Overnight Success Is An Illusion.

You’ve no idea how lucky you are that I’m here today writing this, because if it weren’t for Steve Ashman and the insatiable appetite of the Skegness slot machines, my life would almost certainly have taken a completely different path. I think I’d better explain.

Back in the days of flared trousers and platform shoes I harboured ambitions of becoming a pop star. I had the electric guitar, knew five chords (two more than Status Quo) and had practised signing my autograph to the point of inducing repetitive strain injury. I was ready. All I needed now was a band.

As luck would have it, I was surrounded by four equally deluded mates, one of whom couldn’t play anything at all but who lived in a pub with a perfect rehearsal room. Obviously, he’d be the lead singer. We were ready to go – all apart from one thing.

Steve Ashman was to be our drummer – a drummer who had just one thing standing between him and rock super-stardom – he didn’t own a set of drums. Rumour had it, that he’d once owned a set, but had traded them in at the local swap shop for some fishing tackle and an air pistol. Not a problem though. He’d saved £50 from his summer job on a burger van and would use that to obtain the missing piece in our jigsaw… just as soon as he returned from his holiday in Skegness. I think you can probably guess the rest.

When Steve returned from Skegness he didn’t have a penny to his name, all £50 had been donated to the amusement arcade owner’s benevolent fund. And that was it – the dream was over. The world had lost what would almost certainly have become one of the all-time great bands. And all for the want of a set of drums.

I was thinking about that while watching a TV programme called Before They Were Famous.

I’m sure you have probably seen it, or shows like it. The idea is that they dig into the archives and find footage of famous people before they made it ‘big’, and here’s what’s interesting. No matter who the ‘star’ is – no matter how they might seem to have burst onto the scene from nowhere, there’s always plenty of footage.

One show featured, amongst others, Ricky Gervais, who nobody had either seen or heard of before The 11 O’Clock Show and The Office. And yet, there he was on a TV show from the early 1980s as a singer in a New Romantics-style group… twenty years before he became an ‘overnight success’. It’s the same story with all the X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent-type show contestants. The impression given is that they’ve all just walked in off the street for their one and only shot at fame and fortune. But, once the winners have been chosen, the old video clips start to surface. And what you see time and again is evidence of a life dedicated to the pursuit of fame: childhood TV advertisements, small appearances in plays and soap operas, singing and dancing spots on various TV shows. In fact, anything which furthers their craving for fame.

The point I’m trying to make is this. It takes years of effort and sacrifice to become an overnight success. When you see someone burst from nowhere to great success, you’re only seeing the very tip of a massive iceberg. And what lurks below the surface is the hard work and persistence that put that person in a position to break through and give the impression that it was all fairly effortless.

If by some miracle, I do become a star of either stage or screen, there would be no appearances on Before They Were Famous for me, because I’ve never done anything anybody ever thought was remotely worth filming! Contrary to my opening remarks, if I’d had even the slightest talent or aptitude for life as a rock god, I wouldn’t have let Steve Ashman’s deficiency in the drum department hold me back. I’d have found another drummer, or raised the £50 we needed some other way. I’d have persisted.

Fact is, it was one of those daft pipe dreams that all teenage lads have, and I had neither the talent nor the commitment to even give myself a ghost of a chance of success. I gave up at the very first hurdle – it just wasn’t easy enough for me. Overnight success is a perception for the audience, but never a reality for the performer.

I’m sure you’re ahead of me here, but this holds true for whatever it is that you’re striving for. There will be setbacks, failures and disappointments along the road to achieving success in every field. There will be an apprenticeship to serve, almost certainly some pain and anguish to endure.

But when you get there, when you reach your goal, all your ‘audience’ will see is the success. They won’t see anything of what went in to achieving it.

A lot of people give up on what they’re trying to achieve because they spend too much time in the ‘audience’. Whatever field you’re in, you nearly always spend quite a bit of time in the ‘audience’ before taking the plunge as a ‘performer’. And from the audience’s perspective, success is easily obtained. Just the tip of the iceberg is visible remember. Now, step over the threshold from audience member to performer, from spectator to player, from wage slave to businessperson and it all comes as a bit of a shock. The success doesn’t come anywhere near as quickly as it appears to everyone else. You’re still coming to this from the perspective of a spectator remember… a place where only the end result is visible. And so the temptation, the instinct, is to give up because your spectator’s expectations have come up against the harsh reality of life as a player. And you’re just not prepared for it.

I remember very well being totally demoralised when my first attempts at making some money by my own efforts (rather than just turning up and being given a salary at the end of the month) didn’t get the results I felt they deserved. I looked around at the other people who’d stepped out of the audience to become performers, and couldn’t believe that they were prospering so well while I was struggling. But what I couldn’t see was the ‘iceberg of struggle’ that had already taken place for them in the past, and which to a certain extent, was still taking place on a daily basis.

I said earlier, that if I were to become famous, there would be no old video clips to show. Well I didn’t become famous, but I have had some business success. There are no video clips, but there’s plenty of evidence of earlier efforts to create an independent income that resulted in less than glittering success. There was the dating agency, and the CV writing business and the multi-level marketing business and the… no… it’s too painful to go on!

Now to be fair, some of these efforts couldn’t be called a failure… but just like Robbie Williams’ appearance as a dancer on children’s TV, they do look fairly pathetic in the light of what was to come later. But they were a necessary stage in the transition from audience member to competent performer.

Sadly, most people are so traumatised by the reality of taking the first steps to becoming a performer – it’s so much more difficult than they expect – that they give up very quickly; often believing that the established performers must have had some lucky break or advantage they don’t know about. How else can you explain the ease of their ‘overnight’ success?’

The answer is that all massive overnight success is the end result of years of ‘invisible’ experimentation, persistence and hard work. And there’s little point in stepping out of the audience and onto the stage unless you’re mentally prepared for that reality.

Kind Regards

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John Harrison  


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Streetwise Publications