Success Doesn’t Come Gradually, But in a Sudden Burst After Long Stagnation

At the turn of the 20th century, medicine wasn’t far advanced. Things had gotten better, true. The advances of the 19th century had taken it from the realm of bloodletting and leeches, but it was still a field steeped in mysticism. Debates between homeopaths and allopaths dominated the discipline. The state of medical education was terrible. Medicine still had a long way to go to become the field that we know today.

In 1902, a zoologist by the name of Dr. Charles Wardell Stiles journeyed through the Southern United States with a nuanced theory – the “poor whites” of the region, so often thought to be a dumb, lazy class of people by virtue of bad breeding, were actually suffering from hookworm. This was based on previous work in Puerto Rico, where an army surgeon named Dr. Ashford discovered that poor people on the island were suffering from hookworm and not infected with malaria, as had previously been thought.

Stiles took a microscope and criss-crossed the South, examining feces. Through this inglorious work, he made the monumental discovery he’d expected. On schedule, he found hookworm eggs everywhere he looked. Stiles was overjoyed, because curing hookworm was cheap and painless. All he needed to do now was get the word out so the medicine could be supplied. Millions of people would be freed from a debilitating burden that up to then had been thought essential and incurable.

But as is so often the case with visionary breakthroughs, Stiles met with an avalanche of ridicule and criticism. No one took him seriously and his plans for a campaign to tackle the problem went nowhere. For years, he tried in vain.

Then, by chance, President Roosevelt appointed him in 1908 to an obscure commission. One of his fellow commissioners was Walter Hines Page, who was an associate of John D. Rockefeller and part of his burgeoning philanthropic empire, which included the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Page was intrigued when Stiles told him about his hookworm discovery.

The wheels were soon in motion. Stiles had meetings with several key people in Rockefeller’s orbit. After hearing about it all, the Standard Oil tycoon and most hated man in America was sold. He would donate a million dollars (over $25 million today) to a campaign to eradicate hookworm from the South. In five years, hookworm in the South had almost been eradicated and others could now pick up the work that Stiles began.

For 6 years, Stiles toiled in vain. In a month, he broke through, and in 5 years, his ambition was realized. The epidemic of hookworm was a thing of the past. Millions of lives were improved and the South made a far more productive region as a result.

Why have I told you this story (which you can find in a lot more detail in Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller)? Because it illustrates that success isn’t a slow, gradual process. It’s instead a sudden strike of lightning after years of flatlining.

If success were put on a graph, it would look like a hockey stick – a gradual increase followed by a huge spike. Just when it doesn’t look like a breakthrough will ever come, it does.

The moral of the story is that you have to bust through the doubt that comes during the flatline period. It often takes years. Few people might understand your vision at first. These naysayers need to be disregarded.

That doesn’t mean you can ignore evidence your idea won’t work, though. If you’re shrinking or there’s evidence your idea is nutty, then you have a problem. If you don’t find an initial enthusiastic group of fans, even if they’re small in number, you might also have a problem. Scott Adams has a chapter in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big about this subject.

But if you have some combination of…

  1. Aren’t shrinking.
  2. Have strong evidence for your idea (such as Stiles’ irrefutable evidence of hookworm).
  3. Have some enthusiastic fans, however small.

…You’re on to something.

The question then becomes whether you’re willing to go through the long period of anemic growth before your good idea or talent meets luck and opportunity, much like Stiles’ met with Rockefeller’s associates, and suddenly, after years of stagnation, a bonfire blazed in no time. Examine the careers of successful people and this is usually the pattern.


You don’t know when the fires will be lit, but if you have a solid foundation, build the pyre. The most challenging part is that you have to expend the sweat building the pyre with no obvious payoff for a long time, because it’s usually raining outside.

You can’t control the weather, but you have to outlast it. Will you still work or go inside during the rain?

Before you answer, remember that the persuasion system in Stumped can’t make it stop raining, but it can give you an umbrella to make your work easier.

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