In an obscure night
Fevered with love’s anxiety
(O hapless, happy plight!)
I went, none seeing me –St. John, The Dark Night of the Soul
The nights were long and the three friends were giving up hope.
Winter was coming, and then it arrived. The town they called home in Finland was cold and dark. The sun crept above the horizon for only a few hours each day, and the rest of the time it was inky black. Here, the world seemed to be in a constant stage of nightfall. But it could be worse. Just a few miles north of them, there was no daylight at all.
That part of winter above the Arctic Circle is known as, “polar night”. During polar night, the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for 51 days.
Despite the climate, the team of three friends continued to show up to work. It was 2009 and they were working towards building their vision of a massively successful computer game.
The three of them started working together back in 2001. Now, they had been at it for almost a decade with nothing major to show for it.
On that particular winter morning, they headed to their office space. They had just released their 52nd game into the wild. After months of it being live, it wasn’t getting the results they wanted. They had been through 51 public attempts and “failures” at making a great game, and were battling through the polar night of the soul.
When they first joined, enthusiasm ran high as they dreamed of making thecomputer game. Soon, reality and drudgery of day to day work set in, and the idea lost it’s allure. It wasn’t long before their initial visions of building a successful computer game faded, and they resigned themselves towards toiling in obscurity. The beautiful thing about obscurity is it gives you time to hone your craft. It provides a chance to become better before corrupting influences of culture and the world taint your vision.
While their college classmates were out working on their addictions and learning bad habits, the three friends embraced their work. They kept learning, tinkering, and launching games whenever they could find time outside of classes. Soon, the mastermind they formed started producing results. Their peers took notice, and so did the school. In 2003, the small team entered and won a mobile game competition sponsored by their school and HP. They created a silly little game called King of the Cabbage World. A local game studio offered to buy it, they agreed, reworked it, and renamed it to Mole War. The three students and the local studio relaunched Mole War and it was one of the first successful commercial real-time multiplayer mobile games.
At this point, the three friends had money in the bank. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to cripple the average college student. As the famous saying goes:
Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising. –Cyril Connolly
But, because of the bond they built, they did the unthinkable. They put their heads back down and worked even harder, launching more games. In 2005, the three secured their first small investment from a local angel. That gave them enough money to keep going, and they ramped up their efforts.
The team practiced their craft and became prolific, launching 51 more games over eight years. None of the games were the breakouts they hoped for. Now, it was the heart of winter, they were headed to their studio space to work, and their 52nd attempt was going nowhere.
They were beginning to doubt that a massive success was even possible. After all, the store they released their latest game into was brand new. Besides, the mobile phone that contained the store was just released, and the future of it wasn’t yet certain. What’s more, the company that created the phone and digital store didn’t even make phones!
So when the three friends got into the office that day, they were shocked to find an email from that company that didn’t even make phones… Apple.
The email was from one of the editors of Apple’s new, “App Store”. It was short, simple, and addressed to their company name. The three friends had a penchant for choosing quirky names, and the email was addressed to their latest concoction; Rovio, the Finnish word for Pyre:
We’re excited to let you know that your app, Angry Birds, has been featured by our editorial team! If you have any questions, or wish to change the cover art on the feature page, please let us know.
The Team at the Apple App Store
After Apple featured it, Angry Birds would slowly climb the paid charts to number one. They would go on to hold that number one ranking longer than any other app. Angry Birds would enter the cultural zeitgeist, and go on to produce billions of dollars in sales, and help grow a massive business.
Those three friends didn’t try just a few things on their way to success. They perfected their skills for years and launched dozens of games. They kept shipping their work and putting it in a place where it could be exposed to upside. Their first 51 attempts were all iterations towards their breakout of Angry Birds. By the time they launched Angry Birds, their skills and talents were noticed by the App Store customers, and the editorial team at Apple.
When we execute consistently over the years and achieve small daily goals, we can’t help but move closer to our dreams. Along the way, we never know where our efforts will be aided by serendipity, or the eighth wonder of the world — compounding. When we think big, but still possess the humility and faith to take daily small steps, magic happens.
Eventually, our skills and expertise will reach a tipping point. The beautiful thing about business or working on a team that’s becoming better is that if you keep going, you’ll eventually win. Whether you have to go through 52, 999, or 9,999 attempts, if you’re improving and being honest with yourself, you’ll win.
It’s those who can endure during all the attempts who will win the greatest victories.
You and your team only need to be really right once. Yes, you’ll need many small victories, but ultimately, it takes just a single time of being really right in order to break out.
So many people get stuck in the quicksand of attempts #2–999. But it’s that adversity that will help forge the mindset you need to persevere.
No matter how many attempts you’re at, no matter how old or young you are, no matter how many things you’ve tried that haven’t worked out the way you wanted… Keep going.
This is one of my favorite quotes to help provide a north star for the type of mindset we all need:
If I were dropped out of a plane into the ocean and told the nearest land was a thousand miles away, I’d still swim. And I’d despise the one who gave up. –Abraham Maslow
No matter what, hold your head up and keep swimming. If visions of stopping swimming, or refusing to tread water fill your mind, despise them. When we’re exhausted, stopping and sinking into obscurity is easy. If you’re engaged in rigorous self improvement, at times you will feel like you’ve been dropped in the ocean, a thousand miles from land. Temptations will arise to quit and give up. The deep dark abyss of the ocean, or the dark polar night will beckon. Refuse them and keep going. No matter how many attempts it may take.
From ancient Greeks to the present day, there are an abundance of stories of dolphins arriving out of the blue to rescue shipwrecked sailors, or fend off sharks. In the modern economy, there are great allies, who with the right partnership, will work on your behalf. If you present them the right proposition, they wield the power to rescue you at the exact moment you feel like giving up. In the luxuries of the first world, help might come in the form of App Store editors. You might be in a first world struggle of building your startup, or a real struggle that some of us can only imagine. No matter what, keep going.
Let Abraham Maslow’s quote be your guide. Keep swimming, keep improving, and:
“Be realistic. Expect a miracle.” –Osho