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Long-term success is trickier than you think

We don’t really understand how long it takes to succeed. Overnight success usually takes eighteen years.

True understanding is experiential, not intellectual. Intellectual understanding is mostly cognitive and interpretative in nature. You can explain, draw a graph, and speak eloquently about the subject but understanding something intellectually does not equate to practical understanding. 

For instance, you can intellectually understand the pain of doing something or the pain of getting burned. You can explain how painful getting burned is. You can explain how long it takes to heal. You can illustrate many other aspects of it but you don’t understand how getting burned feels unless you burn yourself. 

This applies to everything. It applies to loss, failures, happiness, and so on. You can understand the pain of losing a loved one, intellectually. But visceral understanding is an entirely different matter. It’s hard to fully comprehend the pain of heartbreak if you are not the one whose heart has been broken. 

That’s one of the reasons why it takes us so long to learn some of the most important skills in life such as pain tolerance. I can talk all about the benefits of rejection. I can truly explain it. But if I don’t experience enough rejections, the first time I get rejected I’ll hate the experience. We learn through experiencing pain. Staring at it. Suffering through it. 

The same is true for success. We commonly throw around ideas of 10,000 hours — now a widely used rule for achieving mastery across a broad set of skills. It is possible to explain the rule clearly but working for 10 years on something is an entirely different skill. Most people give up far too soon. And 10 years is a long time. 

We intuitively know that entrepreneurship or any true success for that matter takes a long time. We even have sayings for that such as “anything worthwhile takes a long time to happen.”

We say things like entrepreneurship is a marathon. But do we really understand what a marathon means in this context? I didn’t fully comprehend it until very recently. 

To my understanding, a marathon is mostly about your ability to actively manage pain while also consistently moving forward. It is hard to truly realize it unless we toil pursuing an idea fruitlessly year after year. 

This is a layered reality to which there are multiple aspects. One aspect is the fact that everything takes a long time. The second aspect is the fact that it is not merely enough to stay in the game in this period, you have to strive to do better and you have to endure many challenges that come with the territory. 

To put it differently, it is not only that building something impactful takes 10-20 years, but it also demands that you constantly solve problems throughout this period. 

Take for example one of the earliest startups in Dhaka Chaldal. The company was founded in 2013. It has been almost ten years. Chaldal has built a meaningful business. Depending on how you see it, you can call Chaldal a moderately successful company. But in order to get to where they are today, the founders of Chaldal had to work really hard for the last ten years. They have stayed with Chaldal for the last ten years and they have done it actively. Chaldal went through multiple near-death experiences over the last ten years. Certainly, Chaldal founders had to suffer, and endure extremely stressful situations. But they chose to endure and that’s what working on a problem for the long term looks like. 

To truly understand these things, you have to go beyond the cognitive understanding of them.  

II.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about the true length success takes in different fields in his excellent book What the Dog Saw. In a chapter titled ‘Why do we equate genius with precocity’, Gladwell writes about the successful writer Ben Fountain. 

Fountain leaves his high-flying real-estate law practice to become a full-time writer and eventually become a widely acclaimed author of multiple books. He won many awards including a PEN/Hemingway award for his debut short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara: Stories and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for his debut novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which was later adopted for a major motion picture. 

To many people, Fountain’s story might appear as a fairy tale story of overnight success. It is no small matter when your debuts receive prestigious awards. But when you go deeper into Fountain’s story, it is far from an overnight success. It took Fountain more than a decade before finding his first significant literary success. The story is brilliant and offers a rare insight into the reality of success that we often misunderstand. Gladwell writes in What the Dog Saw: 

“Ben Fountain was an associate in the real-estate practice at the Dallas offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, just a few years out of law school, when he decided he wanted to write fiction. The only thing Fountain had ever published was a law-review article. His literary training consisted of a handful of creative-writing classes in college. He had tried to write when he was too tired to do much. He decided to quit his job. 

“I was tremendously apprehensive,” Fountain recalls. “I felt like I’d stepped off a cliff and I didn’t know if the parachute was going to open. Nobody wants to waste their life, and I was doing well at the practice of law. I could have had a good career. And my parents were very proud of me — my dad was so proud of me — it was crazy. 

He began his new life on a February morning — a Monday. He sat down at his kitchen table at 7:30 am. He made a plan. Every day, he would write until lunchtime. Then he would lie down on the floor for twenty minutes to rest his mind. Then he would return to work for a few more hours. He was a lawyer. He had discipline. “I figured out very early on that if I didn’t get my writing done, I felt terrible. So I always got my writing done. I treated it like a job. I did not procrastinate.” His first story was about a stockbroker who uses inside information and crosses a moral line. It was sixty pages long and took him three months to write. When he finished that story, he went back to work and wrote another — and then another. 

In his first year, Fountain sold two stories. He gained confidence. He wrote a novel. He decided it wasn’t very good, and he ended up putting it in a drawer. Then came what he describes as his dark period, when he adjusted his expectations and started again. He got a short story published in Harper’s. A New York literary agent saw it and signed him up. He put together a collection of short stories titled Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, and Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, published it. The reviews were sensational. The Times Book Review called it “heartbreaking”. It won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award. It was named a No. 1 Book Sense Pick. It made major regional bestseller lists, and was named one of the best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews, and drew comparisons to Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Stone, and John Ie Carre`. 

Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the 1990s. His breakthrough with Brief Encounters came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.”

That is often how long overnight success takes — eighteen years. And this is not limited to the literary world. In every profession you look at, it takes years and years of unglamorous toils before making a meaningful breakthrough. 

But we rarely hear these stories. Even when these stories are told, they carefully expunge the unglamorous hard work part. Because labored success stories don’t excite us. Excitement requires drama. We need success stories to be unusual, to be exciting and popular narratives. The precocious founder comes up with a brilliant idea — unique and exciting, works hard, and builds a large enterprise within a record time. That’s the story that sells. 

Gladwell writes:  

“Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity — doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance, and energy of youth. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, at twenty-five. Herman Melville wrote a book a year through his late twenties, culminating, at age thirty-two, with Moby-Dick. Mozart wrote his breakthrough Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major at the age of twenty-one. In some creative forms, like lyric poetry, the importance of precocity has hardened into an iron law. How old was T. S. Eliot when he wrote: “ The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“ I grow old … I grow old”)? Twenty-three. “Poets peak young,” the creativity researcher James Kaufman maintains. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of “Flow” agrees: the most creative lyric verse is believed to be that written by the young.” According to Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, a leading authority on creativity, “Lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age.”

But Gladwell contends that the popular narrative of success is flawed. He writes about David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago, who studied this very phenomenon “to find out whether this assumption about creativity was true.” 

To understand the phenomenon, Galenson “looked through forty-seven major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently” and eventually would find that young success is often a result of our need for narrative excitement than reality. 

“There is no evidence, Galenson concluded, for the notion that lyric poetry is a young person’s game. Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later.”

III. 

Of course, there are prodigies and some people do achieve success at a young age. But for most of us, it is a long and labored path with many ups and downs. 

But how do you navigate a marathon when you can’t potentially understand it intellectually? 

There are several ways to address this problem. 

Most entrepreneurial education comes from trying things out in the world. This is why it is hard to teach entrepreneurship without real exposure. Most successful entrepreneurs are fast learned. They have a bias-toward-action mindset and they use it to learn the truth about reality, fast. They do it by trial and error. If you observe successful founders they are almost always ready to leap instead of calculating the cost and benefits of some projects. And they have a short learning loop. They learn useful lessons from their experiments and reiterate them. If you want to understand these intricacies, you have to build your own trial-and-error process and build your own learning loop. 

The other option is learning from other people — getting an up-close experience of what marathon running looks like. If you are an entrepreneur, find ways to expose yourself to the lived experience of other successful entrepreneurs. You can read the biographies of other founders. You can meet with senior founders who have already made it. 

Humans are fragile. We get too old too soon and it takes us too long to truly learn things and become smart. If we have to learn everything through our own lived experiences, we’ll always be at a disadvantage. Build your approach to learning and get obsessed with learning from others. 

Third, develop a high tolerance for minor and major discomforts. Most pains are basically discomforts — be they physical or mental. In fact, psychological pains cause physical pains. One reason we suffer is that we try to run from pain/discomfort. We try to run away or shut it down. Stay with your discomforts. Feel them in your bones. If a certain project takes longer than usual, get frustrated but don’t abandon it just because it is hard and is taking a long time. 

Fourth, build a support network. The saying “if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together”, is not mere rhetoric. If you think your journey will be long, have people and supporters on your journey. Build a community that sees that your work will take a long time and is willing to support you regardless. “This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others,” writes Gladwell.

Finally, avoid negative mimetic desires and invest in building positive reinforcements for your ambition. One major challenge in today’s world is that we’re constantly bombarded with information. Social media has afforded people their own personal media. It has also made it easier for us to peek into the lives of other people and compare our inner/private life with the public/social media-filtered life of other people. If you adopt an outward-looking approach and compare your work with others, you’ll likely suffer from negative emotions. You might see someone highly successful and get frustrated in your condition without knowing their full story. So, stay true to your journey and ambition. Compare yourself only with your yesterday. 

Finally, doing something meaningful takes time because learning takes time. Truly understanding something takes time. As John C. Maxwell writes, “we don’t mature momentarily, but over the long-term.” 

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2021 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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