“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Everyone loves to tell stories of overnight successes, stories about people who came from obscurity and suddenly blast off into stardom. Mark Zuckerberg is a recent great example of this – he was sitting in his Harvard Dorm room and writes the first version of Facebook, and bam! Now he’s the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company. The jump from nothing to something, from nobody to star is almost instant, so it would seem.
But the way that our culture edits and manufactures these stories undermines the best lessons that they teach. The way that we tell these stories implies that huge success is a single moment of extraordinary change or effort, a window of opportunity that was small and brief but resulted in massive winnings. Our culture teaches that success looks something like this:
When you look at it like this, then this event is like winning the lottery. It is an ecstatic earth-shattering jump that would send anyone into a hysteria.
I used to believe this. I used to get frustrated at myself because I wasn’t yet a world famous something-or-another, that I had yet to achieve my life-changing moment. But the truth is that greatness is not like that. Real greatness is broken into much finer granularity. Instead of one moment, the victories are spread out over years. Instead of life-changing events, they are small steps in the same direction. It looks a lot more like this:
The interesting thing about this is that while the entire progression is an epic tale, no single step is epic on it’s own. Each step is just a small victory and they only feel like small victories. The distance between one step and the next is not that far. Sure, there are big moments and moments worth celebrating, but nothing as huge as it seems from the outsider. It’s not overnight. It’s over years. Ironically, real success doesn’t feel like that big a deal, because it’s spread out over time.
When Facebook had their IPO, it was a huge moment. But Zuckerberg said in his speech, “Our mission is not to be a public company. Our mission is to make the world more open and connected”. Sure, it was a milestone. But what is the difference between May 2012 Facebook and June 2012 Facebook, one month? Not that much. But ten years and 0 to 1,000,000,000 users is just the sum of many single months.
What’s even more fascinating is that most stories of overnight successes are even more underwhelming than this, because typically the stories begin even earlier. I’ve dug into the histories of successful people and it’s always remarkable how far back their small successes go, long before they reach the “big success” they were known for.
Every tale about the founding of Facebook starts with Zuckerberg in his Harvard Dorm room, where the action really starts to heat up. But the real story started long before that. Zuckerberg had lots of small successes earlier on in life, including being taught BASIC by his father (small success), build a instant messenger platform in high school (small success), and wrote a music program that Microsoft and AOL tried to buy (small success). Each of these was a step along his story. There are many, many other examples:
- Rovio honed their skills for 51 games before making Angry Birds
- Michael Jackson was doing vocals and dance with his family as a young child
- At age 10 Taylor Swift was performing at festivals and state fairs
- Mark Pincus founded 3 companies before starting Zynga
- Warren Buffett was selling investments in his early 20’s
Achieve Something Small, Be Great
This is the part that really motivates me personally. If you dig into the lives of any great person, you will see hundreds of small victories that prepared them for their big victories. The choices that you make every day are moving you, in a small way, towards or away from your long term greatness. It may feel slow, but when you look back at the scale of decades, it will seem lightning fast. What may seem like a meaningless step forward is not meaningless at all; it is a step along the story over the long term. This is much less daunting.
Success is not overnight. It’s not a giant leap in a single moment. It’s small, seemingly insignificant successes over a long period of time.
What is your next small success you are aiming for?