How many of your ideas have been overnight successes?


Sorry to hear that.

But hey, don’t give up.

You might just be on a lifetime odyssey toward unimaginable success.

You just have to get there.

Instant Karma Is Probably Not Going to Get You

Maybe you’ve heard the story about how Stephen King almost gave up writing before his wife convinced him to finish Carrie.

That’s not an aberration; that’s the norm. Look at how many times now-classic books were rejected by publishers and two things will become very clear:

  • Taste is entirely subjective, and
  • If any of those authors had believed their work really was worthless, we wouldn’t be reading it today.

Instead, each of those authors kept trying, and it eventually paid off. But how many other could-have-been classics are sitting unpublished in desk drawers or buried on hard drives because their authors give up after the first rejection… or the fiftieth?

Ask any entrepreneur whose business had to pivot and s/he’ll tell you the same thing.

Pinterest was the result of a failed launch. WhatsApp was built when its co-founder got turned down for a job by Facebook. And YouTube was originally supposed to be a dating site. In each case, the founders adapted to what life (and their users) threw at them, and in each case, their flexibility paid off.

If necessity is the mother of invention, perseverance is the father of success.

Unfortunately, success has an image problem.

Everything Is Always Now

When news travels around the globe in seconds thanks to Twitter, and power users on Instagram get thousands of likes just moments after posting a selfie, our concept of success — and how it’s achieved — can get warped.

The digital age may give us the mistaken impression that success is either instantaneous or impossible, and that there is no in-between.


The fact is, most ideas will fail. (Just ask the guys who made Angry Birds… after their first 51 games lost money and they nearly went bankrupt.)

Success is difficult, and the combination of skill, determination, ingenuity, and sheer luck that’s required for an idea to break even is astounding. (If you want to be profitable, it’s even harder.)

But it can be done. It just rarely happens overnight.

Unfortunately, we don’t tend to hear much about works-in-progress. We only hear about successes when they’ve arrived. And since they’re new to us, their arrival seems sudden.

That’s an illusion.

In reality, every “overnight” success is really a sum total that’s been years in the making.

That “first-time director” has probably been working in film and TV since the ’90s.

That “breakout band” everyone is raving about has been playing in dive bars for years.

And that “new best-selling author” is probably on her fifth or sixth book. This just happens to be the first one that hit.

Figuring out what it takes to break in, break out, or blow up the charts — and what we might have to change or improve along the way — is a long-term investment in ourselves that separates the successes from the could-have-beens.

But until you learn to love the process of improvement, you won’t love the results.

Keep that in mind the next time you see a YouTube video that gets a million views overnight or an Instagram photo that has 10,000 likes in the past hour, and then ask yourself: how long did it take that creator to earn that audience?

Probably a lot longer than you think.

Try, Try Again… and Again… and Again

So, why isn’t your idea catching fire just yet?

Maybe it’s…

  • overly complicated?
  • underdeveloped?
  • poorly pitched?
  • badly made?
  • redundant?
  • mispriced?
  • boring?

Or, maybe it’s not the idea but the circumstances.

Maybe you’re…

  • underfunded?
  • badly organized?
  • ahead of your time?
  • fighting an uphill battle?
  • spreading yourself too thin?
  • profiting at too small a margin?
  • battling negative public perception?

There’s no shortage of reasons why your ideas may not be working, which is why it’s actually a rarity when they do work.

The ability to trust your gut while simultaneously making key strategic changes to bring an idea to market is tricky. It’s an imprecise alchemy. And yes, you could guess wrong 90% of the time and spend years on wild goose chases and dead ends while you pursue your dream.

But the only way to lose is to give up. Because as long as you’re still trying, you’re still in the game.

And even when you’re winning, you’ll still find stumbling blocks. Fight through them. They’re called “stumbling blocks,” not “career-enders.”

Know What Success Looks Like, So You Can Aim Properly

“I want to earn more than I spend” is a pretty broad goal.

“I want to make a living designing custom mailboxes” is pretty specific.

They’re both fine goals to aim for, though. The key is to choose a goal that motivates you.

Maybe your idea of success is getting published. Maybe it’s profitability. Maybe it’s selling your company for millions of dollars. Maybe it’s having a job you actually enjoy.

Whatever success looks like for you, that’s the benchmark against which you should be judging yourself and your work. Not how well the competition is doing (although they do give you an idea of what’s possible). Not vanity metrics that don’t satisfy your stated goals. And not just money, because if you wanted to be filthy rich, there are plenty of ways to do it without embarking on a career-long roller coaster ride of desperation and self-doubt.

You’re doing what you want to do because you love to do it. (Right?)

That means your idea of success will be different from mine, or from anyone else’s.

The thrill is in getting there — no matter how long it takes.

And your only guarantee of failure is the moment you give up.

Until then, you’re still on your way.

You can join my stream of consciousness on Twitter.


1 Comment

The Unbelievable Secret to Keeping Good Habits | Justin Kownacki · August 3, 2015 at 12:07 am

[…] How to Fall in Love with the Long Tail of Success […]

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