Why We Should Avoid the Success Stories

You know what posts/articles/books I almost never read? The crazy success stories. Not in personal finance, not in business, not in personal accomplishment. It makes for great headlines and grabs a lot of eyeballs. But I don’t think they are useful and are often actually quite harmful. Here’s why I think we ought to avoid them and what to focus on instead.

mini-retirement success stories

3 Reasons to Avoid the Crazy Sucess Stories

1. It praises the person and the outcome, but you often learn nothing about the process.

These posts tend to be all glory and no how-to. Maybe the glory will inspire you to start. But then what? Often I see people jump into big, exciting things hoping for huge results, but with no knowledge/research/preparation. They also want to pay off 50K in debt THIS year. They want to start a side hustle that makes $10k a month. Or travel through 50 countries in a year.

There is a learning curve to everything. Honestly, most “overnight successes” were 8 years in the making. People ask me ALL the time how we took a year off work, you know, because they would love to do that too. Or pay cash for our house. Or travel in 27 countries. Or create passive income.

The very unsexy answer is: We started 15 years ago and made about 1000 choices no one else wanted to make. Every time I get interviewed and give that response, I can feel the disappointment on the other end of the line as the interviewer goes quiet.

That’s not the glamorous answer. But that’s the truth.

If you’ve read a fair amount of our story, you might realize I could spin a few whopper headlines. “Pay cash for your first home, just like we did!” “Travel to 27 countries for less than $10,000!” “Retire at 32 on average incomes!” But you won’t find any of those posts here. Because while the outcome might sparkle, the process is what actually moves us forward.

2. Ok, so you probably can’t have that. Where does that leave you?

Expectations can kill. You might be doing every single thing right. You ARE taking ground. It’s just not as fast as that crazy story you read. That’s OK! If you are doing the foundational work you need to be doing, just keep going.

Maybe you are paying off debt with every spare dime, or starting to invest but it’s going to take a few years.

Maybe you are buying rentals but instead of buying 1 a year, it’s more like 1 every 3 years.

Maybe you are growing a side hustle. It didn’t pull in 100k this year, but you broke even, learned new skills, helped a lot of people and made some good connections.

I see this all the time in blogging. But for every story about someone who grew a list of 10,000 in one year, there are 5 other stories about people who took 3x as long.

The same is true about adopting from foster care. Yes, we have an amazing, lovely, little (or rather large) family. But you know what the first year is: HARD. The first year is ALWAYS hard. Unreasonably hard. For 100 different reasons. And if people sign up thinking it will be easy, and lovely, and fun…they will quite.

If instant success is the only option, we will be disappointed 99% of the time.

3. We need to understand the struggle.

I learn best from the points where others struggled. And I think people teach best from that place. If the whole process was amazingly quick and easy for them, what do they have to teach me? “Just be so awesome that it’s crazy easy for you too?”

Show me how you overcame. Show me how you struggled, in the same way I am struggling, and then tell me what worked and what didn’t. Give me the tools you used, the perspective that made the difference, or the process that smoothed out the tricky parts.

And it might be harmful if….

4. It’s all or nothing.

If you read a constant stream of ultra success stories, there might be a temptation to find the shortcut. Instead of mastering the foundational things you need to be doing, you’ll waste time looking for that magic bullet. Until you give up entirely.

In my mentoring, I talk about the idea of “test and scale”. Starting small, trying little things, learning and growing from that. Then testing again. Over and over until we get where we want to go.

“If I’m not a millionaire by 30, why try?”

“If I can’t pay cash for a house, why even push for 30% down?”

“If my business isn’t making $100,000 the first year, it must be a flop.” Or worst yet, “If I wasn’t crazy successful the first year, it must be me. I’m the failure.”

Let’s do this instead.

Honestly, I love learning from people who have achieved great things. In paying down debt, keeping low expenses, growing their savings rate, investing in passive income sources: it’s all great.

And I love to learn about other types of successful people. Those who raise amazing families, start non-profits, contribute to their communities, grow lifestyle business, lose weight or maintain healthy relationships.

I think all successful people have common traits that we can glean from.

But I know I lean in more, listen closer and take notes when people will share the whole story, not just the glossy highlights. When they can break down the steps. When they can admit to the struggle. I know that story might not go viral. But I get a heck of a lot more out of it.

 

For Conversation:

When are the success stories most useful to you?

In a delightful irony, our story was featured in Glamour this month as a crazy, over the top success story. Although I do appreciate that they tried to make it actionable and useful.

In September I put together 2 paid courses, but I want to offer a FREE mini-course as well! Make sure to sign up for my newsletter to get first access to the new “Test and Scale” mini-course! This is the process that almost all successful people use to achieve big things. It’s what I use in my personal life/work and I am seeing more and more companies switch over to this model to grow their business. It’s as close to a “fail-proof” system as you can get.

 

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20 thoughts on “Why We Should Avoid the Success Stories

  1. Ahh, what a toughie. I do think it’s valuable to hear success stories because they show that things are possible. The issue is that, like you said, they don’t typically include the very specific “how” of everything. Or, even when it does include a step-by-step process, people forget that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone. After all, if there were a magic formula, why would anyone give it away? 😛

    • I do love the success stories for the ability to give us flexible thinking. Often more is possible than what we first thought. And that is such a critical piece of success. But without all the info, encouragement, help, step-by-step to back it up, that inspiration can be a flash in the pan when we hit the reality of the undertaking. Or we can feel discouraged when we are actually on the right track. For example, I recently lost the last 15lbs of weight from my pregnancy. It took me 6 months! I got there, which is awesome. But if I expected it to take 4 weeks or be easy with 3 quick changes to my diet, I might have quit.

      So I’m with you. I hope the success stories cause people to see the possibility and start taking action. But I really hope they seek out better advice to help along the way.

  2. Yes yes and even more yes!!!!

    I think women especially struggle with this. We are naturally going to compare, so it’s tough to feel good about where you are when this amazing success story makes you feel 7 years behind.

    The irony is that the majority of those overnight success stories are actually 10 years or something in the making. It never fails, that people think it was quick when that person has been working their butts off for a long time.

    I have tried to stop doing this, especially as we build up our blog and business. Focus on where we are and our own story. It’s going to look and be totally different than anyone else’s. And that’s what so awesome!

    • It can be so tough to learn from but not compare! Comparision always has a loser. And often it’s us! So I really try to focus on people I can learn from. People who can convey what worked and what didn’t. Because in real life, only the headline is glittzy. The whole story is often more complex and nuanced.

      Best of luck to you guys! I love what you are doing and creating. =)

  3. I definitely agree that for everyone who is inspired by the crazy success stores, there is probably someone else who is completely disheartened because the same outcome seems so out of reach. The best stories are the ones with amazing success, but that also explain the long hard road it took to arrive at that destination.

    FWIW – I think that you do an excellent job conveying realistic advice and expectations. And congrats on being featured on Glamour!

    • I think having that balance is key. Because it’s really important for people to be inspired, but if there isn’t helpful information then people just give up. I really try to find that balance. I hope people are encouraged by our story. But I really hope that I can help them replicate the parts that are important to them by addressing the tricky parts. =)

  4. Thank you for this. I 100% agree. I also find “How I Made 100k in one month” posts to be quite braggy as well. They don’t serve to be inspirational, and I think at heart the writer knows this. Don’t act puzzled about it. I turn away from those posts now. It’s their path and that’s great…not mine. I don’t negate it, but I just know that I have to follow my own passion, purpose, etc. Mine will look totally different than everyone else’s and that’s OK as long as I’m happy.

    • I think most things in life are so much simpler when we know where we want to go! Like you said, what our passion is, what our purpose is. Then filtering out the clutter and noise is a lot more straightforward. And you’re right that our journey will never exactly match someone else’s, even if we are moving in the same direction. So if there are things I can learn from them, that’s awesome. But if it’s all comparison, someone always winds up the loser in that game.

  5. I mostly agree. I’m not inspired by “We retired at 25!” posts, but I am inspired by “We worked our fannies off to retire at 40 so we could start an outreach ministry.” It’s hard to cheer for those who make it look TOO easy. It’s fun to cheer for those who try really hard. Thought-provoking post, thanks!

    • I agree that the hard work, gumption, and grit are inspiring! When people have a clear vision for their life and chase it down, I lean in too! I have found that “easy” isn’t transferable. But hard work, gumption, grit, vision, and passion can be contagious and teachable. Easy is like winning the lottery. I’m not sure you can transfer that!

  6. I agree, it is super important to see the whole picture. While success stories can be extremely motivating and can make you realize what is possible, it is equally encouraging to know that those who have been successful also have real struggles. And if someone who is successful can provide concrete advice for improvement, that is the best!

  7. You’re totally on about the fact that hardly any of the “overnight successes” actually happened overnight. Our mini-retirement didn’t happen by chance – we worked our butts off the last several years adjusting our finances and our mental states so we could make something like this happen.

    The big successes are almost always *earned* after a ton of hard work. It’s not glamorous, but that doesn’t make it any less worth it 🙂

    • I think the hard work and time in the game are key! When we are in the thick of those two things, even if it doesn’t feel like “overnight success” it’s important to focus on the progress, not the outcome (just yet). I see so many people get discouraged, even though they are doing exactly what they need to be doing because it seems like it’s quick and easy for other people.

  8. This is so true, there are very few “instant” successes. And plans to demolish debt or retire early sometimes come up against unfortunate setbacks. Learning the how to people’s success is far more important than the end result.
    Thank you for this.

  9. Right on! I too am the lean in close type when I am getting all the nuts and bolts. Like building an Ikea desk, the finished product means nothing if you never saw the directions. When you see the whole process you are able to go back and correct any mistakes along the way.

    When I started blogging I was writing about my high saving rate and my low cost of living. If people read that without also reading the financial devastation I had gone through, they probably wouldn’t relate to my story. Showing my failures has been the best thing I could do because it made my story relateable but also motivational. Having read a bunch of your posts now, you have done exactly those things for me. I can relate (though our experiences are different) and you also motivate me to do better and be better. Success is never the top of the bar. It’s an ongoing process. You, my friend, have been successful in making it look easy despite all the difficult or heartbreaking stops along the way. I am so glad you take the time to share your nuts and bolts. 🙂

    • I think we can all connect in the relatable parts and the struggle. Even if the struggle is different. If we only share our wins, we can’t ever connect with those who haven’t experienced those wins yet.

  10. Right on. I started blogging about early retirement in 2010 and pulled the plug in 2012. It didn’t take just 2 years to achieve my goal. We saved and invested for 16 years before I retired from my career. You have to dig a little deeper to see the process.
    I like success stories, but they should include a lot of details. Which usually isn’t the case these days.

    • The details are always so interesting to me! It’s part of the reason I keep posting the monthly updates with all our expenses and numbers. How exactly do other people do this?!? I also love watching the growth and change in people’s stories, in numbers/mindsets/process. I wish everyone would have started blogging at 18. I want the backstory! =)