Success doesn’t happen overnight

overnight success takes years
There’s a natural tendency for people to look at success stories, whether they’re people or businesses, and think that they happened overnight. Because often by the time you’ve heard of them, they are already successful.

But what you don’t normally see or hear about, is how much time and effort they’ve already spent on their passion. All the sweat and tears before they “made” it.

Biz Stone, who had been creating blogging, mobile and social products for 8 years before co-founding Twitter sums this up perfectly: “Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.”

I’m sure you’ve heard of Angry Birds, it’s one of the most successful mobile games ever. But what you may not know is Angry Birds is the 52nd game that Rovio made. Eight years and a near bankruptcy later, they finally created their massive hit.

Here are a few more examples of seemingly swift successes that in reality took a long time to achieve (read more at UX Myths):

  • Amazon: “Amazon launched in 1994, but only added book reviews in 1996; they focused on getting users first. They didn’t add CDs until 1998, and it was 2001 before they even posted a profit. It’s easy to ignore this, and look at their success from this point onwards…” – You’re just getting started
  • 37signals: “When we launched Basecamp five years ago, I think we had less than 2,000 people subscribed to our RSS feed. Add a few thousand more who were just checking the site manually and it’s probably reasonable to guess that our initial audience was below 5,000 people. By today’s standards, that’s tiny! And that audience had even taken a few years to build.” – Overnight success takes years
  • The Beatles: “The Beatles seemed to burst onto the scene with a string of #1 hits and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. But they had been playing small clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg since 1957, and while they had mass appeal early on, their first great critical success, Sgt. Peppers, was released in 1967.” – Overnight Success: It Takes Years

This is notoriously true in the music industry. A lot of artists and bands that people perceive as overnight successes spent years playing in small clubs, to small audiences before becoming household names. You may not have heard their first few albums, but by sticking it out, they significantly improved their chances of getting heard and succeeding.

Of course some people do get lucky and hit the jackpot straight away! But for every true overnight success, there are many more stories that take much longer.

I really admire people who are unshaken in the pursuit of their dreams, no matter what. I recently read an essay by the director Ang Lee, which was translated beautifully by Irene Shih on What Shih Said.

“In 1978, as I applied to study film at the University of Illinois, my father vehemently objected. He quoted me a statistic: ‘Every year, 50,000 performers compete for 200 available roles on Broadway.’ Against his advice, I boarded a flight to the U.S. This strained our relationship. In the two decades following, we exchanged less than a hundred phrases in conversation.

Some years later, when I graduated film school, I came to comprehend my father’s concern. It was nearly unheard of for a Chinese newcomer to make it in the American film industry. Beginning in 1983, I struggled through six years of agonizing, hopeless uncertainty. Much of the time, I was helping film crews with their equipment or working as editor’s assistant, among other miscellaneous duties. My most painful experience involved shopping a screenplay at more than thirty different production companies, and being met with harsh rejection each time.

That year, I turned 30. There’s an old Chinese saying: ‘At 30, one stands firm.’ Yet, I couldn’t even support myself. What could I do? Keep waiting, or give up my movie-making dream? My wife gave me invaluable support.

My wife was my college classmate. She was a biology major, and after graduation, went to work for a small pharmaceutical research lab. Her income was terribly modest. At the time, we already had our elder son, Haan, to raise. To appease my own feelings of guilt, I took on all housework – cooking, cleaning, taking care of our son – in addition to reading, reviewing films and writing scripts. Every evening after preparing dinner, I would sit on the front steps with Haan, telling him stories as we waited for his mother – the heroic huntress – to come home with our sustenance (income).

This kind of life felt rather undignified for a man. At one point, my in-laws gave their daughter (my wife) a sum of money, intended as start-up capital for me to open a Chinese restaurant – hoping that a business would help support my family. But my wife refused the money. When I found out about this exchange, I stayed up several nights and finally decided: This dream of mine is not meant to be. I must face reality.

Afterward (and with a heavy heart), I enrolled in a computer course at a nearby community college. At a time when employment trumped all other considerations, it seemed that only a knowledge of computers could quickly make me employable. For the days that followed, I descended into malaise. My wife, noticing my unusual demeanor, discovered a schedule of classes tucked in my bag. She made no comment that night.

The next morning, right before she got in her car to head off to work, my wife turned back and – standing there on our front steps – said, ‘Ang, don’t forget your dream.

And that dream of mine – drowned by demands of reality – came back to life. As my wife drove off, I took the class schedule out of my bag and slowly, deliberately tore it to pieces. And tossed it in the trash.

Sometime after, I obtained funding for my screenplay, and began to shoot my own films. And after that, a few of my films started to win international awards. Recalling earlier times, my wife confessed, ‘I’ve always believed that you only need one gift. Your gift is making films. There are so many people studying computers already, they don’t need an Ang Lee to do that. If you want that golden statue, you have to commit to the dream.’

And today, I’ve finally won that golden statue. I think my own perseverance and my wife’s immeasurable sacrifice have finally met their reward. And I am now more assured than ever before: I must continue making films.

You see, I have this never-ending dream.”

4 thoughts on “Success doesn’t happen overnight”

  1. Great article! I think sometimes jealousy or others successes leads us to believe that it came quick and easy. We don’t always see the work and perseverance that lead to success.

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