One summer afternoon, while my friend and I were paddling in the Pacific Ocean in our usual spot on 46 th street in Newport Beach, an invitation would change the direction of my life forever.
‘Do you want to come play poker at my house later today?’ he asked.
Chris Moneymaker had just won the World Series of Poker, turning $100 into $2,500,000, and, in the process turned poker from a game played by gangsters in smoke filled back rooms to an edgy, cool game played by the masses.
I’d be convenient if I could report that after winning $12 my first time playing, that the rest was history. Nothing is further from the truth. Despite being some of the best times of my life, those early years were filled with rollercoaster ups and downs. I grew and busted a bankroll more times than I can count, sometimes as much as several grand, which was near infinite to a 16-year-old high school kid.
Four years later, one Sunday morning while I was living in Melbourne, Australia, I woke up at 4:30 am to play what was then the biggest online poker tournament in history on a website called Full Tilt Poker. I, along with 3,217 other hopefuls, ponied up the $500 entry fee to compete for over $1,500,000 in payouts and a grand prize of $288,001.93.
Sixteen hours later, I won.
To the world, I became quite literally an overnight success. Flush with cash, I then used that money to compete in higher stakes games, and in 2007, I went on to become one of the biggest winners in world, making over $1,000,000 on Full Tilt Poker alone, right up there with legends of the game like Phil Ivey, Tom Dwan and Patrick Antonious.
I don’t tell you this story to gloat, but rather to share the lesson I learned from becoming an ‘overnight success’ in poker.
Looking from the outside, it seems that all of the progress in my poker career happened during 2007. Had you graphed out my growth, it would look like this:
What people too often neglect are the four years I spent laying the groundworkbefore any having any major results. Those were the years I lived on the grind, reading books, crunching numbers and spending so much time thinking about poker that I literally saw cards in my dreams. And this all happened before anyone watching.
You see, in order to become an ‘overnight success’ you have to plant the seeds with hard work, tend to them and watch them (slowly) grow over time.
This is the period in which the results are only felt by the individual and can feel insignificant. Other people don’t take notice.
This initial period is often extremely difficult, filled with small victories and bigger setbacks, and mostly, hardship. It’s the ultimate test of how bad onewants something, and because of that, it’s also the time where most give up.
Quitting is not necessarily a sign of failure. Instead I believe it’s the universe’s way of filtering out those who don’t want it bad enough;a divine nudge that you’re headed in the wrong direction.
Perhaps more than anything, my experience in becoming an ‘overnight success’ in poker has taught me this:success compounds over time.
What does compounding success mean? It means that it follows an exponential growth chart.
In practicality one will struggle for a long period of time before it feels as if their success is exploding overnight.
Society, who fails to understand how exponential growth works, has coined the term ‘overnight success’.
It’s not true. An overnight success happens when one arrives at what’s referred to as the ‘elbow’ of the exponential graph (the point at which it begins to tilt upwards).
The point I want to convey is that this is not unique to me or poker. In taking a look around at other ‘overnight success’ stories, I see they all follow a similar, yet predictable trajectory.
Let’s take a look at three more across various industries and, most importantly, how we can apply the lessons of what it takes to become an ‘overnight success’ to our own lives.
‘All overnight success takes about 10 years’ – Jeff Bezos
We’ll begin with something we all know well. While there are many metrics one can use to measure success, let’s use the most common, share price.
Here’s a graph of Amazon’s share price since inception.
This is a near perfect exponential growth chart. But notice the price movement (or lack thereof) from 1995 to 2009. It was nearly flat. Then, it hit the ‘elbow’ of the exponential chart and it skyrocketed.
While growth doesn’t always follow this pattern, nor necessarily take this long, many companies follow this model of explosive growth after an initial period of going largely unnoticed.
Here’s a chart documenting Uber rides taken. Again, exponential.
I could show you countless examples, but you get the idea.
Most people know Buffett as one of the greatest investors of all time. His biography, fittingly titled Snowball, is a fascinating read.
What most people don’t know is that the vast majority of his wealth came in recent years. Take a look.
Buffett grinded for decades while letting his net worth slowly compound. Then, it snowballed.
The Human Genome Project began in 1990 with a 15-year estimated timeline.
Seven and a half years into the project the scientists announced they had only decoded a mere 1% of the genome. Pundits deemed the project a failure. The few who understood exponential growth however, realized it was near completion.
With the rate of progress doubling, it only takes another 7 years to go from 1% to 100% (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128). In fact, in 2003, exactly 7 years later, the first human genome was successfully sequenced.
If people understood how the success model worked, they wouldn’t lament about the seemingly trivial growth in the beginning, but instead see it for what it is – laying the groundwork for the elbow of the exponential curve.
We are taught to think in linear terms. If you take 30 steps in a linear fashion – one, two, three, etc. – you’ll arrive at 30.
Most people get this.
But success doesn’t work that way. It grows exponentially. If you take 30 steps in an exponential way, you arrive at 1,000,000,000.
Great leaders have intuitively known this for centuries. Abraham Lincoln is perhaps most famous for his quote, ‘Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.’
If you graphed out the process of chopping down the tree, it would give one the illusion that all of the progress happened in the last two hours when in fact there was work being done during the entire time.
‘The greatest shortcoming of the human race is the inability to understand the exponential function’. – Albert Allen Bartlett
Lack of understanding of exponential growth can have severe consequences. Take Covid-19 for example. Many people were downplaying the coronavirus and couldn’t see how a mere 100 cases was a threat to society.
This was obvious to anyone that understood how the disease multiples. Since each infected person passing the disease to an average of 2.5 others, the virus spreads exponentially. With case numbers doubling every three days, 100 cases today mean 10,000 in a few weeks.
We all know what happened.
Exponential growth is an incredible phenomenon, so much so that Einstein called it ‘the most powerful force in the Universe’. Understanding how it works in your life can help you stay on course and remain positive during the seemingly uneventful period before the growth takes off.
This is crucial, for so many people quit too early. If you have been putting in the work for years and don’t feel like you’re progressing, it may mean you simply haven’t reached the elbow.
So, hang in there.
Longer than you think.
One of my favorite quotes from Bill Gates is, ‘most people overestimate what they can do in a year.’
The good news? He goes on to say that ‘most people underestimate what they can do in a decade.’
What Gates is saying is it takes longer than you think to become an overnight success, but you can do more than you think in the long run.
This makes perfect sense as it accurately conveys how people misunderstand how exponential growth and compounding success work. Namely, people expect more progress in the short term and underestimate the development in the long term. Just like they did with Covid-19.
There’s a caveat to the exponential growth model that’s worth mentioning. And that is that it only works if one is actually a favorite to win in the game they’re playing. Just because exponentials exist, they’re by no means guaranteed. Many never hit the elbow, because they’re playing the wrong game, their business idea is abysmal, or their execution is poor. Ego often gets in the way.
It’s up to each of us to understand whether we’re headed in the right direction and if the elbow is coming in due time, or if we need to pivot to a destination where our success is more likely.
It’s one of life’s great challenges, and that’s on you.