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Success Isn't Linear: Embrace the Hockey Stick

Road to Success

March 8, 2022

In work, life and money, progress can sometimes feel painfully slow. We feel like we’re doing all the right things, making good decisions and doing what it takes to win, only to feel unfulfilled by a seeming lack of success. Sound familiar, or is that just me?

Perhaps it’s because my teen years were spent in the 90s during peak MTV (when they actually played music), but I love music videos. Combine my love of music videos with my appreciation for the band Twenty One Pilots, one can imagine how many reps these music videos get in my life. Right now, my absolute favorite music video is “Ode to Sleep” by, you guessed it, Twenty One Pilots. I recommend you watch it for yourself:


My affinity for this video is partly due to my love of the song. I refer to it as Bohemian Rhapsody for the 21st century. It’s a brilliant song, but you’re not required to agree with me! The other reason I enjoy it so much is the concept of the video. In case you don’t care to personally experience this amazing video first-hand, I’ll give you the rundown. In the beginning, they show old grainy footage of the band, musicians Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, playing their first-ever out-of-state show in front of 12 people in what seems to be a school cafeteria. It’s perhaps the least sexy atmosphere for a world-class musical duo.

At this point, Twenty One Pilots had been in existence for approximately two years, had just experienced some major turnover in personnel, and were trying to capture some momentum. Two years in, playing in front of just 12 people, performing at 110% energy. Think about that. They’ve been going and going for two years ... for just 12 people to show up.

The video skips to 19 months later. They are performing in front of 300 people, again, 110% energy. At this point, they lived the grind for two years for the privilege of performing in front of 12 fans, then another 19 months for the opportunity to perform in front of 300 fans. It’s hard to imagine how much time, energy, blood, sweat and tears were expended during this season of life. Through it all, they gave it everything they had!

The music video fast forwards one more time to 20 months later. Tyler and Josh are again performing the same song in front of 12,000 fans. The band has officially exploded. They went from a local phenomenon to an international sensation. In what seemed like overnight, Twenty One Pilots were one of the biggest bands in the world, performing any venue they wanted, from stadiums to arenas to award shows to festivals. From the outside, they “got lucky” or “got a break.”

To the millions of fans and music critics who jumped on the bandwagon during this season of their existence, it seemed like they were a Cinderella story that became an overnight success. Except for the small detail where they had been absolutely grinding for around five years before they “got lucky.”

Keep Moving Toward Success

Their story revolves around an idea I think about often: success isn’t linear. It’s not a straight line, constantly moving up and to the right. Rather, it often looks like a flat-ish line with a frustratingly gentle slope, until it shoots violently upwards like a Colorado mountain. Many in the business world call it a “hockey stick.”

Hockey sticks are all around us. Take compound interest, for example. If you were to invest $1,000 at a 9% annualized return, one could reasonably expect to earn approximately $90 in the first year. That certainly doesn’t feel exciting. The next year, $98. Again, we’re not setting the world on fire here. It feels slow and boring. But the hockey stick! Year after year, it gets a little better. In year 21, you make $500 in a single year … now we’re talking! Just 8 years later, you’re making $1,000+ each year (more than your original investment). Many of us know how this works. It’s a common principle in the finance world. It’s simple, but hard. It’s simple because the math is clear. We can throw a couple of numbers in a financial calculator, or a spreadsheet, and it spits out a clear answer. The hard part is remaining patient and staying disciplined. Those who do are rewarded, but those who don’t often quit and lament how investing “doesn’t work.”

Let’s discuss a real-life example from a little company you may have heard of: Apple. Today, we know Apple as one of the strongest brands and most valuable companies in the world. That wasn’t always the case. For the first 17 years of Apple’s existence, its stock price was flat. In fact, you would have lost money over that time period. Then, the hockey stick! For the next 24 years, Apple’s stock price increased by 36% per year, annualized. After 17 years, no gain. After the next 24 years, it was approximately 1,470x more valuable than it started. If an amazing company like Apple can experience the frustration of the hockey stick (and for 17 years nonetheless), what makes us think we should be immune to it in our own journeys?

For business owners, leaders, and even us in our own individual careers, the principle of the hockey stick is hard! When we make good decisions, have brilliant ideas, pour ourselves into something and know deep down what we’re doing is right, we want to see the results. Not years down the road, but soon (or now!). When the results don’t come, self-talk creeps in. The criticism we endure feels a bit more relevant. The voices of the naysayers sound a bit louder. We start to question ourselves, our ideas, decisions and even our path.

Regardless of whether we’re talking about our investments, business, team or even our own career, we need to remember success isn’t linear. We can control what we can control, and unfortunately, we can’t control the timing of our success.

When I left my amazing career nearly three years ago to start my own business, I too naively thought success would be linear. I thought clients would be banging down my door, or at least giving me a gentle knock. My reality was a bit different. It felt like the world’s slowest process for more than two years. Then, something happened … the hockey stick happened. What felt like overnight, I had so many prospective clients that I, unfortunately, had to start a waiting list. The shift has been overwhelming. There were times along the journey I wanted to quit. It would have been easier to walk away. Just as I’m grateful for Apple persevering through their hockey stick frustration, I’m sure some of my clients feel the same way about me (or at least I hope they do).

As you reflect on the various areas of your financial life, career and business, hopefully this idea can help you give yourself a bit more grace, a lot more patience and the persistence to keep moving forward. Success isn’t linear, but the process is worth it!

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Travis Shelton

Travis Shelton is the host of the Meaning Over Money podcast, speaker and professional financial coach, helping families and businesses navigate the tension between the world's way and a better way. He works with a wide range of clients who are ready to redefine the role money plays in their life. Listen to his podcast on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.