Why 'Overnight Success' Is A Myth

It's Time To Do Away With The Myth Of 'Overnight Success'

The road to success is a marathon, not a sprint -- but it doesn't always seem that way. In our age of instant gratification, Internet fame and "accidental" billion-dollar start-ups, it's easy to think of success as more of a product of luck than hard work and determination.

Blogger Darlena Cuhna knows just how illusory the idea of "overnight success" can be. The writer and mother of twins got her 15 minutes of fame when her Washington Post essay about driving her husband's luxury car to pick up food stamps went viral this July, and quickly became The Post's most popular story of the year. It didn't take long after that for Cuhna to find herself attracting the attention of literary agents and TV producers. Though the acclaim itself did come virtually overnight, Cuhna explained in a recent Wired blog that the "luck" of going viral was built on years of effort and hard work.

"There’s a frustrating truth to success in the Internet age: in order for your work to reach an audience, someone with power has to give it a chance, and in order for someone in power to give it a chance, it has to have an audience," Cuhna wrote. "And before any of that can happen, you have to believe in yourself enough to keep going even when all you get in return is rejection after rejection."

The idea of overnight success like what Cuhna achieved has become a prevalent cultural myth, and one that may keep us from truly understanding and appreciating what it takes to build a meaningful career and establish purposeful influence. It's easy to credit "being in the right place at the right time" for the runaway success of 'Under 30' CEOs and flash-in-the-pan tech start-ups.

But in reality, success is less of a quick hit and more of a long haul. As Cuhna points out, success is not only a product of talent and luck, but also hard work and resilience -- lots of hard work and resilience.

Here are five reasons we need to do away with the myth of "overnight success" and embrace the slow journey to meaningful acheivement.

Runaway success is very rare.

If you're looking to become wildly successful in the blink of an eye, the odds are stacked against you. For every article that goes viral, there are thousands of wonderful pieces of writing that receive little to no attention, and for every famous Hollywood star, there are thousands of aspiring actors who are struggling to get work. And in the start-up world, the odds of launching a highly successful start-up are an estimated one in 10,000.

The rarity of runaway success isn't a reason to become pessimistic or to stop pursuing your goals. But it is a very good reason to pursue something because you find joy and fulfillment in the process -- not because you're looking for instant fame and fortune as an outcome.

Big breaks don't just come out of nowhere.

"Just as I was about to give up: boom," writes Cuhna. "Suddenly, one piece out of thousands finally hit."

The blogger and mother of two had been struggling to make ends meet for five years as she contributed unpaid content to a number of online platforms as well as her own blog. Suddenly, after the success of her food stamps blog, everyone wanted a piece of her -- TV networks and literary agents were calling, and she was suddenly catapulted to career success.

It's easy to look at Cuhna's success and see a one-hit wonder. But without the years of hard work and sacrifice that she put in to create an audience and build a foundation for her work, the piece would never have taken off. Cuhna didn't write one piece and become Internet famous -- she wrote thousands.

Her story is a common one, especially among writers. New York Times bestselling author David Sedaris didn't become well-known until his mid-30s, after years and years of working odd jobs (including a stint as an elf at Macy's) so that he could write in his free time. After 15 years of toiling in obscurity, Sedaris was "discovered" by This American Life's Ira Glass at an open mic night -- the sudden chance encounter catapulted his career into the limelight, but it was the result of over a decade of honing his craft and putting his work out there.

So, there's a lot of truth to the "success is an iceberg" cliché. The tip of the iceberg, which rises out of the water, is the part that people see. But underneath and invisible is a huge mass of ice that had to be built in order for the tip to rise up to visibility. The part that we rarely see is the hard work, failure, criticism, rejection and sacrifice below the surface that created the conditions for the iceberg to rise above the water.

Failure is almost always a stepping stone to success.

When Cuhna pitched her food stamps blog to online news outlets, it was roundly rejected -- until one editor decided to give her a chance.

"I’d written that piece months before and pitched it to every outlet I could think of. Radio silence," Cuhna writes. "The Washington Post itself rejected me, saying 'it treads on terrain that’s already been well-worn throughout the Recession.' Eventually The Post sent it along to its new online section PostEverything. And it got noticed."

Successful people don't just get it right immediately -- they "fail up." Almost any successful person can tell you a story of failure or rejection that ultimately was a prelude to acclaim and recognition. Robert Pirsig's now-iconic 1974 work of philosophical fiction, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was rejected by a whopping 121 publishers before going on to sell 5 million copies worldwide.

Success requires risk, which brings in the possibility of rejection -- particularly when it comes to creative work. "Creatives fail and the really good ones fail often," Forbes contributor Steven Kotler wrote in a piece on Einstein's creative genius. The more a writer or entrepreneur fails, the closer they come to success.

Success takes more than talent.

“Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good," Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers. "It's the thing you do that makes you good."

Few of us achieve anything worthwhile on our first go. Hard work is an essential ingredient of success, as countless successful people prove. Talent will get you somewhere, but it will only get you so far. Michael Jordan, for instance, was a gifted athlete -- but he also spent his entire off-season taking hundreds of jump-shots a day. "He never takes a day off," wrote coach Phil Jackson in an NBA.com blog.

As life coach Maria Forleo puts it, "If you want to be an overnight success, be an everyday hustler."

'Success is a journey, not a destination.'

Easy, quick success isn't meaningful success -- quite the opposite. What makes success meaningful is the sweat, tears, love and care we put into our work, day in and day out.

The late Arthur Ashe worked tirelessly to become the world's No. 1-rated tennis player and the only black man to win Wimbledon as well as the United States and Australian Opens. He also wrote The Hard Road to Glory, about the struggles and hardships that America's greatest athletes overcame to achieve athletic recognition.

The meaning of success has long been a topic of debate and disagreement. Though everyone has their own definition of success, we'll give Ashe the last word. "Success is a journey, not a destination," he said. "The doing is often more important than the outcome."

Go To Homepage

Before You Go