There’s no such thing as overnight success. You have to put in the effort and hard work, and it doesn’t hurt to have some luck and good timing on your side.
“There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.” -Zig Ziglar
Jackie Hermes (Founder & CEO of Accelity, a company helping B2B SaaS startups and scaleups grow with customer acquisition & lead generation) said on her podcast (The Art of Entrepreneurship) that success requires four things: 1) a smart plan, 2) the dedication to work hard, 3) consistency, and 4) patience.
I agree. But, let’s take it a few steps further.
Picture a canopy tent. The four tent poles suggested by Jackie (have a plan, work hard, be consistent, and have patience) provide support for the tent top covering (which is where a success definition resides). Thus, in addition to having the four tent poles, I would add that we need to think about our success canopy (the top covering), and we need to define what success is and what it is not.
Steve Nguyen’s Definition of Success:
Success is not about being famous, influential, powerful, or wealthy. It’s not about having material possessions or impressive job titles or noteworthy accolades. Success is not about financial wealth, although it does mean having financial stability like being able to take care of your monthly bills, setting aside money for retirement, and covering emergencies.
Success is about discovering joy, satisfaction, meaning, and contentment in your life. Success means you are at a place in your life — financially, mentally, socially, emotionally, spiritually — where you feel safe, secure, loved, and at peace because you don’t feel the need to compare or compete with anyone. Success is when you can finally and honestly say, “I’m happy with my life and there’s nothing anyone else has that I want because I’m content.”
In his book, Happiness at Work (2010), Srikumar Rao wrote:
“The vast majority of people are not happy. Even those who seem to have it all — great career success, financial prosperity, a picture-perfect spouse and accomplished children, a sterling reputation — are not happy. They are not brimming with joy. Anxiety is a frequent and unwelcome guest in their lives. There is always an undercurrent of stress, and it overwhelms them all too often” (p. 70).
I have often witnessed this exact unhappiness scenario (that Rao described) with people in my life and I always find it so sad that they have so much on the outside (material wealth) but yet lacking so much on the inside (happiness, peace, enjoyment, contentment, satisfaction).
Thus, my definition of success is based on this context and is derived out of this lived experience. And it is the reason why I do not define success in terms of only financial wealth.
“The happiest people in the world are people who love what they are doing, regardless of whether wealth, fame, power, and elevated social status ever come their way. The most fulfilled people are individuals who delight in their work, whatever it might be, and strive to do it well. They are people who derive rewards from the intrinsic enjoyment of what they are contributing to life, come what may. And they are people who relish the challenge to pursue excellence in their activities, as well as in themselves. The people who attain true success in their lives are people who enjoy a good measure of both fulfillment and happiness as they invest themselves in worthwhile pursuits” (Morris, 1994, p. 32-33).
For me, reaching my success (based on my own definition of success) meant that I needed to first “own it” and then to “work at it” constantly and consistently. “Owning” my success meant that I needed to listen to my gut and my heart and go after what I had always wanted. For many years, what I wanted was adventure, excitement, and something different from my life in Dallas, Texas. In 2004, I took a job working for a school system over 7,000 away on a tropical island called Saipan, a career decision that ultimately changed not only my career but also my life (Nguyen, 2021).
Making that decision and taking that plunge was one of the SCARIEST and BEST decisions of my life! That job led me to crisis training, which ultimately helped me to make a career pivot into leadership & talent development and learning & development, the space within which I work today.
People who don’t know my story might assume that I somehow became an “overnight success.” However, my overnight success took over a decade plus another decade prior to that (which included multiple career pivots). All total, I became an overnight success after more than 20 years of confusion, headaches, heartaches, hard work, sweat, failures, disappointments, fears and tears, determination, and luck.
What I have learned and continue to learn is that we MUST always be adaptable, to not only grow but to survive. The old outdated mentality of having only one lifelong job working for a stable, profitable company and retiring with a full pension no longer exists. The new VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world of work requires us to constantly pivot to ensure that (a) we have the knowledge and skills to remain relevant, (b) we engage in job crafting, and for some people (c) start a “side hustle.”
Sadly, there are some very intelligent and capable professionals who continue to languish and stagnate in their careers, or who have been made redundant, because they were either unable or unwilling to be flexible and adaptable to shift their thinking and acquire new skillsets to allow them to adjust to the demands of a new world of work. The new VUCA world demands and favors those who are bold & willing to take risks, who are always learning & growing, and who are adaptable.
Along with adding a success definition (the tent top) to Jackie’s four success ingredients (the four tent poles), I want to further extend our tent metaphor by introducing four tent “stakes” to ground our tent. These stakes are: (1) being adaptable to change, and (2) being open to learning. These two components help to ensure that you not only become successful, but that you remain successful. In addition, and perhaps surprisingly, I’m also including two other, often overlooked but important, stakes to the mix. They are (3) luck and (4) good timing.
(1) Difficulty Adapting to Change
Indeed, according to Compass (2017), a coaching and development guide from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), one of the critical career derailers is “Difficulty Adapting to Change” (cannot adjust to, learn from, and embrace change as necessary for future success).
Those who are unable (or unwilling) to accept, embrace, and champion change (Scisco, Biech, & Hallenbeck, 2017):
• are intimidated by change or challenge
• don’t see the need to change in order to stay relevant
• don’t believe they need to learn and grow
(2) Blocked Personal Learner
A person is a “blocked personal learner” if he or she (Barnfield & Lombardo, 2014):
• Is closed to learning new personal, interpersonal, managerial, and leadership skills, approaches, and tactics.
• Prefers to stay the same, even when faced with new & different challenges.
• Is narrow in interests and scope.
• Doesn’t seek input.
• Lacks curiosity.
• Is not insightful about him/herself.
Why a Person Is a Blocked Personal Learner (Barnfield & Lombardo, 2014):
• Hangs on, hoping to make it without changing.
• Low risk taker.
• Narrow in scope and interests.
• Not open to new approaches.
• Prefers the tried and true.
• Self-learning/development interest is low.
“The bottom line is, those who learn, grow, and change continuously across their careers are the most successful. The skills someone has now are unlikely to be enough in the future. Acquiring new skills is the best way to navigate an uncertain future. . . . You look to grow from experience. Seek out feedback and are open to what you hear. Challenge yourself in unfamiliar settings. Try out new skills. Learn from others. . . . Development is a personal commitment. You make the choice” (Barnfield & Lombardo, 2014, p. 355).
I share these tips not to suggest that I’m somehow perfect or infallible or that I know everything or have things all figured out. On the contrary, I share these based on my experiences of failing countless times. My hope is that by learning from my mistakes and heeding my warnings that you will avoid some of the pitfalls that befell me.
There’s one last dual component of success I wish to share — that many people (especially in Western societies) attribute to hard work and sheer determination — which is luck and good timing.
(3) Luck and (4) Good Timing
In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), Malcolm Gladwell revealed that two of the secrets to success are luck and good timing!
“Bill Gates’s first great opportunity was a convergence of wealth, privilege, and extraordinary good fortune and timing: he had easy access to a computer in the 1960s, decades before computers became mainstream. This stroke of good luck and timing gave Gates the opportunity to become an expert at computer programming well ahead of his time, which later put him in the perfect position to start Microsoft at the dawn of the personal computer revolution” (Winner, 2015, Analysis para. 9).
How many teenagers in the world had the kind of luck, opportunity, and experience that Bill Gates had? (Gladwell, 2008). Not many! In fact, Gates said he would be stunned if there were even 50 in the world who had the kind of experience he had (Gladwell, 2008). As Gates, himself, acknowledged: “I was very lucky” (Gladwell, 2008, p. 55). “I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events” (Gladwell, 2008, p. 55).
“That doesn’t mean Bill Gates isn’t brilliant or an extraordinary entrepreneur. It just means that he understands what incredible good fortune (luck)” he had (Gladwell, 2008, p. 55). “For Bill Gates, the lucky break was being born at the right time and getting the gift of a computer terminal in junior high” (Gladwell, 2008, p. 267). Gladwell found that “many of the most successful entrepreneurs of the computer age were born in or around 1955, placing them at the right time (and at the right age) to ride the wave of the personal computer revolution” (Winner, 2015, para. 1).
Let’s return to my own story and how luck and good timing both played key roles in helping me to pivot in my career. If I had not been unhappy and restless with my life and career path, my third “crystallization of discontent” moment in 2003 (Nguyen, 2021), and if that job position in the school system in the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) had not *still* been available at the end of 2003 (because I initially turned down the role) and had the timing not been right to launch a crisis intervention training workshop (Nguyen, 2011) while I was there in Saipan, Rota, and Tinian from 2004 to 2007, then things might have turned out very differently for me.
There’s no doubt in my mind that luck, opportunity, and experience during my years in the Northern Mariana Islands converged to provide me with the life perspectives and work experiences necessary to begin my career transition from mental health counseling to industrial and organizational psychology (I-O psychology) and leadership & talent development (Nguyen, 2021).
But long before that, as a son to a Vietnamese physician father (who was first an otolaryngologist, an ear, nose, and throat [ENT] doctor, in Vietnam and later a psychiatrist in the United States), I greatly and fortunately benefited from receiving a bachelor degree from Baylor University and a master degree from Texas Woman’s University (thanks to my family’s financial support). I would later receive a doctorate degree from Capella University in 2013 (motivated, in part, by my father’s lifelong emphasis of higher education).
Was I lucky to be born into a family with the financial means to send me off to college here in the United States? Definitely. Was I lucky to have a family, and especially a dad, that emphasized the importance & relevance of a college degree (beyond a bachelor’s)? Unquestionably. Was it good fortune (luck) and good timing that I ended up in the role in the school system in the Northern Mariana Islands where I was able to launch a crisis intervention workshop? You betcha!
In summary, my criteria for success include: (1) a smart plan, (2) the dedication to work hard, (3) consistency, (4) patience, (5) being adaptable to change, (6) being open to learning, (7) luck, (8) good timing, and (9) definition of what success means.
Takeaway: There is no shortcut to success. There never was a shortcut. You have to take it one step at a time. Reaching “success” takes time. Sometimes, it takes a few years. Other times, it takes a few decades. Whatever goal you set out to achieve, be sure that you (1) have a solid plan; (2) put in the hard work, (3) are consistent, (4) are patient, (5) are adaptable, (6) are open to learning & improving, (7 & 8) understand & acknowledge the role that luck and good timing play, and (9) define what success means to you & what success looks like.
“If you cannot find peace within yourself, you will never find it anywhere else.” -Marvin Gaye
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant
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