Is Showing Up Early the Key to Success?

One of my biggest interpersonal weaknesses is that I simply don't understand most idioms. Raised by strict grammarians – my dad was an English major turned lawyer and my Catholic school teachers taught us to diagram a sentence with exacto-knife precision – I learned to communicate without what they called "crutches." These crutches were idioms, jargon, and meaningless metaphors that jumbled the clarity and efficiency of speech and writing. They were essentially banned from my repertoire, and as a result, I don't understand most idioms that the everyday American uses. 

But one idiom recently caught my attention as I reflected on a pattern I've seen across blogging and careers and innovations and more. It affects nearly everything, and while I haven't been able to find the scientific proof of it (yet), I know it exists. 

The idiom is "The early bird gets the worm."

First recorded by John Ray in the 17th century, the well-known proverb means that the person who arrives early (and typically earliest) will be successful. Parents have used it to coax their kids out of bed in the morning. Coaches have used it to push their teams. Career-minded individuals have used it to justify getting to work earlier than everyone else.

The saying is both a statement of fact and a call to action. On one hand, it simply states that the first one to arrive will be more successful than the latecomers. On the other hand, it's a challenge to try to be the first one to arrive.

But arrive early for what? Showing up early to the movie theater for the summer blockbuster may save you from sitting in the front neck-bending seats, but it likely won't change the course of your life. Rather, I think there's something more dynamic and impactful between the lines of this idiom, and the following three stories will show why. 

Image via New York Times

Image via New York Times

Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso pedaled away at her vintage resale shop on eBay for five years, using the site in its hey-day to rake up hundreds of sales. After getting kicked off the site in 2008, Amoruso launched her own brand of edgy, rocker-chic fashion, amassing nearly one-quarter million in sales in the first year alone. Three years later, revenue spiked to $23 million, positioning Nasty Gal as a multi-million dollar brand with a loyal following that has now reached over $100 million in annual sales. She recently published a hybrid memoir/career book called #GIRLBOSS that also has taken off, becoming the Lean In for younger, less conventional career women. 

Image via Dooce.com

Image via Dooce.com

In the early 2000s, Heather Armstrong aka Dooce used a new digital medium – the personal blog – to (over-)share about her life, which resulted in getting fired from her job for writing about her co-workers. But at that time, Dooce’s approach was novel. Not that many people were blogging at all, let alone about their personal lives and relationships. Her blog quickly grew into an internet sensation, partly as a result of the content she shared but mostly because she became a go-to blogger before the blogosphere exploded into what is now a plethora of women lifestyle bloggers. 

Jan Koum signs the $19 billion Facebook deal paperwork on the door of his old welfare office in Mountain View, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Jan Koum via Forbes)

Jan Koum signs the $19 billion Facebook deal paperwork on the door of his old welfare office in Mountain View, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Jan Koum via Forbes)

The founder of WhatsApp Jan Koum immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, put himself through school, and for a time relied on welfare as he struggled to make ends meet and move an innovation from idea to product. His invention, a mobile messaging service that doubles as a global social network, sold to Facebook earlier this year for $19 billion (that’s with a “b”!).  

What's the moral of the story in each of these cases? I think it's this: 

Show up early for opportunities that have the potential to grow and thrive. 

The key question is how much of success is good timing, of showing up earlier than everyone else? And do you show up early from luck or is this intuition a skill that can be learned?

I think it's a dash of it all. Throw in some good timing, luck, intuition, and of course hard work in the pot and stir. Then let it cook. Maybe it simmers. Maybe it boils. Either way, you're a main ingredient in the recipe, not the optional garnish at the end. 

This philosophy is one of the reasons I support Wildly Co., a new start-up for children’s clothing that’s ethically made and family-owned.

Mike and Hayley Morgan, the co-founders and visionaries behind the brand, researched and developed the idea for Wildly Co. many months ago. And with the help of a sustainable fashion consultant (hi Shannon!), they were able to confirm sourcing and manufacturing that is made in the USA and ethically made. In contrast to many other fashion companies, the Morgans literally know by name the people who are going to be cutting and sewing and finishing the garments for Wildly Co. 

Wildly Co. may never take off to the level of Nasty Gal or Dooce or WhatsApp—and that’s more than okay. But in investing in a small way via their Kickstarter campaign (which is almost fully funded!), I am practicing the strategy of showing up early for opportunities that have the potential to grow and thrive. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that their clothes make great presents for my nephew and nieces!

What opportunities are on your mind that have the potential to take off? What other examples of “the early bird gets the worm” have you seen in your or others’ careers or entrepreneurial pursuits?