The Trouble With Overnight Success Stories

Overnight success stories are popular. We tend to think they’re great motivators. But, do overnight success stories really motivate us or can they discourage us instead?

Do they represent a false reality, a false hope, or just braggadocio? I know I’m not supposed to ask this question out loud, but I think it’s worth talking about.

So please bear with me while I explain my point.

Don't Compare Yourself to Others


The Overnight Success Formula

We’ve all heard the stories. We know the formula. Someone quits their job, follows their dream and implements the “Proven Technique for Success.” Then voila, they’re making a ton of money in a matter of months. They’re working 20 hours a week from a beach in the tropics.

Okay. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but you get my point.

We hear the story and try, or even buy, the “Proven Technique for Success.”  We give it a whirl for a month or two.

What do we get? Maybe crickets. Maybe some slow growth. But we’re not getting the  same results that were pitched to us.

The Trap

Two things usually happen when we don’t experience the same results as the hero in the story:

  • We blame ourselves
  • We find another technique

Often, we start to wonder what we’re doing wrong – how we’re just not implementing the technique correctly. Or we may even start to wonder if we’re good enough to succeed. We think about quitting, and we lose momentum to carry on with our project or business. Instead of being inspired, now we’re discouraged.

Then, we lift ourselves up, and we sniff around to find the next “Best Proven Technique for Success.” We try this technique until it again fails us.

After awhile, we’re caught in the merry-go-round of looking for the silver bullet to overnight success.

How do I know this? Well, I’ve been caught in that trap myself.  Tired of the endless spinning, I finally decided to take a closer at look at my life.

Taking Note of Success

I have been successful at many things. In fact, I’ve succeeded at a lot of the things I’ve tried and done in my professional and persona life. But one thing is true for all them. Rarely did I succeed overnight. I succeeded because I persevered.

Let me tell you one of my success stories.

When I left the paralegal profession after almost 25 years, I was at the pinnacle of my career. I got the jobs I wanted and the salary I asked for. I was respected and promoted.

I’m not telling you this to brag. I didn’t start out that way, and it took several years to get there.

My first paralegal job was in a tiny, solo practitioner’s office. I was the paralegal, billing clerk, receptionist, and legal secretary all rolled into one. I made peanuts.

I got a big break a few years later, and got a job in a bigger law firm in town. I earned a little more money, but it took a few more years to earn respect. I spent the first year making binders. Yes, I went to college to make binders!

Stubborn Perseverance

But then something happened. I persevered and did good work. People noticed. I got more responsibility, and soon I was getting raises, more responsibility and even promotions where I worked.

This took several years of participating in professional associations, taking leadership roles, learning, and honing my skills.

I kept looking for opportunities to provide more value, set myself apart, do my best work. I stood up for myself. I didn’t give up because I believed in myself.  And I was stubborn.

I was very successful, but I worked hard to get there.

We Make Our Own Stories

Does this mean I’m somehow less talented or not as smart as those people who see overnight success? Absolutely not! We can’t compare ourselves to others. We don’t know the back stories of those overnight success miracle stories.

For example:

  • How many times did the person try something else first and not see overnight success?
  • How much did luck play a role?
  • Were they already connected to people who could open doors for them?
  • Did they have financial support to take risks?

Why are we comparing ourselves to people when we don’t know the whole story? Their situation may be so different than ours, it’s like comparing apples to furniture. It’s their story, not ours.

In fact, there are many different stories behind all sorts of businesses. Just head over to my local blog I wrote for 5 years, Faces from the Neighborhood, and read some real, local stories instead. The pattern you’ll notice is that there’s no pattern. We make our own stories.

Commit to Succeed

The Four Year Journey to Success

Well, I take that back. The general pattern is that it takes time to succeed.

According to the post, How Long Will It Take To Have a Successful Startup?, it takes about four years to succeed. Yes I said that right – four years.  The author lays out an interesting path he believes most business startups follow:

  • Year One. We’re excited and motivated about our business. Just getting started is a win.
  • Year Two. We start to worry about money and if we can make it.
  • Year Three. We start to question our decision to start this business. Will we continue with our venture, or throw in the towel despite making it this far? It’s a critical juncture in our business, and going forward takes a leap of faith. The author points out that “it’s nearly impossible to have had a runaway success by this point.  If you’re still struggling to break even, that’s about where you’re supposed to be.”
  • Year Four.  This is when things really start to kick into gear for us. It takes that long to get our systems in place, understand our market, develop our messaging, and well get really good at what we do.

I’d even argue that if your new business is a side gig, it’s going to take longer than four years simply because you don’t have as much time to devote to your business.

Interesting Numbers

I think the main problem is overnight success stories can teach us to have false expectations. But the statistics tell a different story. Here are some interesting numbers from

Overall Success Rates

  • 40 percent of small businesses are profitable
  • 30 percent break even
  • and 30 percent are continually losing money.

Success rates for small businesses started in 2014

  • 80 percent made it to the second year (2015)
  • 70 percent made it to the third year (2016)
  • 62 percent made it to the fourth year (2017)
  • 56 percent made it to the fifth year (2018)

Given those numbers, you can see that only a bit more than half of all startups actually survive to their fourth year, while the startup failure rate at four years is about 44 percent.

Financial Statistics

  • A third of small businesses get started with less than $5,000 and 58 percent get started with less than $25,000
  • 65 percent admit to not being fully confident they had enough money to start their business
  • An overwhelming 93 percent said they calculated a potential run rate of shorter than 18 months

I’m not sharing these numbers to discourage you. Instead, I’m sharing these numbers so you don’t feel alone. The slow growth, the ups and downs, the doubts – that is what most startups are experiencing.

I believe it’s the false expectation of quick success that brings us down when we don’t live up to it. It’s okay to believe that miracles can happen. The trouble arises when we either expect a miracle or count on it.

The Quest for Greatness

So why do these success miracle stories resonate with us? I think a lot of us want to be great at what we do. We want to help our clients and serve them. We’re looking for a way that guarantees we’ll deliver. We want to build ourselves a better lifestyle. And, we want it now.

I recently stumbled across this blog post, How To Be Great . The post discusses how so many of us are searching for greatness and the moment when we can call ourselves great. But, as the author explains, we sometimes can’t see very far ahead or behind from where we are. Instead, we just kind of see where we are now and fail to see what we’ve accomplished or what lies ahead.

The author talks about the value of compounding actions, and how small steady progress often leads to better results than a quick huge win. She says, “The best things in life often aren’t miracles, but well-thought out approaches that are sustainable.”

I think that point is crucial to understand. In our quest to be great, we get impatient. We want to believe in the first shortcut to success we see. We forget that there is value in the well-planned journey because we’re less likely to get lost.

Steady As She Goes

So now, I listen to the overnight success stories for what they are. They are miracle stories that give me hope for the underdog.

And there’s nothing wrong that, as long as I understand it’s not the only path to success. While these overnight success stories happen and are based on truth, they don’t represent the reality for me or most of us.

As I’m building my current business, I admit I’m anxious at times to be an overnight success. I want that financial security, that instant validation, that right to brag.

But I also understand that a longer journey towards success is a good thing.  Because I know that I’m not any less talented if I have the smarts to be nimble and adjust. It takes talent to rise from the bottom. It takes courage to persevere.

When I sense discouragement taking hold, I try to measure my success by slow, steady, sustainable improvements. I guess I’d rather be the tortoise than the hare.

How about you?

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