Overnight Success: Merit, Grit, or Luck (or is it Magic?)

How often do we see those overnight successes only to find out that their ‘overnights’ spanned over decades? We don’t really see the years of hard work behind it. The media couldn’t be bothered either. After all, overnight success does sound better than ten years of blood, sweat and tears.

These instant success stories (often stem from ‘one brilliant idea’) create the illusion of .. well .. instant successes.

“If only we can find that one idea; only one idea and we’ll be rich.”

Merit (the quality of being particularly good or worthy)

When I started my business I thought I was ready (not really, maybe 70% ready). I did spend a few years in university learning about business (sort of). And I did have some experiences in a business analysis role.

So I embarked on this business-journey, and it was not at all how I imagined it would be.

My vision was ‘Walmart Contender In Two Years’. My reality was ‘Work Hard For Years And Still No Guarantee Of Walmart Level Success Whatsoever’.

There was a big difference between running a business and learning it in university (or from behind a business analyst desk). Interestingly, for us, it was not about the complexity of running it. I guess we were lucky enough to have acquired a simple-to-run business.

It was the uncertainty and the constant worry that got into me. I reckoned my blood pressure shot up because of these ongoing business-heart-attacks.

There was no assurance that we would meet the sales target for the month or in anything at all. Often, we revised our yearly plan and budget within a few weeks into the year. Don’t get me wrong. Those plan and budget were crucial. They gave us the goal and the general strategy to get there. But we had to keep adjusting, fine-tuning and evolving.

My so-called merit only took me so far in the midst of uncertainty in the business world where they were so many unknowns. Anything could go wrong any day, and vice versa. It was like someone ‘up there’ was turning the ’lucky tap’ on and off at random.

Life to me is defined by uncertainty. Uncertainty is the state in which we live, and there is no way to outfox it. (Thomas H. Cook)

Grit (courage and resolve)

When you have a young family, any decision is never straight forward. I wanted to quit the business, but I never did.

There was the anxiety, the worry, and the stress.

But there was also certain flexibility in running my own business. I could bring home some work, divert the phone, work from my little van, etc. I could pretty much organise it around my young family.

My family became my motivation. And hence I found the courage to continue. I found the seed of my grit.

Now, I did not magically have the superpower to push through all of the challenges, obstacles and dementors in business (still don’t). There was no magic wand to cast a powerful ’patronum’ spell.

It was just as ordinary as any person would have it.

This so-called grit started as a simple decision to keep going. It then grew into something rather substantial, something I could feel, something I knew existed in my heart. It became a mental muscle. There were times when my gritty-muscle needed rest to recuperate. There were other times when it pushed me further than I thought I could.

Nowadays, my simple motto is to do the next thing, and the next thing, and the next one, one by one. Trust me. It gets easier as the years pass. My blood pressure is still pretty high, but I have learnt to live with it (with a daily medicine).

Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint. (Angela Duckworth)

Luck (success or failure brought by chance rather than through one’s actions)

Have you ever seen successful people and thought about how lucky those people were? They struck gold. And then more gold, and more.

Me, on the other hand. There were so many times I came across opportunities only to see them flying away. If just I had the resources to capitalise on them.

In the end, I realised it was not ‘luck’ that I needed. It was always about making the most out of luck (not luck itself). And one way to do it right is by having all three: Merit+Grit+Luck (or MGL — read: muggle).

Muggle (a non-magical person)

We don’t have magical abilities. We are just everyday people who work hard and learn hard along the way. And if we do that long enough (gritty-muscle at work here), we will start to notice golden opportunities floating around us.

The crucial part is to turn them into successful results before our competitors do. And this is when our merit comes into play. It is the time when we get to make use of our skills, experiences, networks, and so on.

Within this small golden window is when we seize the opportunity and capitalise on ‘luck’.

My dad gave me a piece of excellent advice about business. He told me that in any industry golden eras come and go like waves. For me to experience a golden era and ride the market boom that comes with it, I need to be an excellent player in it.

Many great companies were built in decades. They look like ‘overnight successes’ because often we focus too much on the short time they struck gold. We don’t see the decades they spent persevering through immense challenges and obstacles, perfecting their crafts, fine-tuning their methods, evolving themselves.

They were just ordinary ‘muggles’ with the courage to go through life and business. They waited patiently for the golden opportunity so they could strike when the time was right and capitalise on luck to the fullest.

And so could we.

Good luck is when opportunity meets preparation, while bad luck is when lack of preparation meets reality. (Eliyahu Goldratt)


As published in The Ascent: Overnight Success: Merit, Grit, or Luck?