Why Most People Give Up and Fail

Simple answer: because success almost always takes longer than you think.

Sure, there are exceptions (and they tend to be overhyped by greedy marketers). However, I’ve noticed human beings tend to make two types of errors:

  1. They are overly optimistic with their timing
  2. They are overly pessimistic with their ambitions

The first error results in people giving up on their goals way too early. The second error results in people not setting goals at all.

The road is long, but the view is spectacularSuccess Takes Longer Than You Think

How much time does it take to make exercise a habit? For me, it took 3 failed 30 Day Trials before the fourth finally stuck. In total, it took over four months, and that was just to make the habit last, not even to start seeing results.

How much time does it take to build a successful blog? I spend 2 years building this blog before I started earning livable income. After four years, reliably earning a full-time income is still a goal of mine.

How long does it take to learn a foreign language? After 7 months (2 of living among native speakers), I’m able to hold conversations in French, but expect another 3-6 months to reach a level most people would deem fluent.

Ok, so maybe the point of this story is that my successes always take longer than I think. However, just from interacting with readers, I suspect my bias towards expecting early success is a common one.

Why the Long, Hard Road Doesn’t Need to be Depressing

Telling someone that reaching their dream will take more time, not less, than they predict isn’t going to win you any friends. People want to be inspired and motivated. They want to be sold that the road isn’t nearly as long and hard as it appears (not that it is, in fact, longer and harder).

This is probably why get-rich-quick schemes are so popular. People don’t want their optimistic lens of the world fixed, they want it exaggerated.

But I’ve found that discovering your path in success is longer and harder than you initially foresaw, isn’t a bad thing. There are two reasons I believe adding a dose of pessimism with your timing can be a wonderful thing:

  1. It makes you patient. It’s way easier to focus on the big picture, and not get distracted by all the crap life throws at you if your vision is long-term.
  2. You’re more likely to actually reach success. If you planned to stick with learning a foreign language for 18 months before quitting, instead of 6 months, your chances of success skyrocket.
  3. It forces you to really commit to a new pursuit. The commitment that comes from knowing you’ll stick it out for a few years instead of a few months gives you an edge over all the wannabes who throw in the towel too early.

Perhaps most importantly, being patient with the deadline allows you to enjoy the path getting there. Instead of becoming irritated when you stop seeing success, you’ll view the plateaus as just another stretch of the long road you originally committed to.

People Underestimate What They Can Accomplish

If people are overly optimistic with their timing, I believe most people are overly pessimistic with their goals.

People tend to see their future life in mostly the same terms as they see their present. Maybe they have a bit more money, a bit better relationships and a bit more freedom, but their ambitions paint a picture of a life that is just a bit more colorful than their life today. They don’t imagine a completely different picture painted on that canvas.

Just as I made the mistake of overestimating my timing in accomplishing key goals, I also underestimated how much my life could improve.

If you had told me six or seven years ago, that today, I would be running my own business, living in a foreign country, have written several books, built an active social life and succeeded in implementing most of the habits I wanted to create, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. My situation at the time would have put limits on my imagination of how my life could be today.

So my point of this article isn’t to undercut your motivation, and tell you your goals are too far away. No, I believe patience is important because, when properly applied, it tells you that your goals are probably smaller than you’re capable of.

  • Seth M Baker

    Nice post Scott.

    The myth of overnight success has grown omnipresent. Every day, the media catapults a new person to instant, temporary fame. The long hours or practice, the hard work, is either unseen or absent from the beginning.

    Maybe because of this, and the hundreds of ‘get rich quick’ products out there, people often expect to see breakthroughs, imagine there’s an easy way to wealth, a shortcut to everything, a silver bullet that lets them fulfill their dreams without actually doing the work.

    In one aspect, I’m one of these people: I thought I could learn Korean in four to six months. Now, after nearly a year, I’m almost able to carry on a basic conversation. I’m looking at another year to partial fluency, but the path seems so long. To say I was optimistic is wildly understating things.

    Just like planting a new apple tree, long term goals take patience and attention before they bear any fruit.

  • Jen

    Great post and good to hear how you have got on. I have recently started blogging and have purposely tried to relax, enjoy it and know that success will come if I am patient, work hard and not expect everything too quickly. I like your example… if you do your research and are realistic about how long something will take you I think it increases the chances of not giving up.
    Thanks Scott 🙂

  • Helen

    I think you are very realistic.Everything you said is true. Maybe people aren’t that optimist or motivated in what they wish for. Or maybe they just don’t want that as much as they pretend. It is true, that some goals are hard to achieve, but almost nothing is impossible. Congratulations for learning French!:)

  • Trav

    The patience necessary to realize a big goal wrought with setbacks is a rare virtue. Most of us only develop the patience needed to manage our smaller expectations to the ebb and flow of life, but a kind of internal greed seems to work against us when working towards those tougher, long-term goals. I think it’s a great example of the fundamental fickleness of the mind/ego.

    You’ve mentioned that you don’t see willpower as an important element of your own success, but with the patience to fail three 30-day trials and still try again, you might just have more than you think 🙂

  • Duff

    I am mostly in agreement, but I’d say in my experience it is even more complex than that.

    Not only does it usually take longer to achieve a goal, and most people set overly low or no goals, sometimes there really is a fast way to get something done…but it might take years to learn how to do it quickly.

    For instance, I study brief methods of therapy and personal change. Many of them work, but not as well or reliably as advertised, and take many years to learn how to facilitate effectively.

  • Gordie Rogers

    Hey Scott,
    I think Leo from ZenHabits.net said that for him to reach his high level of blogging success so quickly required him to bleed from the eyeballs. He basically meant he breathed and ate blogging every spare moment he had. Some people are able to do what he did while others want a more constant and balanced life. People are different.

  • Scott Young


    I know Leo. And I can say without a doubt, he is incredibly hardworking. There’s no doubt in my mind that he deserved the success he reached. But hard work is only half Leo’s story.

    First, Leo was already a professional writer before he started. That doesn’t mean you need to be a pro before blogging (most aren’t), but it does mean you can’t discount the years of writing practice he had before publishing his first blog article.

    Second, Leo hit a nerve in the public at the right time. Simplicity, when everyone was stressed out and figuring out how to add more and work faster. Seems obvious now, but few people were writing about it with the same authenticity and passion as Leo. Memes create great blogs.

    I’m not here to discount Leo, just the opposite. But if those two things hadn’t been true, I’m guessing Leo would probably have a blog of about 15,000 readers making a decent income instead of 120,000 as a superstar. Then again, had he not put in effort, those two things above wouldn’t have mattered at all.


    Of course it’s more complex than that. Life is always more complex than the trite observations I can summarize in a blog post.


    Definitely willpower has an influence. But I think, if you look closely, willpower is a vague term that usually boils down to some component of motivation, habituation, patience, etc. so that when people are using the term “willpower” they could be referring to something else.

    I don’t see patience as the same as willpower. Getting up and writing every day isn’t so much an act of willpower as it is an act of keeping my expectations stable so I don’t get frustrated.


  • Tim Noyce

    Thankyou for this post. The field of self-improvement is rife with instant fixes, but learning anything substantial takes a long sustained effort and modifying habits longest of all. The old-fasioned virtue of perseverance is needed, the ability to enjoy the process and a powerful and enduring motivation. I also try to celebrate any progress I make, even if it small compared to the desired result

  • Terry

    Right on Scott, hard work is underrated.

  • KR3

    Great post. Patience is compulsory to ever see success.

  • Brittany

    Just wanted to say thanks for writing this article. It really motivates me to stay focus on my goals. It’s seems people today just want instant gratification.

  • Ash

    “It forces you to really commit to a new pursuit. The commitment that comes from knowing you’ll stick it out for a few years instead of a few months gives you an edge over all the wannabes who throw in the towel too early.”

    I loved this post, and have been actively attempting to practice the art of patience within the confines of my own life to see what benefits it may bring, if only peace of mind. On the flip side, though, have you ever found yourself paralyzed by fear of a potential lengthy time commitment, and then trapped in a state of inactivity as a result? And if you are paralyzed by fear in that instance, is that indicative of the fact that perhaps you shouldn’t be pursuing X commitment? Or does it simply just point to a personal issue that needs work? Thoughts?

  • Wil

    The vast majority of people will never take any action to realize their dreams. Never get a website, product or business going.

    But for those that get over this hurdle and take daily action, it can be quite disappointing to not see results after trying again and again. But we all need to stay persistent and keep going!

  • Aurooba

    Good post, Scott! I like it. Perfect for a high school senior like me *grins*

  • Cara Lopez Lee

    You said it, Scott! By the time my memoir gets published in May, it will have been about 10 years from the time I typed the first words:

    – It took me about 5 years to switch from my 50- to 60-hour-a-week career, and accept a massive pay cut by becoming self-employed, just so I’d have enough time to finish it.

    – It took me about 1 more year to finish writing it.

    – I spent about 1 year receiving rejections from dozens of agents, and doing massive editing in response to some of the more helpful among them. One agent got excited about the project, signed me, and found an interested publisher, who ultimately passed.

    – After nearly 1 year with that agent, we parted amicably and I started pursuing smaller publishers.

    After almost 1 year of approaching editors at small presses, I found one who got so excited about it that he offered me a contract almost on the spot… about 10 years from the time I decided to pursue this dream.

    I have yet to make a dime, but I’m happier than ever in my new career. Now I’m working on my first novel. Wonder how long that will take…

  • Shwetha Maiya

    I agree. We dont have the patience to see the results of our efforts or dont put efforts at all, teling its not my cup of tea. Wonderful article btw. Thanks for inspiring. Will keep visiting.

  • Scott Young


    Great example. Best of luck to you!


  • Bruce Lynn

    The piece is reiminscent of the quote often attributed to Bill Gates, “People overestimate the impact of an innovation in a 2 year time period, but underestimate the impact over 10.” In your words, “they are overly optimistic with their timing” (2 year time frame) and “they are overly pessimistic with their ambitions” (10 year time frame).

    I tend to explain this syndrome by the fact that people only look at the ‘innovation’ at a superficial level. When it comes to the 2 year time frame, they see someone cool and innovative and think it will take over the world tomorrow. But they often underestimate the underlying complexities of getting a laboratory innovation into mainstream usage with any significant impact. The innovation needs commercialision, distribution, often needs refinement and packaging for consumption. Users need to find out about it, learn how to use it, adapt their behaviours. Once all of these dependencies are attended to, then the innovation can start to have its anticipated impact.

    When it comes to the 10 year times frame, people tend to only think of the first order impacts. That is, if everyone gets this thing/innovation, then they will use it for its intended application. But when they often fail to calculate are the knock-on second and third order impacts. If people start using it to do X, then they might start doing Y differently as well. The classic example of this syndrome is ‘mobile phone texting’. Originally set up my phone companies as a clever device for managing the network, no one anticipated the wide and diverse uses it would be co-opted for and how it would actually change the culture.

  • Scott Young


    Great example, I hadn’t heard that one before, but it definitely applies. Steve Pavlina has also been known to say that people overestimate what they can accomplish in one year, but underestimate what they can do in five. Human nature strikes again.


  • David

    very true Gem! I have learnt this and am still learning… success is a process of time, it doesn’t happen overnight (at least for a legitimate one). Doing something light years outside your comfort zone is HARD! it’s HARD! doing something for the first time is HARD! oh my! but if I will stay at it long enough with persistent determination… I am sure to win!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts friend, I just landed here a couple minutes ago, and will constantly visit!