Don't Envy the Facebook Millionaires

Despite the ocean of cash Facebook swims in, overnight success is largely a myth.

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Do you feel like you are missing out on something?

Sudden wealth can be exhilarating for those who attain it, but demoralizing for those sitting on the sidelines. This was a common sensation during the dot-com boom of the late '90s, and it's now back with the eye-popping initial public offering for tech darling Facebook.

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The social network's blazing success has produced more than 1,000 millionaires by some estimates, plus several billionaires, including founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Many of those nouveau riche are twentysomethings whose entire careers span less than a decade. One of them is a graffiti artist who did nothing more than create some wall murals in Facebook's first building, getting paid in stock options because cash was short. He's now worth something like $200 million.

Americans love overnight-success stories, and we tend to idolize prodigies like Zuckerberg who seem born for greatness, with little cultivation needed. But a timely reminder seems in order: The percentage of Americans who get rich quick, without ever struggling or working their way up, is extraordinarily small. Most strivers still take the long route to success, by gaining experience, waiting for the right opportunity, and even stumbling a few times before getting on the right track.

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The whole notion of overnight success, in fact, is largely a myth. Google is often considered the model startup, going from germination to goliath in the blink of an eye. But founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page spent eight years building the company before it went public in 2004. Marketing guru Seth Godin, who has analyzed dozens of companies, says that "overnight success" takes at least six years, on average. By that standard, Facebook is behind schedule, since it was eight years ago that Zuckerberg started the site in his Harvard dorm room.

Here are a few others who took a lot longer to succeed than you might think: Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Warren Buffett. Steven Spielberg. It might seem hard to imagine that such people were ever worker-bees trying to get ahead, like everybody else, but there's usually a long, unknown history that precedes the point at which people we admire become breakthrough successes.

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In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the "10,000-hour rule," which is based on research by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. The basic idea is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice—five years of full-time work—to develop the kind of expertise that's often required for true success. One catch is that many people give up before they even reach 5,000 hours, and move on to something else—basically starting over. Many others put in their 10,000 hours, and perhaps even 20,000 hours, yet still don't succeed, because of poor timing, bad luck, or the unfortunate decision to devote themselves to something that nobody's willing to pay for.

In my own book, Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success, I profiled a dozen well-known people who struggled and even failed at something before they recovered and became game-changing leaders. Pandora founder Tim Westergren was on his third career by the time he came up with the idea for a streaming-music service, and Pandora endured several years' of near-death experiences before it finally caught on. Renowned chef Thomas Keller had been cooking for 20 years—and was out of a job—when he got the idea for a restaurant that would become the famed French Laundry, in Yountville, California, which is now the cornerstone of a small culinary empire. Like many others, Keller went through a kind of trial-and-error process before cracking the code.

A few people clearly beat the odds and leap to fame or fortune while skipping the grunt work. But the vast majority of people who make a difference in the world pay their dues first. If you're taking your time becoming a millionaire, you're in excellent company.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.