Overnight Sensation? Ha!

I remember listening to an interview years ago with Lady Gaga when she first became wildly popular. The host asked her what it was like to be an “overnight sensation.” The pause before her answer was not because she was trying to figure out how to describe it, but out of a collecting of energy. “Overnight sensation?” she asked calmly, “I have been playing clubs all over the city until 3 am for over a decade. I have worked every day on my craft for most of my life, and you think that because you just heard of me, I am an overnight sensation? Ha!” The Beatles have a similar story, one of traveling all over London and Hamburg, Germany, playing any venue that would allow them, including festivals where they played for days straight. Again, because you just heard of them, does that make them an overnight sensation?

We have a fascination with instant success, glamour, and the stories of overnight sensations. Childhood bedtime stories set the stage for magical thinking and a suspension of reality…except for Dr. Seuss, who’s suspension of reality has nothing to do with reality. Snow White, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty…all fantasies about a beautiful princess awaiting salvation from a handsome prince to take her to live happily ever after in a castle with their loving, supportive, wealthy parents waiting for them. So, you are either a beautiful princess or a handsome prince, anything else is unimportant, in case you were wondering. Click your heels together and you will be home safe and sound. Wish upon a star and you will have anything you desire. Make eye contact across a crowded room and get married the next day (with mansion and limitless wealth to follow). I’ll never forget the first Humphrey Bogart movie I saw, Sabrina, and how before he knew her name, he had to marry her. Yep, those are the marriages made of substance, the ones founded on patience, vulnerability, mistakes, discourse, and true commitment. I laughed out loud at the utter absurdity that Hollywood has spun us into believing.

These repetitive, familiar, and tall tales make us all have similar reactions: I shall sit and wait for mine. Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you this kind of stuff makes me crazy. I absolutely loath the “success in a bottle” pitch, snake oil salesman, and innocent but ignorant dream-maker-promise. Everywhere you look, you see it, the promise of, I don’t even know what to call it anymore, fantasy is the word that comes to mind. Even on the meditation app there is a daily reminder that you haven’t quite gotten there yet. Manifestation meditations, positive affirmations, breathe in wealth, how to be happy in ten short days, find the love you are looking for. I know, I know, I sound like an irretrievable skeptic, and I am, I mean, I’m not. The problem is I want my fairy tale, too. I have shelves and shelves lined with bottles of snake oil that have mostly led to disappointment, which then leads to self-doubt, which inevitably makes me think I don’t deserve it or did something wrong. I bet this loop sounds familiar to some (if not all) of you. I would be intermittently successful but somehow not able to reproduce it on command. It had more of an accidental nature than something controllable. After decades of this, I began to wonder what was missing.

There are two points here. One is about how much work it takes to be successful, in anything. Success takes work, period. Lots of work. Years and years of work. Did I mention it takes work? When I was swimming, we trained twenty-five to thirty hours per week. And don’t forget the 10,000 hour “rule” that Malcolm Gladwell made famous in The Tipping Point. I have worked with high performers in sport and business for over two decades and not a single one of them has ever sat back and waited for success to knock on the door. You have to do the work. They don’t read People magazine and think the ultimate shortcut is the “five tips that made Oprah successful” some staff writer made up to sell you a copy of crap. If you think about anything you are good at, even if walking is the only example you can find, it has taken a long time, years, to be as good at it as you are.

And so, we rush, look for shortcuts, and while we may get a good start to something, often we have trouble following through (myself included, here). I’m excellent at starting something, not so great at finishing it. How about you? Where is your motivation the highest? At the beginning? Does it come in the middle as you are gaining comfort and confidence in the process? Or does it happen in the home stretch, when you can finally see the finish line? This is an important and powerful detail to know about the self because then you can prepare for it. Knowing my strength is at the starting line, I have learned to create structures to keep me on track during the middle (boring to me) parts. Once the finish line becomes a reality, then my motivation kicks back in and with great force. It took me a while to figure this out but once I did, it felt like unlocking a hidden door. Hard work is easy for me, staying motivated, sometimes not so much.

The second point is about how many people end up being any kind of sensation, let alone overnight. If you are dreaming about becoming some kind of famous sensation, how is that serving you, your motivation, and your work ethic? Maybe a good place to start is with your definition of success. Over the years, the number of people who can NOT answer this question is staggering. Can you? How would and do you define success? Is it stuff, travel, a professional position, relationship, family, health, or all of the above? How about in what quantities? Most of us have no idea what success would look like, other than some movie version of it or what someone else has. And because of this, most people not only don’t know when they actually are successful, or end up comparing themselves and their level of success to impossible standards, taking them out of the game immediately. Super stars are just that, super, but the number of “regular” stars in the sky outnumber them by billions…

One, fortunately unfortunate fact I have found to be true, over and over, is that there are far fewer people at the top than in the middle or at the bottom. Somehow, sometime, and in some crazy way, we all became convinced that being number one, being a leader, being the best, being the CEO (or some version thereof) was the only way to be and feel successful. Not everyone can win every game. As a matter of fact (yes, fact), the end of every championship season results in a loss for every team, save one. Yep, every teams ends on a loss except the champion. Does that mean they suck? Of course not, it just means they weren’t the champion that season. The unfortunate part is that you have to get good at not always winning. The fortunate part is there really is no pressure to always win.

Being the best is something I suspect I was taught to seek and so that has been the focus for as long as I can remember. We are wired to be competitive and anyone who says they aren’t really that competitive is lying. It’s innate, part of our survival mechanism, which is good, but the downside is it can be ugly. When you are competitive to survive, like to win the race for natural resources (think water, shelter, food), that is good—however, not too many of us race this way. When you are competitive to win because it fills your ego with fuel, that is not so good. It took me a while to figure out when I was filled with competitive angst because of some hole in my ego but once I did, I was free. Free to be average, free to be great, free to be learning, and free to not even try something I wasn’t really interested in. The best part was the pressure to be some kind of international sensation completely disappeared, leaving room to just be me. Success became tethered to fulfillment, connection, relationship, balance, and pride in my work. I wish this for everyone.

Mette rides beautifully, much better than I do, as a matter of fact (yes, fact), I am not even on the same planet as her riding. Lots of people have asked me over the years how I can ride in the same arena without feeling bad about myself. My answer has two parts: one, I ride to my goals and ability, based on my level of passion and hours in the saddle, which, by the way makes me happy. And two, I have seen her swim.

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