The Myth of Overnight Success

Let’s first encapsulate the meaning of success by listing some of the highly recognized “successful” people in their respective fields. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowlings, Don Varela, LeBron James, Larry Page/Sergey Brin, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Jordan, and Elon Musk.

Okay, okay. I was kidding about one of those folks in the list. LeBron is a great player, making so much money for himself and his brand, but he hasn’t really won the hearts of many basketball fans, fellow professional players, and sports analysts. I do salute him for being unapologetically being himself and for his tenacious approach in perfecting his craft is admirable. (I’m obviously still bitter from the several times he and the Cavs beat the Washington Wizards from the playoffs during the Gilbert Arenas era.)

One of the many topics people ask about these successful individuals is “What are their habits?” Many articles, TED talks, and even books describe these individual’s day-to-day activities, their rituals, and their habits. Tyler Cowen, professor of Economics at George Mason University, who received his Ph.d. in that field from Harvard University, once said in an interview that he’d rather read biography books, than leadership and management books. He said that he learns much more about leadership from the biography of leaders, coaches, or musicians. This notion shows the importance of habits in molding a person’s or an organization’s level of success.

Incremental improvements, towards an end goal, develop habits that create an atmosphere of sustained growth for the long haul. Maintaining the steady path leads to longterm personal and professional improvements. It’s up to each of us to recognize the fact that we may not see any visible progress until we’ve invested so much time and effort into the process. It’s up to us to be relentless in this effort by taking it one game at a time. When I coach the boys in my son’s middle school, I tell them to just focus on the next play. Don’t worry about the score. Trust the system, and continue to do what they’ve practiced. We may not (often) get the win at the end, but it’s fulfilling to see that individuals in the team have improved their game throughout the season.

This illustration, by David McElroy, is a great depiction of the concept I’m trying to convey. That thin barrier that separates the man in the bottom to the “prize” is the line all of us has to cross to start realizing the fruits of our efforts. James Clear calls this the “Plateau of Latent Potential” in his book, Atomic Habits. Not only does he explain how to create good habits to reach our goals, but he also talks about the ways on how to overcome bad habits.

James Clear perfectly describes this concept using the analogy of melting ice.

Imagine an ice cube sitting in a room at a temperature of 26 degrees. One degree at a time, it gets warmer, 27 degrees…28 degrees…29 degrees. 31 degrees, still nothing happens to the ice cube, but as soon as it hits 32 degrees, the ice begins to melt. In this analogy, it took may small steps before breaching the point of drastic change.

In order to overcome the urge to quit and accept defeat, we need to be aware that there’s this phase James Clear calls the “Valley of Disappointment.” As illustrated in the chart above, it’s the space between the paths of what you think SHOULD happen and what ACTUALLY happens. Recognizing that this phase exists can help us identify the feeling, and come up with triggers that remind us to keep going. Our commitment to keep going takes us a step closer in defining the habits necessary to be successful.

Overnight success doesn’t really happen “overnight.” This event is a collection of several attempts, thousands of hours of hard work, and many setbacks to cross the “Plateau of Latent Potential.” All of the people I listed in the beginning of this post has overcome tremendous hurdles and impossible situations to get where they are now. We often forget the many disappointments, the years of struggle, and medley of rejections they all received in their journey towards success. They’ve perfected their craft by investing these hardships as the foundation of the remarkable accomplishments they’ve had and are still striving to attain.

Please share, in the comments below, some of your successes (big or small) and how you’ve achieved them by committing to a habit and overcoming disappointments.

Originally published at on July 29, 2019.

20-Year Financial Services Veteran. Leader and Contributor in IT, Marketing/Advertising, PR, Lending, and Customer Service. Coach. Author. Speaker.