The dirty little secret to overnight success

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The dirty little secret to overnight success

dirty_secret.jpg

They’re the people you love to hate.

The ones who come seemingly out of nowhere, stroll onto the scene, leap-frog everyone else and vault their way to the top. Their first novel is a runaway bestseller. First movie a box-office smash. First show a critical triumph. How do they do it?

They have a secret…

They know…there is no such thing as an overnight success. There is, instead, the illusion of instant success.

It’s the preparation that nobody else sees that forms the foundation of the perception of instant success. Years of work, blood, sweat and tears. Toiling away behind closed doors, without fame or admiration. All adding up to a single moment of crowning glory that reveals to the world not the struggle, the work or the sacrifice, but simply, the mastery.

Look at Tiger Woods.

He walked onto the scene, vaulted into the public-eye and became the youngest golfer to win the Masters. The thing is, he didn’t become good overnight, mass numbers of people simply “discovered” he was good overnight. Before that, he’d been practicing for hours every day for nearly 15-years. In fact, he even appeared on The Tonight Show when he was 3 to show his prowess hitting golfballs, before slipping back into relative smalltime public awareness.

Look at Jonathan Safran Foer.

Foer’s debute novel, Everything Is Illuminated was a massive bestseller, leading to a major motion-picture. Just another overnight success? Not a chance. A deeper look reveals “Foer attended Georgetown Day School and Princeton University, where he studied philosophy and literature and was awarded the Senior Creative Writing Thesis Prize.” (Wikipedia). He’d been developing his skills for years, but until his first novel, few people knew how good a writer he’d become.

Look at Harlan Kilstein.

Harlan burst onto the marketing scene as a newbie copywriter a few years back, within months, scored a job writing a sales letter for a major player and hit a massive homerun his first-time out.

Behind the scenes, though, Harlan had been honig his skills for decades, earning a Ph.D in education with a disseration on the use of therapeutic metaphor to persuade people. He then poured himself into the writing and trainings of all the top copywriters in the country, before seemingly coming out of nowhere to hit his first job out of the ballpark.

Overnight success is really overnight exposure.

So, with rare exception, overnight success is really about extremely hard work, coupled with a defining event that allows large numbers of people to become instantly aware of the fruits of years’ or decades’ labor.

Is there the occasional person who literally waltzes onto the scene with little of no work and becomes instantly acclaimed? Hmmm… I guess, maybe. If you guys no of people like this, who truly became overnight successes without a serious history of non-public work, it’d be interesting to learn about them. Feel free to share anyone who comes to mind the in the comments.

But, to me, overnight success comes down to two things -

  • Extraordinary work over an extended period of time in relative obscurity, punctuated by,
  • A unique opportunity to reveal the depth of your skills/knowledge to a mass-audience in a short, discrete period of time.

So, what do you think?

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19 responses

19 Responses to “The dirty little secret to overnight success”

  1. “he even appeared on The Tonight Show when he was 3 to show his prowess hitting golfballs”

    I definitely remember that. He was so little! I am just waiting for the girl who sang in “Love Actually” to make a record and become and ‘overnight’ success. Her voice is amazing.

  2. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Hayden – Yeah, I think actually stumbling onto someone with astonishing potential when they are still unknown is so much fun. I remember once seeing Jewel on a public-access cable TV show that looked like it was done in someone’s basement.

    She was just hanging out chatting with the host, both looked to be in their late teens. Then she grabbed her guitar and started to play and sing and my jaw literally dropped to the floor. It was clear she had huge potential and I remember wondering whether she’d get the chance to break through.

  3. manuxer says:

    The secret to overnight success: “it takes years”.. that’s very true. hard work,discipline and perseverence to your goals.
    thnx jonathan for the article.

  4. Patrick Badstibner says:

    They know…there is no such thing as an overnight success. There is, instead, the illusion of instant success.

    It’s the preparation that nobody else sees that forms the foundation of the perception of instant success. Years of work, blood, sweat and tears. Toiling away behind closed doors, without fame or admiration. All adding up to a single moment of crowning glory that reveals to the world not the struggle, the work or the sacrifice, but simply, the mastery.

    Couldn’t havce pit this any clearer or any better
    Having already built one successful business I remember the years of study that went into that. Now I am preparing to start my second business and I know the hours of research that will take to start the second one.

    I am often asked about building the first one how I built a million dollar business in five years starting from nothing with no credit and no money. Your article rings with a lot more truth than any get rich or make 10,000 in a month in ninety days.

    Thanks for your article
    Pat

  5. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ manuxer – Back at ya!

    @ Patrick – As a fellow entrepreneur, I know exactly what you’re talking about. If only people really knew how many years and how much work it took to become an overnight success!

  6. [...] So, if anyone can be successful, why aren’t they? How come that these people seemingly came out of nowhere and achieve overnight success? Well, according to Jonathan Fields, these people have a dirty little secret! [...]

  7. CSI Seattle says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I think that this post applies to all of us in our lives. We may not each be famous for our efforts, but where we are now is a direct reflection of our efforts in life. If you work hard, stay focussed, and take your lumps, success will come. It may not be fame, but success is possible for all who choose to stay in the game.

    BTW: I have been reading your site for two months now. Very well done. Also a reflection of hard work.

    Brian

  8. CatherineL says:

    Brilliant post. Often people are deterred from doing things, because they see others who seem to have achieved massive success overnight, and it just seems impossible.

    But, as you say – years of hard work usually came before that instant success.

  9. Josephine says:

    Am I the only person here that was looking forward to some advice on how I can stay in bed eating cookies all day while simultaneously raking in a multi-million dollar fortune? Hard work? Perserverance? Pah. I’m very disappointed.

    I’m going back to bed now.

  10. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Brian – Thanks for the kind words, definitely agree about the power of hard work

    @ CatherineL – that’s a great point about the potential deterrent effect of the perception of overnight success. I need to ponder that a bit!

    @ Josephine – Love it! Will try to work the cookies into a future column! heehee!

  11. booo-urns, i want to be sucessful without doing the work. write a post about that please!

  12. There are parallels in every field. In acting, the rule of thumb was 10 years to become an overnight success. In standup, 10 years to get your first hour (which makes what Jerry Seinfeld did and documented in “Comedian” all the more remarkable–although dude did have many, many years under his belt when he built his hour the second time around.)

    I saw this time and time again when I was in the Groundlings Sunday Company (big improv/sketch troupe out here in L.A.). I was just starting out on stage; most of the peeps I was with had 8-10 years of chops. You cannot fake experience; you build it into your bones, loss by loss. Kind of like muscles, that break down to get stronger.

    It was a great lesson in patience and persistence. Maybe I’ll learn it someday :-)

  13. [...] So, you need to grab the entrepreneurial spirit and start making bold moves. Get out there and fall down on your face. You will find out that nobody notices… not even your mom! However what will happen is you will figure out what works, what doesn’t and make adjustments. The important part is to try again, and again, and again. That will lead to success… And then people will start to notice. They will notice that you are a 2%er, and want to know how you did it. Jonathan Fields talks about this on his blog Awake At The Wheel in his post The dirty little secret to success. [...]

  14. Mark Riffey says:

    Jonathan,

    Its not just overnight exposure, though that is certainly part of it.

    Its about society’s misguided vision of something for nothing, “hate” for the wealthy/successful, and

    I had a somewhat similar conversation at Business is Personal back in June 2007.

    http://www.rescuemarketing.com/blog/2007/06/20/what-you-have-in-common-with-an-angel/

  15. Mark Riffey says:

    Sorry, part of my response got cutoff. Technology:)

    …and the idea that some people are “more blessed” than others. While that last part might be true, a lot of it is that some people just work at being darned good at something a lot more than those who dont.

  16. Mark Riffey says:

    Jonathan,

    Really, Im not trying to pester you, its just a topic near and dear to me :)

    I forgot about this post. I like it better than the other one.

    http://www.rescuemarketing.com/blog/2007/08/22/how-to-become-an-overnight-business-success/

  17. It’s the old saying, “After ten years of hard work he became an overnight success.”

    But, do something really hard and make it look easy and people will think you are a genius.

  18. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Lyndon – Preaching to the choir, brother! Overnight success is really about overnight “notariety!”

  19. Alex2727 says:

    Hi,

    An excellent article. I agree with what you are saying but I know of an actress..who wasn’t an actress at all before hand.

    Michelle Rodriguez who was cast in “Girl Fight” went to an open audition because she could box, and was the right type and an unknown.

    She didnt know how to act at all and they sent her to my friend for coaching. Now she works frequently so it does happen but it certainly doesn’t happen every day.