Why Being An “Overnight Success” Is Just a Myth

  • Copy by: Julia Dellitt
  • Feature image by: Eva Burns

What does it mean to be an “overnight success?”

You know—the writer whose first book prints millions of copies and then gets picked up to be made into a movie. The singer whose initial hit goes viral and leads to an opening gig on a worldwide tour. The blogger whose Instagram-worthy outfits translate into a clothing line. The CEO whose start-up makes boatloads of money after an IPO. The YouTube star with thousands of subscribers as a result of makeup video tutorials.

They all make it look so easy, and then I personally start to wonder: Where’s my “big” break? When will I “make” it? Why is it taking so long?

I forget that success very rarely happens instantaneously. Instead, it’s typically the byproduct of hidden hard work, small wins over time, and lots of effort. The whole “overnight success” phenomenon is a just a myth, and here’s why.

Nobody “makes it” in a single leap.

In 2014, a woman named Roxane Gay published two books: Bad Feminist and An Untamed State. Many publications and news media outlets cited her as an unexpected hit; they quickly labeled her as—you guessed it—an overnight success.

But Gay has been writing for decades: books, short fiction, anthology stories. She’s written so many essays that it takes several scrolls downward on her web resume to witness the lengthy list of links. And this is just the stuff she chose to post online, which means it likely doesn’t capture the full range of her effort over the years.

The same goes for most professionals: Nobody “makes it” in a single leap. If you pay attention to the history of peers and mentors in your industry, chances are high that they built up their careers over time. There is almost always a backstory to one’s career arc, especially when it involves a couple of noteworthy wins.

Big accomplishments take a daily effort.

Entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk says, “All those people you call an overnight success? They worked. Maybe you don’t see it.” He wisely points out that not only does any measure of success take time, it also takes a hell of a lot of work. Nose to the grindstone, patient, behind-the-scenes, unglamorous, committed work.

I try to write for 20 minutes every day. Most days, I don’t want to. Most days, I can think of about a thousand other items on my to-do list that I need to tackle. Most days, I slog through the time I’ve allotted with frustration and annoyance. But over time, those smaller increments add up to an essay that can then be refined, edited and improved—and turned into something I’m really proud of. I would never get to that final satisfactory point if I didn’t stay motivated to do the work all those other days.

When it comes to success, hard work matters the most. It’s up to you to log the hours, pick up the pen, shoot the ball, brainstorm the idea, deal with the failure and rejection, and try, try again. Nobody else is going to do it for you.

The myth of being an “overnight success” suggests that all you have to do is wait for someone to notice your talent, get lucky, or be in the right place at the right time. And sure, luck does matter. But when it comes to success, hard work matters the most. It’s up to you to log the hours, pick up the pen, shoot the ball, brainstorm the idea, deal with the failure and rejection, and try, try again. Nobody else is going to do it for you.

Mistakes are part of the journey.

I sometimes equate success with perfection, which is a bad habit. Mistakes, major setbacks, failures, and errors are all a part of the journey, and it’s important to be realistic about this fact in order to stay resilient. Know that you will probably mess up or get off track, and that’s fine. It’s more important that you figure out how to learn from these “unsuccessful” moments so you can adapt and carry on.

Embrace the obstacles, because they will happen, and they happen to everyone.

Now, in the words of Everygirls…

Our career profiles showcase a wide range of successful women, many of whom recently spoke about the themes I mentioned above. Check out some of their quotes below for a hit of inspiration and a reminder that success takes time, effort, patience, and humility.

“Be patient. Everything has its own time and will naturally happen when it is supposed to.”—Heather McDowell, Tickle Water

“It’s common to feel entitled to an amazing job with a huge paycheck the minute you graduate but I believe that if you remain humble and hustle hard, the path to the corner office of your dreams becomes quite clear.”—Amanda Haas, Williams-Sonoma

“It wasn’t a moment—it was a journey to the realization that this was what I was built to do. . . . It takes a lot of patience, hard work, and did I mention patience?”—Kamille Upshaw, Hamilton: An American Musical

“We learned from experimenting and making mistakes, and that kind of hands-on understanding is really important.”—Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power, Clique Media Group

“There was no overnight success with the blog. It gradually started getting more traffic and became the way in which most of my clients found me.”—Joy Cho, Oh Joy!

“Glamour was never my concern, getting my career started was. I was prepared to start from the bottom. . . . I owe my success to taking on every opportunity that came my way and by putting myself out there, every chance I got.”—Leah McCormack, Wayfair

“I believe that if you work hard and stay focused, people will notice. Instead of worrying about whether or not I would get promoted, I was completely focused on my job—which is solving problems. This in turn helped me move up.”—Catherine Ulrich, Shutterstock

“It also very important to take time to develop your skill set. . . . Life is full of opportunities. Learn to adapt.”—Maria Nabatanzi, UNICEF

“My story would not be what it is today if I didn’t keep pushing through all the no’s.”—Whitney Reynolds, The Whitney Reynolds Show

Read more career profiles on the Everygirl here.

What does success mean to you? Do you have any tips for letting go of the “overnight success” myth?

  • Nicole Petrone

    Great reminder! Its making the effort to actually put the work and time in that makes the difference.

  • Helen Harm

    This is truly a great reminder. As a new blogger, I have to constantly remind myself that the readers will continue to come the more I focus on my work. No blogger I follow was an “over night success”. It puts less pressure on myself, which makes me focus more on proper content, not the numbers.

    xo Helen @ http://www.kaleidoscopespinning.com

    • Julia

      Content v. numbers is always a solid mentality 🙂

  • Lauren Funk

    I love this! I just graduated from college and got a new job as an interior design and started a blog. Every day that I go to work I try to educate myself in something new. I ask a million questions. I started reading books on interior design, and articles on architecture which I never really used to do. And I do it because I want to do my best. And the only way to do that is by learning and growing.


    • Julia

      Good for you!

  • I can totally relate to this topic. When I quit my job to follow my dream of becoming a wellness entrepreneur, I did not have realistic expectations as to how much time it would take to reach “success” (and make decent money!). Because we only see the tip of the iceberg of other people’s success, we think it somehow happens overnight but man does it require a lot of work. Thanks for sharing this article. I think we all need a little reality check and reminder from time to time that success is journey and not a sprint!

    • Julia

      “We only see the tip of the iceberg” — exactly, well put!