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  • Writer's pictureBill Petrie

To the Class of 2024

The secret to being an overnight success.

While I do quite a bit of public speaking – both in and out of the promotional products industry – there’s one speaking gig that I covet that continues to elude me: the commencement speech. Every May, schools across the country scramble to land famous alums or a splashy celebrity, usually to deliver a message that will inspire a group of people who are on the precipice of the next phase of their lives.

Aside: My schedule for May 2024 is wide open but filling up fast. I’m looking at you, Plano Senior High School and Texas A&M University.

I’ve always found something magical about the commencement address because it is a singular communal moment of hope for the future – something very rare indeed. Every year, when I see little clips of these talks online, my mind immediately begins to write one. Had I been afforded the opportunity to deliver a graduation speech this year, I would have shared the following message to the class of 2024:

“I would imagine that each and every one of you will strive to be successful. I would also imagine each one of you would define success differently. Everywhere you look, people are celebrated as successful – especially the ones that attain the elusive status of being an ‘overnight success.’ From Facebook to TikTok and every social channel in between, the media has made the overnight success the most believable and acceptable lie in modern times. It’s also the most dangerous lie because it allows all of us to embrace – and, perhaps, even worship – the concept of luck.

The problem with luck is that people assume it’s about chance, being at the right place at the right time, being born into the right family, and so on. The bottom line is that people assume luck is something they simply can’t control – you either get all the breaks or none of them.

In that sense, luck becomes something on which to blame every personal and professional failure. It’s very easy to point the finger at someone who has achieved that lie of overnight success and say, ‘It’s not fair – they got all breaks!’

The reality is that for every ‘overnight success’ you see, there are countless months – often years – of work you don’t see. Over the past few years, many people have asked me what the secret was to my seemingly ‘overnight success.’ Each time, I tell them the same personal parable:

I’ve been in the promotional products industry for almost 25 years, so I’m anything but an overnight success. I will tell you, however, a secret that took me years to learn. For the first 14 years of my career in the industry, I didn’t achieve much above a middling level of success. Sure, I was able to provide for my family, travel extensively, win huge accounts, and enjoy fabulous trips, but I always resented the people who were the apple of the industry’s eye. They had the respect I longed for and, candidly, felt I deserved. Heck, I worked hard, successfully presented to Fortune 1000 companies, and networked like a boss. However, I wasn’t seen as an authority or an expert on anything – I was seen as a JAG: Just Another Guy.

While living my JAG life, I envied and begrudged the industry thought leaders, board members, and public speakers, thinking they were just luckier than me. At the time, it was far easier for my ego to blame my lack of recognition in the industry on simple chance than to accept responsibility for not acting intentionally. I’d love to tell you that this was only a brief perspective I had, but that wouldn’t be honest. My resentment towards many publicly successful industry people lasted 14 years – a number that still makes me sad.

I had convinced myself they were afforded more opportunity, born under the right sign, or were simply lucky. Candidly, I loathed them for it – and I loathed them for it until I found myself unemployed and needing help from the very same people I had spent years resenting. I wanted to know their secrets and how I might replicate them – same as you. What I found amazed and astonished me: to a person, none of them were lucky at all.

As I spoke with them, I learned of their failures, bad hires, poor decisions, financial disasters, horrible ideas, and, most of all, the blood, sweat, and tears they put into their respective businesses. While their individual stories were radically different, I realized the common thread was that each had earned their success. Luck never factored into it; neither did good fortune, kismet, destiny, happenstance, or fate. What gave them their ‘overnight success’ was the same thing that always grants success:

  • Years in the shadows working hard.

  • Being persistent.

  • Having patience.

  • Pushing boundaries.

  • Telling the voice in your head that tells you that you can’t do something to ‘get bent.’

  • Collaborating with like-minded people.

  • Reveling in doing work that matters.

  • Once they achieved success, they kept doing it.

So, the secret to my ‘overnight success’ that took me many years to learn is the same as the people I once resented: earn it – and earn it every single day.

Stop wasting time hoping good things will happen and MAKE them happen.

Stop resenting others for their success and time in the limelight.

Stop assuming that the world is out to get you.

Stop blaming outside forces for your failures.

Stop wishing and hoping for things to be different.

Stop relying on fate, luck, or whatever word you want to use to make things better.

Here’s the real truth about luck. For that matter, it’s also the real truth about success: luck and success are blind. They don’t discriminate, they don’t judge, they don’t cherry-pick, and they don’t just impulsively fall into your lap.

If you want success – to be lucky – earn it and earn it every day.”

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