Debra Shigley JD

Debra Shigley J.D.

Second Act

The Myth of Overnight Success

We live in an age of instapreneurs.

Posted Feb 11, 2010

We live in an age of instapreneurs. From nineties dot-com mavens to millennial whiz kid millionaires to house flippers galore, well-publicized success stories made it all look so simple. Those bubbles may have burst, but the lingering message is sticky: Do what you like--heck, do whatever you want--and you can make tons of money doing it. It sure looks easy from the outside, but no one really explains what it looks like from the inside. The inside? Not so shiny. As one former real estate appraiser recently emailed me, "Taking the leap [to become a documentary filmmaker] was easier than the mid-swim (how am I ever going to make a living doing what I most love to do and when will everyone stop thinking I'm crazy for doing this) phase. That's the tough part." That ‘mid-swim' is the critical, not-so-glamorous, often arduous process in which you can't see the other side--or necessarily how you're going to get there.

Case in point, when Laurel Touby sold her company,, and made at least seven million dollars on the deal, countless magazine articles labeled her a "Millionaire overnight!" Laurel's reaction? "I thought it was a total joke," she shared with me in an interview last year. By the time she sold her media-networking company, she had been building up its audience, growing the website, and in general working on the project since 1996--more than 10 years! "Nobody really took note that from the point I committed to it full-time [in 1999], it was an 8 in morning till 8 at night job--with waking up in the middle of the night--for years. It was non-stop. No vacations. Nobody--including my family--understood any of it and they still probably don't!" Laurel says.

In our instant gratification, reality-stardom society, no one really wants to hear that being successful in any chosen profession takes time. A long time, actually. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the "10,000 hours" concept. Numerous studies have shown that in order to become an expert at something, you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (i.e., practice in which someone or something is critiquing your work and giving you feedback to improve). The number hails from a 1993 study of elite violinists by Dr. Anders Ericsson, in which Ericsson found that by the time the top musicians were 20 years old, they'd practiced a lifetime total of about 10,000 hours. Gladwell argues that Bill Gates, for example, just happened to get his 10,000 hours of computer education early in his life through access to state-of-the-art computer labs and programs in Seattle--and that by the time he was in college, he had gotten to the point his contemporaries needed another 10 years to reach.

The 10,000 hours is your ticket to being able to compete, and after that expertise is accumulated, luck and circumstance play a part. Think about young performers--say, even the winners on American Idol--who seem to arrive on the scene "out of the blue." The successful AI contestants are almost always people who have actually been taking lessons, toiling in bands, or going on endless musical theater auditions since they were toddlers--and some of them even had previous record deals. Not so amateur after all. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking, there's really no such thing as overnight success. Put another way, every time you shift careers, you can expect another 10,000 hours of hard work.

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