Variations in larval fish growth rates are largely the result of variability in biotic and abiotic characteristics of the feeding environment experienced by each individual. An assessment of an individual's overall feeding success (i.e. accumulation of utilizable organic matter) can best be achieved at the time of capture when the relationships among environment, short-term feeding success as defined by gut content and long-term feeding success as defined by accumulated growth can be contrasted. Here, we investigated the relationships between average growth, feeding success, and variability in individual growth and feeding rates across a range of taxa based on a synthesis of studies in which stomach content and otolith growth were measured in the same individuals. Instantaneous measures of feeding success were highly variable and demonstrated a positive yet somewhat limited association with growth rates across all taxa. The strength of the feeding-growth relationships among taxa, and cohorts within taxa, was reflected in the autocorrelation of individual growth rates, suggesting that stable growth was achieved through consistent feeding success. However, when viewed at the individual level, faster growth was achieved in individuals with more variable growth rates, and by inference more variable past feeding success. The dichotomy in these underlying relationships may point to the importance of stochastic events in the development of exceptional individuals in a population, and may be linked to how surplus energy is allocated to individual growth rates. The positive correlation found between feeding success and growth in all taxa is consistent with the growth-survival paradigm for the larval stage of fish. However, both the correlation between feeding success and growth and the serial correlation of growth time-series was greatest in fast-growing species, suggesting that the potential for an early “critical period” regulating survival varies among species, reaching a maximum in fast-growing fish.