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?

Is Your Startup Killing It (Or Killing You)?

Tom was an ambitious young entrepreneur. He started a successful tech company in the healthcare industry — an object of envy among his business peers.

Despite all the admiration, Tom was under a lot of pressures. Working from 6 am to 10 pm on a daily basis started to take its toll. He came home physically and mentally tired, but his brain could not stop working. Constant worry and stress gave him terrible insomnia. Tom realised his health was getting worse. He lost his appetite and survived mostly on black coffee and toast.

There were times when Tom had suicidal thoughts. His mind was clouded in darkness, and the air felt dirty; it was difficult to breathe in.

But his success mattered more than anything else.

He kept going in denial of his fractured sanity.


The Stigma

Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘Founder Depression’?

Founder depression looks a lot like a typical depression. Sadness, loss of interest, lack of energy and constant fatigue.

Sounds familiar?

Look it up, it is real, and it is happening. Maybe you have experienced it yourself. Perhaps you have seen someone else going through it. What you might not expect is the following. Founder depression can happen regardless of whether the startup is a success or not. According to research, entrepreneurs are 30% more likely to experience depression than their nonentrepreneurial counterparts.

Starting a business is stressful. It is the constant networking, cash flow pressure, lack of sleep, customer problem, product failure, staff issues, long hours and so on. Interestingly, despite the enormous stress a founder is under, none of them seems to talk about it much. Ask any founder about his or her business. I bet you; the answer will be along the line of: “I am killing it”.

It seems like there is a stigma attached to founder depression. No founder wants to look ‘weak’. And often they are willing to sacrifice their sanity for that. It is almost like a badge of honour, to be under enormous stress.

The Spiral

A startup is essentially a combination of people and process, driven by its founder. While it seems like the founder has the ultimate control of the startup, it is not always the case in reality. There is a web of responsibility and accountability among founders, investors, staffs, and customers. This intricately interconnected web often puts the founder in a difficult position.

Should the founder allocate resources for the wellbeing of the staffs? Should they pursue new product development? Should they start to penetrate the market now?

And so the initial drive leads to stress, which if not managed, then turns into depression.

“Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either.” — Aaron Swartz, Reddit co-founder (Aaron tragically committed suicide in 2013)

But the stigma attached to founder depression often prevents founders from opening up and getting help. The inability to get help will lead to further depression, and the downward spiral continues.

Breaking down depression starts by breaking down the stigma.

Breaking down the stigma starts from within. It is the mastery of self that allows us to look weak and vulnerable without feeling insignificant.

The Safe Place

It requires enormous strength to open up about our weakness. We don’t just approach a stranger and start sharing our deepest fear. We need a safe place. We need a place to be us, to be humans that hurt and bleed like mere mortals. Only then we can crawl our way up. Slowly recovering and rebuilding our strength.

The safe place is difficult to find. Yet without it, founders are often reluctant to open up. Before they let their guard down, they need to be sure they won’t be taken advantage of. Opening up requires deep trust and in the world of dog-eat-dog where do you find trust?

The safe place is difficult to find indeed.

The good news is, the safe place does exist. The safe place can be a family member, a close friend, or even a mentor or coach. The bad news is, you need to look for it. The safe place is not hiding, but it is not actively looking for you either.

Once you find it, keep it, and care for it, for it is a rare find.

It is a place where you find the strength to be vulnerable and the inner peace for reflection and recharge.

The Courage

There is a limit to the founder’s ability to withstand constant stress and depression. He or she might have found a safe place to refuel. But still, once the limit breaks, a massive depression will set its foot in the founder’s heart.

It is a moment of courage. It is the time for a tough decision. Founders need to choose one of two things, keep going or admit defeat. Both require a tremendous amount of courage. It takes courage to keep going knowing your sanity is on the line. And it also takes a lot of courage to admit failure and defeat.

There is no right or wrong answer here. Only the founder knows the answer, for only he or she knows the sacrifice that comes with it. The founder has no choice but to endure the agony that comes with either of them.

Whatever it is, a choice must be made. And it is only within the founder’s heart that the ultimate choice can be truly decided.

Only you, the founder, knows if the startup is killing it, or killing you. The real question is, what are you going to do about it?


“Running a start-up is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. After a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends.” Elon Musk


As published in The Startup: Is Your Startup Killing It (Or Killing You)?

Startup Illusion

Starting a business can put someone’s mind into overdrive. It will then either shut him down or propel him forward. The euphoric moment will last as long as financial resources have not dried yet. With enough funding, the startup party can sometimes last for years. It is only after investors start demanding (sometimes not so) reasonable returns that the party turns into a big reality check. The dreams have dissipated into thin air, and cloud of judgement descending onto earth.

Party is over.

That’s the hard truth of starting a business. It will get worse before it gets better (if it does get better). Starting a business is like eating a box of chocolate – mixed with some not so edible foods. You never know what you’re going to get but the only way to find out is if you keep eating. In business we never know what tomorrow will hold, it can be a disastrous day or a day when we beat all sales record. The only way to find out is if we wake up in the morning and go to work. The only way to eat the good chocolate is if we keep eating the bad ones.

Some people are addicted to starting businesses. They have brilliant ideas, get the funding,  and off they go with an exciting venture. They don’t however stay long enough to feel the downturn, the heartbreak, the never-ending pressure, and the struggle. When things go south, they are the first ones to pack up their bags and go – some of which utilise bankruptcy regulation to move on.

Some people however, are born to build businesses. Not only that they will start their businesses themselves but they will also see to it that their ventures are successful before they move on. If things go south, they will be the last people in the company to pack their bags. Some might take part-time jobs to help with the cash flow.

There is one distinct difference between real entrepreneurs and wannabes – perseverance.

The startup illusion might be alluring but the hard reality is not as glamorous. Starting a business is hard work, it requires sheer mental strengths more than mere intellects or skills. Building a business is about getting up in the morning, go to work not knowing what will happen that day, persevere throughout the day, and then do it again the next morning.

“Being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.” –Elon Musk