Overnight success may seem glamorous, but some of the world's most significant achievements were the result of long-term effort, says Tom Butler-Bowdon
For a decade and a half, my job has been to identify and write about the classic books in the self-improvement and self-growth field. About halfway through the project, I started to get a sense of something missing. Here were hundreds of excellent tips and strategies for success, and taken on their own they could be quite powerful. Yet there was something they all seemed to need in order to work: 'motivation'. Everything depended on having a positive mindset, and being inspired to achieve one's goals. Which is fine as long as the feeling lasts, but as we all know, the buzz from motivational books or seminars usually wears off in a few weeks and we go back to our normal selves.
If all the self-development stuff out there is true, I found myself asking, why hasn't it delivered everything we want already? The answer is that books with titles like Change Your Life in 7 Days, while superficially attractive, have nothing to do with the reality of building success through the years and decades. What really matters is not our level of our motivation in any one moment, but how we bring desired things into being across a lifetime. The flash or vision of a great organisation, a great family, or work of art takes years to make real. Even great spiritual leaders like Mother Teresa, St Paul, the Buddha and Malcolm X, who each experienced famous epiphanies or callings, still had to do the hard work of gathering the followers and implementing the vision over several decades.
So success generally takes longer that we would like to admit, but there was another fact that I couldn't ignore: most people today are enjoying longer lifespans, and therefore most of us have second, third or fourth chances to begin and complete big life projects that may never have been possible if we had lived in another generation.
Our culture that glorifies instant success (cue The X Factor) when, particularly given the facts around increasing longevity, it makes a lot more sense to start thinking long, to see our lives in terms of ripening or unfolding. People tend to overestimate what they can achieve in a year, but underestimate what they can achieve in a decade, and if we do start to think in longer timeframes, suddenly a lot more becomes possible.
In my research I discovered that: Mother Teresa didn't found her Missionaries of Charity order until she was 40, after having spent 19 years as a schoolteacher; Ray Kroc was 52 by the time he purchased the original McDonald's restaurant to turn it into the famous chain; Daniel Libeskind, lead architect of the new World Trade Center, did not see his first building erected until he was in his 50s; E Annie Proulx, author of Brokeback Mountain and The Shipping News, did not find commercial success as a writer until her mid-50s, having spent years as a struggling journalist bringing up two sons; Momofuku Ando was 49 when, after countless experiments in a back yard kitchen, he perfected his recipe for the instant noodle. And Emily Kngwarreye, the first Aboriginal artist to sell a painting for over $1 million, did not even pick up a brush until she was 79.
These examples don't refute the fact that some people do achieve great things when young, but their visibility blinds us to the way that most people do, in fact, succeed — over decades, and by taking a long view of their lives. The irony is that this more realistic approach, precisely because it factors in obstacles, changes of mind and unexpected events, makes genuine success more likely.
Tom Butler-Bowdon is the author of Never Too Late To Be Great: The Power of Thinking Long, published by Virgin Books (£11.99) this month.
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