Progress Is Slow

History is one of the greatest subjects to reflect on in your spare time. The main takeaways from history can be applied to other fields, time periods, and other situations. History allows us to understand what the world was thinking at a certain period of time, and those lessons can help us navigate our own changing circumstances. One of the things I find myself continuously thinking about is the fact that progress is often not quick, contrary to what many people may think. Indeed, there have been success stories of companies who have reached high levels of success in a short period of time. But there are no overnight success stories. No great company was built overnight. No great company was saved by something that happened one day, either. These events had dozens of precursors which led to their happening — without past events, perhaps they would have never happened.

Change Happens Over Time

Consider this: the Great Depression may have started with a stock market crash, but its full effects took years to realize. We could attribute all of the bad things that happened to the financial system to a few singular days like Black Tuesday, where sellers traded nearly 16 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange. However, despite the damage the Depression done to the stock market, there were still other effects which were not realized for years.

Most Americans did not own stocks in 1929, which means that as the market collapsed, many people outside of the financial sector thought they were unharmed — they didn’t lose anything because they had not made any investment. Around two years later, the banks started to fail. Over 500 U.S. banks failed in 1929; 2,300 failed in 1931. People who had money in those banks lost their savings, and so they stopped spending. Because they stopped spending, businesses failed, and banks found it difficult to continue to issue loans. The main lesson to takeaway here is that 1929 may have been a very bad year, but there were still other events to unfold that people did not predict. Progress was slow.

Progress happens so slowly that many people fail to notice when something is changing until everyone else has. But, failures happen quicker than anyone has expected. One way to think about this is in the context of careers. It takes an entire lifetime to build up your reputation and to get the job that you are in today, but it only takes a few minutes to ruin that reputation. You could send one bad email and your career could be over. But it took you years to develop the reputation you had.

Overnight Success Stories Do Not Exist

I cannot name any overnight success stories. Let’s use Amazon as an example. In their early years in the public markets, they did not look like the most attractive business model. They were an internet business in a period after the dot-com bubble burst, and many people had concerns with their business model. However, over the last few years, Amazon has changed their status and has become one of the largest companies by market capitalization in the world. Many people say that this was “overnight” because we didn’t expect such a thing to happen. Actually, though, it took years for Amazon to reach the level of success they have attained today. There was no one moment where Amazon suddenly became valuable; just like there is no one moment any company became valuable. Facebook, Google, Airbnb, Uber, all took years to reach any level of success. We often hear about their success in their later stages, but we fail to consider how much went wrong before they were even known. All of these companies almost failed at some point.

In the early days of these companies, almost nobody seemed to care about their products. Several months and years went by before people realized the potential of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other large companies. In the case of Amazon, people asked why you would buy a book online when you could do so in a bookstore, and actually hold books and read the book summaries in the store. It took years before people realized that Amazon could pioneer a new revolution in e-commerce. People didn’t care that you could buy a book from Amazon. Similarly, people didn’t really care about searching on Google when dozens of other search engines existed at the same time. It was not until a few years later where they started to make significant improvers that outsiders realized Google could be the next big thing. The world woke up to a new age where we could search for almost any piece of information instantaneously. It took years for the world to take notice, though.

Progress Compounds

Progress accelerates due to compounding. Companies like Google and Facebook have become successful because they have made a number of good decisions in the past and those have all compounded. Companies that have failed can often attribute their failure to one single event, because that’s all it takes to destroy a company and their reputation — this applies in the context of careers, too. This is why showing up every day is so important. You will only make real progress if you continue to work hard and let the work you have done compound. Over time, your business may grow at exponential rates because your past work has compounded into one.

I could tell you that flying drones that deliver your packages from local stores are being piloted in Australia. I could also tell you that flying cars are being tested right now in various parts of the world. But are they available for global use? No. It will take years for these innovations to be ready for the use of the public. And before they become globally available, there will be people who are skeptical about their value. “Why do we need flying cars?” and “Why can’t I just go and pick up my groceries at the local store, or use Prime? Why do I need a drone to do it?” will be echoed by many people as these innovations spread. The future is already here, but progress has not had enough time to compound and so the future is not available around the world. We often underestimate how slow progress really is, and how quickly failure goes. This is why long-term thinking is difficult — we are trying to think over a long-term which is uncertain and we will not know the fruits of our labor until months or years in the future.

There are two important lessons you can take from all of this. The first is that overnight success stories don’t exist — progress is caused by a series of prior events which led up to a single inflection point. The second is that the future is already here, but progress takes so long it will take a long time for us to see the future that is already here in-person. This may sound counterproductive: “why can’t we see the future if it is already here?”. The truth is that while the future is here, it is not ready for everyone else to experience. Package-delivery drones are not all around the world. Just like Amazon did not deliver globally until years after its founding. Just like Uber only operated in SF while they started. But both Amazon and Uber changed the world. Progress is slow, failure is fast. Never underestimate the power of compounding.