What would be the one word that truly defines the world today – our ambitions, our needs and our agendas. The one criteria that is a must in everything we do?
We want fast results. Be it faster internet, faster RAM or faster processes, everything has to move quickly. From net banking, purchasing car insurance to selecting the next phone or even going on a date, we have an app for doing everything faster. Even in business, speed has become a paramount criteria in every discussion. When I talk to my customers on DevOps or Serverless computing, agility is often the main idea around which the conversation revolves. Every solution that comes out in the market today focuses on increasing agility and reducing time to market. Not just with success, today we want to fail fast too. On personal front as well, we have kept our foot on the accelerator firmly. We want to become millionaires by 30, retire by 40 and there is no dearth of such examples to idolize. Young men and women are taking control of organizations around the world and we see wonder kids becoming sensations overnight almost every month now.
Not just with success, today we want to fail fast too
This got me thinking. Have we always been surrounded by such geniuses who rose to fame in a very short span of time? It just so happened that while I was going through this thought process, I was also doing a re-reading of one of my favorite books – A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. And as the book is all about Science, my attention went to famed scientists who became overnight success. Wasn’t it Newton who thought of Gravity because an apple fell on him when he was sitting under a tree? It like a million dollar idea falling right into your lap! And what about Edison, who became a legend by just his one product – The Electric Bulb! More we look from a height of 35,000 ft, more we see such examples of overnight successes. But I wanted to dwell deeper into the world of science and all the successes that we have had and those that looked really ‘quick’ to us. And to say the least, not only I was surprised, at times I was sad, disheartened and at times dejected. And in all, I learnt one thing that can be summarized in this one sentence:
It takes a lifetime to become an overnight success.
All those great personalities of science who made our understanding about the world a little more clear, had worked for a lifetime to come up with that one invention that made them the renowned names they were. Take for example – Thomas Alva Edison, who is credited with invention of long lasting practical electric bulb. He was not the actual inventor of the electric bulb but the original bulb could only be used for demo purpose and had no practical application due to its design. Edison worked on refining the model and made an electric bulb that the entire world used. When Edison decided to patent the bulb, he was drawn into litigation regarding the invention. He was accused of making only small improvements over the old model and that he should not be allowed to reap the commercial benefits of his overnight improvement. However, this overnight improvement took Edison 2 years of non stop research and working on more than 10,000 draft models before he finally made the version of the bulb we all know today. And after failing for 10,000 times when he was asked whether it disappointed him, he said “Not at all. Now I know 10,000 ways how a bulb doesn’t work!” Years later, in 1914 when his factory was destroyed by fire, he reacted by saying “Thank god, all our mistakes got burned in there. Now we can start fresh from tomorrow.” His overnight success was years in making and gave the business world one of the most successful organizations of all time: General Electric.
And after failing for 10,000 times when he was asked whether it disappointed him, he said “Not at all. Now I know 10,000 ways how a bulb doesn’t work!”
However, for all the so called overnight stars who actually worked for years to get there, there are many unfortunate souls too who despite putting in a lot of effort reached nowhere and were forgotten by history. In the world of science, one such great example is the global expedition to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun. Sir Edmond Halley had once suggested that if you measured one of these passages from selected points on Earth, you could use principles of triangulation to calculate our distance from the Sun, and then from every other celestial object in our solar system. Needless to say, this excited the scientific world beyond measure. Unfortunately, transit of Venus across the Sun is an irregular occurrence. These transit come in pairs eight years apart and then there are none for a century, and there were none in Halley’s lifetime so he could not work on his own suggestion. But when the time of transit came in 1761, the world was ready to observe it. Never before in history, had anyone seen such a massive, cooperative international scientific expedition. Scientists from France, Britain, Sweden, Ireland, Germany, Russia and elsewhere were sent to more than 100 locations on the Earth. However, this effort faced tremendous issues almost everywhere. Many observers were affected by war, diseases or shipwreck. Others who could reach their destination opened their crates only to find their instruments broken due to the perilous journey. The french expedition had even more issues reserved for them by fate. They spent months travelling to Siberia by train, boat and carriage, protecting their instruments over every pothole and bump on the road, only to find that the last stretch of the road was inundated by a flooded river. This had happened due to unusual heavy spring rains, which the locals were swift to blame on the French scientists after they saw them pointing strange instruments at the sky. Somehow, the unlucky folks escaped with their life after the entire journey.
But if the tale of opposite of overnight success has to reach a crescendo, then one must know the fate of Guillaume Le Gentil, a French scientist who set off to India (Pondicherry) a year ahead of the transit in order to be fully prepared once the astronomical event occurs. But due to various setbacks, he could not reach India on time and was still on the sea when the day of transit came. Undaunted, Gentil decided to continue the journey and prepare for the next transit that was to come 8 years later in 1769. He reached India and with 8 years to prepare, set up his observation center, tested and retested each and every instrument to perfection and had everything in the state of perfect readiness for the next transit. On the day of the next transit, June 4, 1769, Gentil woke up to a clear day but just as Venus began its transit, a cloud slid in front of the Sun and remained their for almost the entirety of the duration of transit – three hours, fourteen minutes and seven seconds. Dejected, Gentil picked up his instruments and headed for the nearest port but fell sick on the way and was bed ridden for a year. Somehow, he could find a ship and headed home to his country. His journey back home was also tumultuous as his ship was almost wrecked in a hurricane off the African coast. When finally he reached home, eleven years after setting off, and having achieved nothing, he found out that his relatives had declared him dead and had enthusiastically plundered his estate. His wife had remarried and his official post at the Royal Academy of Sciences was given to someone else.
History is somehow cruel when it comes to recording hard work of people who lost and many times to even of those who eventually did achieve something. Hence we see the label of an overnight success, which in my understanding should be reserved only for a lottery winner. But with all the examples of people overachieving well before their age, should we remain unfazed and not measure ourselves with an impossible scale where everybody is a wonder kid but us? Even on social media, everyone seems to be be travelling, partying and having the best time of their lives, all the time! Everyone but us. Shouldn’t we too be aiming for short cuts to all the success in the world?
This new mindset has plagued our generation. We want everything, and we want it yesterday. Various health and productivity studies have shown the negative effects of multitasking which seems to be a norm among us, thanks to our expectation of doing everything, at the same time, quickly. We need to take a step back, work for a bigger goal, while we enjoy the small successes in between. Be it working on developing new skills or investing in financial instruments, keeping a long term vision helps us build our life in a planned manner and not get swayed in the fads that come and go. Long term sustainable success requires long term planning and incessant smart efforts. You do that, and probably in a foreseeable future when people ask you secret for your sudden riches, you can answer: