The Iceberg Illusion: The hidden logic of success

Success is an iceberg — what people see is very different from reality. Most people don’t count all the costs successful people have paid overtime (below the surface) to get to what they see (above the surface).

People only see the end goal, the glory, the monumental win. But time and time again, it’s been proven that persistence, dedication, commitment, sacrifice, failure, and disappointments are some of the real factors that contribute to the final win we see.

James Clear, entrepreneur and author of Atomic Habits once wrote, “When your screen is filled examples of the strongest, richest, and smartest, it’s easy to overvalue the outcome and undervalue the process.”

Often in life and business, things are not what they seem — the messy middle is what really creates true success. Just like an iceberg, success has a deep side we rarely see.

The unseen hours, necessary failures, setbacks, crises of confidence, the loneliness, the late nights and early mornings; and, all the wobbling that comes before the walking — much less running, are what builds success.

I love how David Perell, host of the North Star Podcast puts it, “We see trophies, not sweat. We see diplomas, not homework. We see performances, not rehearsals.”

John Hayes, a professor at Carnegie Mellon once studied thousands of musical pieces between 1685 and 1900. His work was driven by a single question: “How long does it take to become a world-class musician?”

Her’s what he found: Every composition was written at least a decade after the musicians started to take their work seriously. There were only 3 exceptions, (written in years 8 and 9). In follow-up studies of poets and painters, he found the same result. The results don’t surprise me — the long slow walk to success is real and practical.

In Mathew Syed’s book, Bounce, he beautifully sums it all up: “When we witness extraordinary feats … [of sporting or artistic prowess], we are witnessing the end product of a process measured in years. What’s invisible to us — the submerged evidence, as it was — is the countless hours of practice that have gone into the making of the virtuoso performance: the relentless drills, the mastery of technique and form, the solitary concentration that have, literally, altered the anatomical and neurological structures of the master performer. What we do not see is what we might call the hidden logic of success.”

Years of trying, perseverance, commitment, and relentless practice will eventually make you look like an overnight success. There’s no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.

The most accomplished people needed timing, sacrifice, disappointments, and smart choices before becoming world-class. Greatness isn’t handed to anyone; it requires an insane commitment to purpose.

The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to their crafts. Winston Churchill, one of the 20th century’s greatest orators, practiced his speeches compulsively. Vladimir Horowitz, a classical pianist, and composer supposedly said, “If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, my wife knows it.

If you want to achieve some really big and interesting goals, you have to learn to fall in love with the messy middle and not give up.

Every successful person you know endured the long slow walk to success. As they reached the pinnacle of success, they grew more experienced, made fewer mistakes, improved their decision-making skills and did more of what works or delivered the results they wanted.

To succeed embrace the messy middle

The journey to achieve anything worthwhile in life is not linear. There is no perfect system. There are principles, frameworks, and models that can guide you. But you have to put up with the unseen factors.

Scott Belsky, author of The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture, explains, “Sadly, most people are not patient enough to reap the fruits of their own labor. Great teams gain their strength and resilience while toiling their way through the valleys, not just from relishing the view from the peaks.”

To become world-class at anything, you have to learn to love your messy middle. Your job is to show up every day, hone your craft, and get to the point where taking action or making the best choices becomes unconscious and automatic.

Picasso was exceptionally prolific throughout his long lifetime. The total number of artworks he produced has been estimated at 50,000, comprising 1,885 paintings; 1,228 sculptures; 2,880 ceramics, roughly 12,000 drawings, many thousands of prints, and numerous tapestries and rugs.

And there are about 870 paintings by Vincent van Gogh existing today. His earliest date from 1881 and the latest from July 1890.

The greater your capacity for endurance, the more rewards fall within your grasp. If you’ve chosen a significant purpose for your life, it’s going to require time to get there — any meaningful purpose eventually becomes an iceberg.

Extraordinary success isn’t reserved for a preordained few. It’s available to you and to everyone — if you are willing to embrace the messy bottom.

This article first appeared on Medium.

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