We Need to Stop Treating Success Like a Sprint to the Line

Jul 29, 2020 1 Min Read
sprint on a line

In 1851, the American author Herman Melville published his book Moby Dick after 18 months of writing. At the time, the author was in his early 30s.

The novel has been described as ‘the most ambitious book ever conceived by an American writer’ and is considered today as one of the greatest American works of fiction.

Melville had hoped to write the book in just six months, but he had been interrupted by other commitments. To have churned out a timeless classic in 18 months is impressive; that he initially hoped to finish the near 600-page novel in half a year raises the question of how the magnificence of the story might have been affected.

In 1984, the music album Various Positions included the original version of one of the most covered songs of all time. The Canadian singer Leonard Cohen once told Bob Dylan that it took him two years to pen the iconic Hallelujah. While the album version had 15 verses, Cohen had originally compiled 80.

The song was written in a New York hotel, and Cohen struggled so much to bring the composition together that he ended up sitting in his underwear, banging his head against the floor.

At the time, Cohen’s version was considered overly serious, and much too dark. In 1991, John Cale – a founding member of the band Velvet Underground – recorded a cover of the song as part of a tribute album of Cohen’s songs.

Cale’s revamping of Hallelujah led to another iconic cover version, this time in 1994 by Jeff Buckley who included his version in his only studio album, Grace. Of the hundreds of versions that exist today, Buckley’s is considered by many to have brought the song’s full genius to life – more than a decade after its first release.

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. – Henry David Thoreau

One of the most celebrated paintings, the Mona Lisa, was painted by Leonardo da Vinci over a span of between four and 16 years, depending on which art historian answers the question.

The Louvre Museum in France, where the portrait is housed, sets the dating between 1503–1519, in recognition of da Vinci’s tendency to work on different versions of the same project over time, pointing to the Italian master’s obsession for detail and habit of perfectionism.


Had Melville, Cohen, or da Vinci been advised that there were ‘5 Steps to Success’ or that all that was needed was focus and determination to crank out a masterpiece in a few short weeks, they might have looked upon their adviser as though they’d just travelled to Earth on a spaceship.

And yet, if you Google, ‘How to succeed’, you’ll be met by numerous articles with headlines such as, The Four Keys to Success; 10 Tips to Achieve Anything You Want in Life; and Change Your Life with These Three Steps.

There is, no doubt, some helpful guidance within these kinds of articles, but anything that claims to ‘change your life’ in a few steps takes overselling to a whole new level.

Throughout history, masters of their crafts have offered the world their classic creations, some of which were completed in a relatively short space of time, while others took decades to finish.

The common factor that underpins all of the greatest successes is that none of them were a rush job: they were each given exactly the amount of time they needed to become complete.

By comparison, today we expect success to occur almost overnight, as though important ideas and innovations no longer require deep thought, consideration, creativity or revision. We often treat success as a race – a concept reflected in our language of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.

And while we buy into this delusion of quick, first-time success, we lament the lack of quality in some industries compared to years ago. Music is just one of many examples today, where we complain about artists churning out songs that sound the same and come across as being somewhat formulaic. (This is comically demonstrated by Axis of Awesome’s ‘4 Four Chord Song’, found on YouTube.)

Read: Want To Succeed More Often? Take A Cue From Deep Purple

If we accept that as being the case, it’s hardly surprising. Where a song might be quickly put together by teams of writers today, Queen’s 1974 masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody took more than 70 hours of work on the operatic section alone.

Small steps may appear unimpressive, but don’t be deceived. They are the means by which perspectives are subtly altered, mountains are gradually scaled, and lives are drastically changed. – Richelle E. Goodrich

Of course, times change, and expectations today are based on instant gratification and demand-driven speedy results. Companies that helped to empower these expectations such as Apple and Amazon – founded in 1976 and 1994 respectively – took time to develop into the successful giants they are today.

Even the Internet, developed in the early 1970s, took 20 years to enter into people’s homes as personal computers became popularised.

The Canadian economics professor and TED Speaker Larry Smith cringes at the modern mantra of ‘fail fast, fail often’, adding his own edit of, ‘fail fast, fail often – die!’

The notion of slow success over fast failure might not seem as attractive as it otherwise should, but perhaps we should consider that, in our short-sightedness, focusing our efforts on quick deals or a short-term spike in sales is what’s impeding the desire most of us share: lasting success.

No-one likes to draw out a sales deal, and day-to-day business could hardly function if all achievements and progress took their time. Quick successes certainly have their place. That said, like anything built to last, we need to look at enduring success as something that takes time to develop, rather than something we expect to achieve over a few weeks or months.

It’s crucial that we distinguish quick wins from the legacies we’re working to build. To lump them together is a likely recipe for disaster, and so we must keep in mind: lasting success manifests over a journey, not a 100m sprint to the finish line.

Read also: The 4-step Guide to Starting a Successful Business

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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at www.roshanthiran.com


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