Silver Beatles -- auditioned for Decca Records producer Tony Meehan. One month later, when Dick Rowe heard their audition tape -- 15 tracks on a 12-inch audio tape -- he passed on signing the band.

As it turns out, Dick Rowe was mistaken. Guitar bands weren't cold, they were hot. The Beatles went on to sign with EMI, and released their first 8 albums through the Parlophone label. It's estimated that the band earned $38.5 million by the end of the summer of 1967. The Wall Street Journal estimated $50 million in record sales in the U.S. alone in 1964 [source: Beatle Money]. In 1968 they launched their own record label, Apple Records.


8: Thalidomide's Use as a Morning Sickness Treatment

A 1968 photo of Elizabeth Buckle, born with stunted arms as a result of thalidomide use.
©Paul Fievez/BIPs/Getty Images

Thalidomide was introduced in the early 1950s as a safe over-the-counter sedative, and went on to be prescribed to pregnant women as a morning sickness treatment during the 1950s and 1960s across 46 countries. By 1961, though, negative effects of the drug were becoming evident -- babies were born with severe deformities. Affected babies were often born with shortened arms or legs and with flipper-like hands and feet (a condition called phocomelia); some babies were born with other defects such as malformed eyes, ears, hearts and other organs [source: March of Dimes]. By the time the manufacturer finally pulled the drug, an estimated 100,000 pregnant women had taken it, and an estimated 40 percent of babies exposed to the drug died (either during the pregnancy or shortly after birth) [source: March of Dimes].

Thalidomide does have its uses, although always with the risk of severe birth defects or infant mortality. It's approved for use as a treatment for multiple myeloma, which is a blood and bone marrow cancer, as well as treatment for skin lesions associated with leprosy, and research is underway on its potential treatment for other cancers, HIV-related complications, and autoimmune conditions such as lupus and Crohn's disease.


7: The Titanic's Many Bad Choices

Multiple errors in judgment led to the Titanic's tragic end.
©Universal History Archive/Getty Images

More than a century ago, the RMS Titanic set sail on her maiden voyage across the North Atlantic. But just five days into the trip from England to New York City, the luxury liner collided with an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland; consumed by damage she sank, killing more than 1,500 passengers and crew.

Multiple mistakes were made that collectively sent the Titanic to its tragic end in April 1912. First, there were no safety regulations in place for a ship as large as the Titanic. It didn't carry adequate safety equipment. For example, there were only 16 lifeboats, enough for only about one-third to one-half of the passengers on board, and crew members weren't prepared with binoculars or proper lighting. Additionally, the Titanic was untested. Sure, they'd reviewed the ship's equipment, but it was never test driven; it was unproven. The crew was not fully up to speed on the liner, its equipment (such as the state-of-the-art Marconi wireless messaging system) and its emergency procedures.


Despite how unprepared the Titanic was operationally, it may have been a simple human error that ultimately caused the iceberg disaster. In 2010 it was revealed that the helmsman may have made a steering error when diverting the ship around the iceberg, and the turn wasn't corrected in time to avoid disaster. The iceberg was spotted just before midnight, and by 2:20 a.m. the Titanic had split and sunk.

6: Filling the Hindenburg With Hydrogen

A soldier guarding the remains of the Hindenburg disaster.
©Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

In the 1930s, there was a dream of commercial airships ferrying passengers across the Atlantic in no time at all, just 60 hours. Commercial airship travel was gaining popularity, and the Hindenburg was the largest zeppelin ever built (in fact, it was the largest thing ever to fly). The airship was three times as long and double the height of a Boeing 747 of today, all wrapped up in a silver-painted fabric membrane [source: Hall]. It was just as luxurious as it was enormous -- it even had a specially designed lightweight baby grand piano on board, and, paradoxically, a smoking lounge.

In May 1937, during its attempt to dock, the luxury liner burst into flames above Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. In 37 seconds the Hindenburg was destroyed by fire; 36 of the 97 passengers and crew died. What went wrong? A few things. First and foremost, the Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen, a highly flammable gas, instead of a less-combustible alternative such as helium.


There have been differing theories about what caused the hydrogen to combust. Could the zeppelin have been struck by lightning? Or was the German Hindenburg -- Nazi-funded, with swastikas on its tail -- a political target, destroyed by a bomb, gun or sabotage? Or maybe, others thought, the powdered aluminum in the paint contributed to the explosion? Today's leading theory suggests the combination of leaking hydrogen gas, such as from a broken or malfunctioning valve or wire, and a build-up of electrostatic resulting from a thunderstorm may have sparked the fire when the crew dropped the ship's landing ropes, which may have grounded the zeppelin and discharged the electrostatic.

5: Napoleon Invading Russia

This 19th century French woodcut depicts Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.
©Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In June 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with one of the largest armies ever assembled for battle, and was so confident of his impending victory he wagered the war wouldn't last more than 20 days [source: PBS]. It wasn't Russia Napoleon wanted, necessarily (although Napoleon and Czar Alexander I were at odds over trade with England); it was India. But due to lice infestations and subsequent typhus infections, food shortages, freezing temperatures and, eventually, Russian troops, the Grande Armee wouldn't make it beyond Moscow.

More than 600,000 men from Napoleon's empire marched toward Russia, but just a few more than 100,000 were left fighting by early September 1812, and in the end Napoleon was escorted by Russian troops back to France [source: Knight].


4: Hitler Invading Russia

German soldiers walking through snow in the Soviet Union on Dec. 23, 1941.
©Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

It was a battle of giants, and the largest military invasion of WWII: Nazi Germany against Communist Russia. But the war between Germany and Russia would be the first major land defeat for Hitler, and that defeat is considered the beginning of the decline of Nazi Germany.

In June 1941 Adolf Hitler broke the non-aggression pact signed in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union when he invaded Russia with an army of more than 3 million men, 7,000 artillery pieces, 3,000 tanks, and 2,500 aircraft [source: History]. Joseph Stalin, taken by surprise, found his military overwhelmed by the German onslaught. During the first week of the invasion there were 150,000 casualties among Soviet troops, and by October that year, German troops had taken 3 million Soviet prisoners of war [source: Rees]. German troops reached Moscow by December 1941, but the war was taking longer than anticipated -- clothing, food and medical supplies were wearing thin. When Soviet troops struck back hard to keep Moscow from falling, the Nazis failed to take Moscow.


3: Accepting the Trojan Horse

The Trojan Horse being taken into Troy as depicted by Venetian painter Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo circa 1760.
©Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Legend has it that the Trojan War had been going on for a decade when the Greeks, unable to penetrate the walls of the city of Troy, decided to engage in a little subterfuge.

The Greeks planned to trick the Trojans into letting them behind those closed walls. They would leave a gift for the Trojans and pretend to retreat home. On orders from Odysseus, they built a horse, the Trojan Horse, and it was big enough to fit a few dozen soldiers inside. After they wheeled it to the city gates, the Greeks faked their departure, and the Trojans, convinced they'd just won the war, rolled the gift inside their walls. That night, the hidden soldiers opened the gates to additional troops, and Troy fell.


Stories of the Trojan War are told by Homer in "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," and by Virgil in "The Aeneid," but is there truth to the Trojan Horse? Evidence suggests ... maybe? Even historians don't agree on whether this war story is truth or tall tale.

2: Donner Party 'Shortcut'

The Donner party was plagued by problems as they made their way west.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

In April 1846, a group of about 90 pioneers in about 20 wagons followed brothers Jacob and George Donner westward from Illinois to California. The California Gold Rush wouldn't be for another two years, and the Donner Party, inexperienced in the wilderness, was headed into uncharted territory. They began their journey on the California Trail, a known wagon-train route west, but decided to try a shorter, alternate route. Because of freezing temperatures and rough, mountainous terrain, the shortcut they'd hoped for turned out to be long and deadly.

The Donner Party is still well-known today, although we might not all know the specifics of their journey. What they're best known for, though, is the question of whether they engaged in cannibalism for survival while trapped in the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains.


1: Prohibition

Federal agent with a seized illegal still in the 1920s.

In the 1920s, if you were "going to see a man about a dog," you weren't looking for a rescue pup; you were in the mood for a tipple or two, preferably whiskey. Why so sly? During Prohibition in America, between January1920 when the 18th Amendment was signed until its repeal in 1933, it was illegal to manufacture, transport or sell alcohol (but it wasn't actually illegal to drink it).

Prohibition was considered the "noble experiment." It was supposed to lower crime levels and reduce the amount of money spent on prisons. It was supposed to clean us up socially, as well as improve our health and hygiene. What resulted instead was an explosion of alcohol-related crime, and eventually a corrupt law enforcement and political system willing to take bribes or look the other way. Prohibition didn't stop people from drinking; it just changed the what and where of the equation. Because they were illegal, foot juice (slang for cheap wine around the speakeasy) and jag juice (for those who like something a little harder) were unregulated, and tainted alcohol killed an average of 1,000 during every dry year [source: Lerner]. Unexpected negative financial effects also fell on a country expecting an economic windfall. For example, states lost revenue previously gained from liquor sales.

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Author's Note: 10 of the Worst Decisions Ever Made

I had just as much fun digging into each of these bad decisions as I did when I wrote another article, What are the odds? The two have become some of my favorites to both research and write. What are the odds of hitting that iceberg? As it turns out, the odds were pretty good. Also, if you learn nothing else from this article, remember: If you're thinking about invading Russia (any time, but especially in or near winter), you might want to brush up on a lot of history before committing to that decision.

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More Great Links

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