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The Myth of Overnight Success

by Paul Barsch  |  
December 22, 2010

Is there such thing as an overnight success? Consistent greatness take time, talent, and hard work. In a world where news breaks in an instant, or a play changes the course of a game, rarely do we see that---behind the curtain of “suddenly”--- the power of process is on full display.

Most of us enjoy listening to stories of overnight sensations such as how an actor or actress suddenly becomes famous or how a salesperson becomes an overnight success. What most of us don’t see, however, is the actor’s laborious ten years of working as a waiter or waitress in Hollywood before gaining a key audition or for the salesperson, the nine failed sales calls before best practices and lessons learned are incorporated into a successful tenth.

Even in the physical world, newspapers commonly entertain with stories of an unexpected avalanche or a twister that appeared out of nowhere. What’s missing from the discussion however, is the complex set of interactions in a given system that led to that single event occurring. Take an avalanche for instance. A myth pervades that a single person yelling on the slopes or the noise from a snowmobile “causes” the avalanche. Behind the scenes however is the process leading up to that key event, such as myriad actions (weather, snowfall, temperature, wind direction, slope angle etc.) that created and ripened the conditions for the avalanche to occur in the first place.

Not even stock market crashes are sudden. In “Why Stock Markets Crash,” author Didier Sornette writes, “(The) underlying cause of a crash (can) be found in the preceding months or years in the progressively increasing build up of market cooperativity or effective interactions between investors.”

In complex systems such as those in which we live and interact, there are often many relationships and interconnections. It is difficult to believe that anything happens in a vacuum, or that there is a single cause for every event. More often than not, “suddenly” actually occurs over long stretches of time where small events build up and lead up (via a process) to an instantaneous transition.

And perhaps this is why the power of process is so important. It’s the process, over time, which creates. Each day, hour, minute, second, sub-second all contribute to the process. It’s why the first chair violinist in New York’s Philharmonic probably isn’t a prodigy who practiced little to achieve concertmaster status. And it’s also why athletes like Tim Tebow are the first in the training room every morning and the last to leave team headquarters. While we definitely shouldn’t discount the role of talent in such situations, hard work definitely pays off over time. There’s definitely much effort that precedes “sudden” success.

A series of events, decisions, actions are usually the predecessor of some key magnifying event. Suddenly, then, rarely is.

Related: Does the 10 Year Rule Apply to Marketing?


Some of the smartest economists in the world failed to predict the “sudden” 2008 market crash. What do complex systems say about our ability to predict the future?

Is it “the journey or the destination” that counts the most?

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Paul Barsch directs services marketing programs for Teradata, the world's largest data warehousing and analytics company. Previously, Paul was marketing director for HP Enterprise Services $1.3 billion healthcare industry and a senior marketing manager at global consultancy, BearingPoint. Paul is a senior contributor to MarketingProfs, a frequent columnist for MarketingProfs DailyFix, and has published over fifteen articles in marketing, management, technology and healthcare publications. Paul earned his Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He and his family reside in San Diego, CA.

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  • by Claire Ratushny Wed Dec 22, 2010 via blog

    Hi Paul,
    Excellent post as ever. You've said many good things here. For most of us, success takes a lot of hard work, some failures from which we hopefully learn, and a commitment to "stick to it", no matter what. While a few seem to become overnight successes, that is rarely the case.

    Unfortunately, staving off a crisis takes time and insight, right? We have to be able to connect the dots first. That's not always easy to do and hindsight is always 20/20. Most humans just don't operate this way, and if we do see something looming, how many times do we put off taking action thinking the scenario that's unfolding just can't be? Otherwise: why would we repeat the same mistakes over and over again? Indeed, why does history repeat itself?

  • by Dusan Vrban Wed Dec 22, 2010 via blog

    Is it “the journey or the destination” that counts the most?

    Yes. :-) Once there, you need to find another journey, or else it gets reeeeeeeeeeeally boring. :-)

  • by Paul Barsch Wed Dec 22, 2010 via blog

    Claire thank you so much for the kind words. We humans tend to think linearly don't we? As in 'this one event must be the cause of something else'. What we often fail to realize is that we live in a very complex ecosystem, with sub-ecosystems within. Many inter-dependencies and connections, tied together in ways we cannot see and cannot imagine. Plus as you said, there's just good old human optimism also thrown into the mix when we think, "geez this can't get any worse, can it"? Add all these variables up, and it makes it tough to predict the future, doesn't it?

    Thank you for contributing to the discussion!

  • by Matthew T. Grant Thu Dec 23, 2010 via blog

    This myth may never die—myths are so seldom killable—but it is a myth nonetheless. I think this particular myth persists because a) hard work is hard (people know that process and discipline matter but "there's got to be an easier way"), and b) taking all the variables that produce an event like "success" (or even "disaster") into consideration is just plain taxing.

    I also heard Chris Brogan quip, "My 'overnight success' has taken about ten years."

  • by Elaine Fogel Thu Dec 23, 2010 via blog

    Paul, I agree that hard work and commitment are often behind great accomplishments on a personal level. On the organization side, many crises can be avoided or reduced by implementing risk management protocols and being strategic.

    Unfortunately, there are many signs we see and hear every day that are going without proactive solutions, or existing solutions that will take too long to see results, or a lack of will from opposing forces to collaborate more for the good of the people.

    But... I refuse to be pessimistic. Here's to a better 2011 with more strategy, more collaboration, and a desire to solve short-term AND long-term problems.

  • by Paul Barsch Sat Dec 25, 2010 via blog

    Matthew, appreciate your comments and that you passed along Brogan's quote. There is a lot of power in process -even for folks like me that prefer the destination!

  • by Paul Barsch Sat Dec 25, 2010 via blog

    Elaine, thanks for commenting! When you said, "Unfortunately, there are many signs we see and hear every day that are going without proactive solutions, or existing solutions that will take too long to see results, or a lack of will from opposing forces to collaborate more for the good of the people", it made me think of the bipartisan commission on the US debt levels. Talk about a problem that needs a solution, and before it's too late! Tough choices are coming and they are coming sooner than most of us think.

  • by Suzanne Kiraly Sun Dec 26, 2010 via blog

    Thanks for this. It is so true and reminded me of the way the best authors seem to write so effortlessly and the myth that editing or refining your work is not necessary if you are a "talented" writer! (My favourite quote on this is from Oscar Wilde: "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.")

    In the arts, it reminds me of the ballet performer who seems to effortlessly glide across the stage and just how many hours it must have taken to make it seem effortless.

    The same in sport, where the golfer looks like a "a natural", etc. etc.

  • by Elaine Fogel Sun Dec 26, 2010 via blog

    Wow, just read this, Paul. Can you imagine marketing the concept of a VAT-style tax to Americans? Ouch. :(

  • by Dan T. Tue Dec 28, 2010 via blog

    Thanks for the great post! Even if there is such a thing is overnight success, do you really want it? If you don't understand the hard work and dedication that goes into an accomplishment, you don't truly value the result? - leading to an increased chance of "overnight failure".

  • by Paul Barsch Wed Dec 29, 2010 via blog

    Suzanne, thank you for reminding us of the power of process. When someone "makes it look easy", chances are very high that there's an underlying, multiple year or season of process to get to that point. Which then, makes one appreciate the effort all the more. Thank you for commenting!

  • by Paul Barsch Wed Dec 29, 2010 via blog

    Oh Dusan, I really wanted you to pick the journey OR the destination! But as you said, once you get there, there's the need for constant refinement. improvement, innovation and even re-invention. Topic for another column? Thank you for adding your contribution to the discussion!

  • by Paul Barsch Wed Dec 29, 2010 via blog

    Dan, terrific thoughts and I appreciate the compliment! Process can be long, boring, or even extremely difficult. Blood, sweat and tears type of input to get a terrific output. Suddenly, as I mentioned, rarely is. Thank you for contributing to this discussion.

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