Think the path to success is straight, fast and ever upward? Here’s why GenY often believes that, and why it’s totally wrong.

Have the likes of Mark Zuckerberg deluded Gen Y into think the path to success is straight, fast and ever upward?

Perhaps you’ve seen this illustration kicking around somewhere before:

It’s a pretty popular little image as it neatly encapsulates two truths: one, the road to success is winding and long; and two, we like to delude ourselves about that fact.

But is Gen Y more deluded about overnight success than everyone else?

That’s what Mark Quinn, Vice President of marketing at Leggett & Platt, argued recently on Business Insider. “Technology has simultaneously been the Millennial generation’s best friend and worst enemy. While they have grown up with social media and iPhones, they’ve also lived under the specter of Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Systrom, and Mike Krieger,” he writes, before explaining the pernicious effects of these exemplars of “overnight” success:

Seeing Facebook and Instagram make these twentysomethings into billionaires has upped the ante for what young people expect out of life—and their careers….It’s easy for inexperienced professionals to get caught up in the Zuckerberg example—he didn’t finish college and didn’t spend 80 hours a week working his way up in a traditional corporation. With a lack of context, it’s tempting to believe we’re all destined to be exceptions on the level of Facebook.

Rather than imagining that you too will beat the odds a la Zuckerberg, Quinn suggests “your best bet—if you plan to have a career that spans more than 10 years—is to find your niche and strategize your vertical move from there.”

Gen Y’s Particular Delusion

Is Quinn right? Are young people more likely than older folks to hanker after overnight success?

There’s some reason to support his opinion. Besides the natural optimism of youth, which is as of yet untempered by firsthand experience of the many setbacks on the way to success, other factors also nudge young careerists towards undue optimism about how quickly they can become career rock stars.

Take our fascination with entrepreneurs, for example. Surveys show a massive percentage of Gen Y aspires to entrepreneurship and ridiculously few of us have any appetite for slogging our way up to senior corporate posts. Is this because we’ve seen the rocket-propelled rise of Facebook, or did card-carrying Gen Y member Zuckerberg found his company because, like many of his peers, he looked around at adults’ corporate jobs and said “No way”?

It’s a chicken-and-the-egg question that perhaps no one can answer, but whether Gen Y’s entrepreneurialism drove Zuckerberg or Zuckerberg drove our entrepreneurialism, Quinn is right, and the result is the same. Gen Y loves startups, and startup mania projects an unhealthy image of a quick (though difficult) road to success.

Building a Better Model

Those unhealthy expectations become an issue when they lead young folks to make the wrong decisions about how and where to invest their energies and when they cause slowly climbing Gen Yers to despair because they’re not living up to some imagined standard of instant excellence.

So what’s the antidote to straight, fast and ever-upward career images? Quinn trots out the tired old metaphor of the climb up the career ladder, but in today’s world of portfolio careers and job flux, that probably strikes you as pretty unrealistic. Careers are too chaotic these days. Perhaps Tina Seelig, the director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (the entrepreneurship center at Stanford’s School of Engineering) has a better model. Think of your career as a pyramid, she advises:

Most young people believe that their career path should progress at a predictable rate, with ever increasing responsibilities and compensation. That usually isn’t—and shouldn’t be—the case. I like the analogy that Carol Bartz, [ex-]CEO of Yahoo!, used when she spoke at Stanford a few years ago. She said that you should look at the progress of your career as moving around and up a three dimensional pyramid as opposed to up a two dimensional ladder.

Lateral moves along the side of the pyramid allow you to build a base of experience. It may not look as though you are moving up quickly, but you are gaining a foundation of skills, experience, and contacts that will prove extremely valuable later. Additionally, there are often times when you slide backward. Don’t despair: Your recovery after a failure often propels you forward more quickly than if you stayed on a linear, predictable path.

Or just take another look at that doodle at the start of the post.

Do you think Gen Y often has an unrealistic image of success?

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London. She writes a daily column for and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch and GigaOM, among others.


  1. Spark Hire

    Great post! Too many young workers, and often workers of all ages, expect their careers to go in a straight vertical line. But indeed there aren’t many careers that take off and move upwards steadily without a hitch. Perhaps you end up losing a great job and move into a different career sector or make a lateral move instead of a move up. If your career trajectory doesn’t look like a straight line, don’t be worried this is going to be a mark against you in the interview process, whether your interview is in person or through online video. It’s unlikely your interviewer’s career looks like a straight line upwards either.

  2. Lizzie Maldonado

    It’s a good post. But c’mon. First — the great clumping of Gen Y is really frustrating. Second — as one of those who calls themselves Gen Y, I know that my parents talked a lot about their successes and very little about their failures… and the generation looking back with hindsight is always quick to point out what the people figuring it out for themselves have wrong, don’t you think?

    I’m watching the newest generation — (are we really calling them Gen Z?) — microblog their lives and live semi-adult lives too young and I’ve got a lot to say about that… but I did the same thing.

    Just a thought.

  3. CareerFocus Consortium of Community Colleges

    Gen Y isn’t the first to feel youthful optimsm.

  4. Cristina Valencia

    is it a matter of Gen Y having false expectations of success or our inability to see alternatives for what success really looks like?

  5. Jan Kirby McCorkle

    as a parent of a grown Gen Y child, I feel like we did a disservice by rewarding the action and not the success *sigh*. I agree that you need to find your ‘niche’, the swelling in your chest and heart that accompanies an accomplishment you are proud of…for Zuckerberg it was making connections. Self-assess, identify your strengths, set your sights on a long-term goal and follow the zigzag path that life takes you while you pursue your goal 🙂

  6. Ryan Gibson

    I think the obsession with success is the wrong phrase to use. Generation Y’s (like myself) want to see the business they are part of develop and reevaluate based on the conditions of the market. I think the reason we expect success so quickly is because businesses are slow to adapt to changes.

    Start up’s provide a faster paced environment where Gen Y’s have a bigger voice for their ideas. I’ve worked in large organisations where the implementation of change is so slow the younger generation become frustrated and disillusioned. The Gen Y’s around me had some fantastic ideas which were held up by the slow pace and legacy infrastructure of the company.

    I wouldn’t say we are delusional we just have ambition and want to be in the company who can harness that ambition and allow us the authority to make change. I don’t think people expect to be the next Zuckerberg they just want to have a voice in an aging organisation. We need to look at it differently. Companies should be making business decisions for the better and if that means making a rock star out of a Gen Y child then why not?


  7. Aprilyne Daloga-og

    What’s up it’s me Fiona, I am also visiting this site daily, this website is really pleasant and the viewers are really shared good thoughts.

  8. SWAT Classifieds

    There definitely are times of failure which are to help us sport the things we should not welcome again or welcome them by using approaches that will bring better results. Success sometimes comes at a single try, but most of the time there are preceding failures before success; all these are to give us experience in our field. In Software Engineering, when a system is designed, we do not expect it to work 100% well, every system designer is looking forward to correcting some errors to make his system more better, this is why we have the Beta parts of products and also why we have upgrades today. In other words, sometimes we are successful in things we do because we were fortunate to get the right result, but sometimes we need to make amendments to get the desired results. Entrepreneurship is not left out. Mr. A may be successful at a try, that does not guarantee you of the same because Mr. A may have some experience that put him on his stand. I do not support the get rich quick scheme. I believe time and dedication are needed to actualize a goal.

  9. Sarah Simpkins

    There’s certainly a difference of opinion between millennials (Gen Y) starting out in their careers and Gen Xers views on career trajectories. I believe a lot of things contributed to this difference (being raised to pursue ‘what you love’, rewarding the actions and not results as Jan mentioned, etc.) but I don’t think this difference necessarily means Gen Yers are pursuing quick success.

    Most of the recent Gen Y grads I have interviewed/written about just want to do things differently/unconventionally. They are taking years off to travel, join the Peace Corps, or teach English abroad. They are starting social enterprises and nonprofits. They are going to work in a corporate environment sometimes, but they have views of operating blogs/entrepreneurial ventures on the side, and on possibly changing careers several times throughout their lives.

    The moral of the story is that not everyone wants to be Zuckerberg… but they DO want to leave a lasting impact on the world in a way that they don’t think they will find on the corporate ladder. On the other hand, many Gen Y- friendly companies understand and are responding to this view by offering a new take on the corporate culture and office environment. There’s a reason so many millennials want to work at Google…

    For more opinions on millennials in the workplace, see my blog:

  10. John Mclaren

    Yes, The reality is always quiet different from the standards. For getting to face the reality, one got to utilize the resources in fruitful manner.Time and tide waits for none and getting to squeeze the juice out of the available time is the best thing that one can do. For Gen Y, focus on the key concepts for getting success through online resources available and developing a synopsis for achieving to a desired goal.

  11. Rare Form New Media

    Working with an internship is a good way to get practical working experience. I did this while at Uni (and working a regular job). If people put in the time, at the right places they will make it. Good article. x

  12. Purbita Ditecha

    Success comes when I strongly and passionately disagree, I still respect your tastes, ideas, hopes, and opinions.

  13. Nuoc Tinh Khiet Ecowa

    I agree with Lizzie.

  14. Aristides Legakis

    The cost of living, especially in NYC has been so high the past decade, and most jobs salaries haven’t caught up. In the past working a boring 9 to 5 could support a family, these days it will barely put a dent in your student loans. Maybe gen y is delusional, but is there really an other option?

  15. Paul D. Giammalvo

    I think this article from HBR sums up very nicely why so many people from ALL generations seem to be unhappy with their “work life balance”.

    Not to date myself, but Pogo was a comic strip from the 1950’s to the 1970’s and one of his most quotable lines- “We has seen the enemy and they is us”…….

    Not happy with your job or your life? The face which stares back at you in the morning as you shave or put on your makeup is responsible to change it for the better or leave it as it is…

    Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia.

  16. jrandom421

    And not the first generation to get its youthful optimism crushed by the weight and inertia of the current paradigm.

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