Persistence, My Friend (…and only 6 years worth!)

By December 16, 2010Work Ethic

“It takes twenty years to become an overnight success.”   —  Isidore Iskowitz (better known as Eddie Cantor)

You learn stuff as you get older.  One of the things I’ve learned is that cliches are cliches for a reason.  For the most part, they’re true!  “Take it one day at a time.”  “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”  “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

This twenty year thing to become successful though…  It’s baloney.

Don’t think I’ve “gone off the deep end” now.  I’m still a firm believer in persistence as an essential ingredient for success in business.  It just doesn’t take twenty year’s worth.  In fact, a literal overnight success has the same core basis as one that takes 20 years – dumb luck.

Think about it.  The world changes at a pretty rapid rate.  If you dream up a business concept and after 10 or 12 years it hasn’t become real, trust me, it’s obsolete.  (Or else it was a bad idea to begin with.)  I’ve become convinced that, “It takes six years to become an overnight success.”

Take me as an example.  I graduated from college with a degree in biology – totally oblivious to the notion of a career plan – and stumbled blindly into a sales job with IBM.  Such a “fish out of water” I was.  A scientist in sea of business majors.  I quickly developed a reputation as a “run of the mill” sales rep.  After the 6th year though, I started on a string of 6 promotions in 9 years.  That was success according to the definition I was using at the time.

Then, since I thought I had become a business genius, I resigned and started my own thing.  After four lean, laborious years I threw in the towel.  Two years later, the guy that picked up the pieces had grown the business by a factor of 7!  The guy’s still a friend.  He confided in me eventually, and showed me the books and his business plan.  Correction…  It was my business plan.  He hadn’t changed a thing.  It was even the same customer base!  I had simply “jumped ship” 2 years too early.

After a few years back in “corporate America,” I did another start-up and frankly thought I had pulled off an overnight success.  The business was profitable “right out of the chute.”  It stayed nicely profitable, growing all the while, for first two years.  Then the projects from the initial burst of customers wrapped up, 9/11 happened and profitability become history.  It stayed history for two more years.  Two years after that a much-humbled me looked at the books and saw a firmly established, solidly profitable, six year old business.

OK, so I’m an example of one.  Not exactly statistically significant.  Get a copy of Outliers by Malcom Gladwell.  In it, he repeatedly proves and reproves what he calls the “10,000 Hour Rule.”  (Do the math.  That’s six years.)  Take a look at The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.  It refers to the “at least one and up to five hours of intense, daily, dedicated, deliberate practice and training” sustained for at least five years.  My experience and the heavy-duty research say that the intrepid Izzy Iskowitz was wrong.

It “only” takes six years to become an overnight success.

(Iskowitz aka Cantor became one of my icons when I learned that he was the composer of this classic tune.)

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