The Problem with Overnight Success Stories


inspiration will come.

There’s nothing I dislike more than when I come across an overnight success story. What is worse is when these stories are used to promote a product promising you instant results. It’s just unrealistic to expect to lose a ton of weight or to build a fortune within one or two months.

It’s not that I don’t like to hear about success stories because I do. They can be really inspirational. Overnight success stories are different though. Sure, they’re inspiring, but for all the wrong reasons. They can create unreal expectations about your own achievements, how much time it will take to get there and even what it takes to become successful.

Unreal Expectations

I think of overnight success stories like the lottery. There’s a chance it could happen, but it’s extremely unlikely. And even though the lottery’s odds are stacked against them, people still play and hope for that big instant payoff. Once again, you can extend this analogy to overnight success. Despite the overwhelming odds, people still hope it will happen to them.

Overnight success does happen, but it’s really rare. For example, did you know that Stephenie Meyer had never even written a short story before penning the first Twilight book? She spent only three months to complete the novel before she submitted it to a handful of publishers. Two months after finishing the novel she had signed a $750,000 three book deal.

She makes it look way too easy. I think most people would look at this story and understand that her overnight success was an aberration, a fluke. In fact, if her personal story were included in her works, most people would dismiss it as pure fantasy. Stories like hers aren’t the ones that cause people to pursue overnight success though. It’s the general idea that things should be much easier than they really are.

It doesn’t help that many movies and TV shows depict fast achievements in order to propel their plots along. When you see someone on screen reach their goals in such a short period of time, it instills the idea that this is how it works. And you also have books, self-help guides and products all promising unrealistically fast results.

Overnight Success Doesn’t Happen

Ask people what their opinion on overnight success is and I think you’ll find most agreeing that it doesn’t really exist. Most people understand that pursuing goals and achieving the things you want take time, dedication and hard work. But there still is a misunderstanding in how much time those things really take.

The problem comes from a phenomenon called the planning fallacy which is a tendency for people to underestimate the time it takes to complete a task. Researchers did a study where they asked 37 psychology students to estimate how much time it would take to finish their senior theses. Their average estimation for getting it done if everything went poorly was 48.6 days. Their actual completion time was 55.5 days. Less than a third of the students predicted their times correctly.

So even if someone understands that Stephenie Meyer’s story was a fluke, they still might think they can strike it big as a writer in just a few years or as an actor after a few roles. Although people don’t believe in instant success, they still don’t estimate an appropriate amount of time and effort for what will be required.

It Takes Time

As the study indicates, the amount of work it takes to reach your goals will usually be longer than what you expect. The bigger your goals, the longer it will take too. Things don’t happen overnight or even within a few years. It takes a lot of time and effort to get where you want to be. And it will probably take more than you realize.

It’s important to keep this in mind as you’re striving to reach your own goals. Things will often take much longer than you expect. The last thing you need is to burden yourself with unrealistic expectations of when you should start seeing results. More than likely, you are just expecting too much too soon.

These unrealistic time expectations can cause real problems. Failing to reach your goals in a pre-determined amount of time can make people search for something wrong. Often they point their blame on themselves which could result in lower self-confidence and self-esteem.

Another conclusion you could reach would be to think that your goals are unattainable. Perhaps you think that you have no talent or that you’ll never reach your goals so you might as well give up. It’s very possible this discouragement could cause you to quit prematurely. It’s very important to realize that reaching your goals will probably take longer than you estimate so you should keep going past your expectations.

It Takes More Time Than You Realize

When it comes to reaching your goals, you should think of the old saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. You can’t just rush into something expecting a big payoff immediately. If instant success was true, you’d see more of it in real life instead of the movies. Not everyone can pull off a Stephenie Meyer’s rise to fame and fortune.

I once read that the best way to estimate your time for reaching a goal is to get the best time for completion, add 20% to that total and then add another 20% to that total when no one is looking. That seems about right to me.

What do you think of overnight success stories? Do you think people give up too soon?
photo credit: B Rosen

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  1. Great post Steve! And I have fallen victim to planning fallacy many a times. Success is definitely harder than we tend to usually anticipate it. I think when nobody thinks it will work is when your heading on the right track!
    I spent my day after Christmas watching 80’s classics, and I loved this one quote from Say Anything:

    “Nobody thinks it will work do they”
    – “No, but you’ve just described every great success story.”

    Hope you’re enjoying the holidays Steve!

    • I love the quote, Chris. I think there is something to heading down a track other people won’t think will work. Some of my best ideas weren’t ones others thought would work, but they turned out great. Sometimes that is just how it works.

  2. Yes,Steve, there is such a rush in people wanting every now without doing anything.

    When I read what you mentioned about people playing the lottery because they believe that they will win big, even though the odd are definitely against them, I remembered a few months ago watching this woman just in front of me buying stupid lottery tickets for a great amount of money.

    I was thinking, girl invest that money in some good savings accounts and you will really win. I felt so sorry for that person.

    We live in a society that want something for nothing and they want it yesterday!

    • I’ve had that same thought before when I see someone buying a lot of lottery tickets. I can see why people play the lottery because it is easier and you can win a massive amount of money quickly. But it still is extremely unlikely. I don’t see putting a little bit of money on the lottery as bad, but the amount of money some people put into it is outrageous.

  3. I am such a planning fallacy example. My to do list I construct to get done at work each day is always always way more things than I will ever have the opportunity to accomplish. I like your time calculation method, I’m going to try it out and see if I get any better at estimating!

    • I find my to-do list often gets out of control too. I think it just seems like my life gets busier and busier every year. But there are those times when everything gets done and I can relax for awhile. I hope you find a good way to get more of your stuff done.

  4. Hi Steve,

    I think overnight successes does not truly exist. Lottery winners are not overnight success, they are just people who won lots of money. To be an overnight success, what follows is more important. Does success last? Beyond what is achieved at that moment, what else?

    We witness true overnight successes because it was captured at that moment. What the spotlight does not capture is all the hard work that has been put in before that. Malcom Gladwell says that 10000 hours of hard work are requried for success and mastery to happen. How many of these hours are actually made known to the public?

    • Hey Jimmy, you’re right about the amount of hard work it takes to become successful. I’ve heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and it does seem to be about right. True success takes a lot of hard work and time to reach. So with that in mind, lottery winners aren’t really successful. I guess a better term for them would just be lucky.

      Of course there are people out there that look at success as a destination rather than a journey though. So those people would probably still see lottery winners as successful. Perhaps these are the same people who play the lottery the most? But I like your version of success more.

  5. I can’t really see the value of success until I’ve worked hard for it. That’s why it’s a great accomplishment when you’ve gradually built your business, maintained and gained momentum until you become successful. That’s when it’s really worth it because you can see the change from when you first started to where you are now.

    • Hey Ed, there is something beautiful about seeing something you’ve worked hard on gradually build up. Seeing all the steps in the process is really satisfying. In a way, having success come to you in an instant would leave me a little unfulfilled. I guess you could say that I enjoy the journey and not the destination.

  6. Hi, I believe that there’s no such thing as overnight success, if we are going to look closely, overnight success takes a long time and it is accompanied by efforts to achieve. As the saying goes ” People succeed because they are determined to succeed”. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Success does take time and hard work. Don’t expect that things will come easy, it is so much more fulfilling if we work hard at something and the results are positive rather than achieving success overnight only for it to be taken away just as fast.

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