This week, we find ourselves at an emotional moment in our Torah. Joseph—who has risen to great power in Egypt, the viceroy, second in command, covered in gold and silver, surrounded by servants, food, wine, and lavish dwellings—comes face to face with his brothers. His brothers—who tormented him, plotted to kill him, sold him into slavery, now broken, poor, raggedy traveling shepherds—have come to beg him for food and shelter. When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, it is with kindness, love, and maturity. If you read the Torah portion, you’ll read a beautiful exchange between Joseph and his brothers, asking about Jacob’s health and speaking words of forgiveness.
I’ve always been a little curious, however, as to what would happen if we got to read between the lines and see this scene from a different perspective. Before Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers, he sends all of his servants out of the room, so as to not have them see how emotional he, as such a powerful leader, is about to become. Imagine, for a moment, that one of the servants exits the room but leaves the door open so he could snoop on the situation. The servant would see this powerful viceroy whom had never shown such emotion break down in tears, confessing that he was once a shepherd, hated by his brothers, from the land of Canaan. The servant would get a peek into the life of a successful man. Surely, he would go back to his colleagues and say, “Did you know that the viceroy used to be a poor shepherd? Talk about an overnight success!”
You may know this term, “overnight success.” It’s usually attributed to entrepreneurs, actors, or musicians, whose products, services, or art goes “viral,” who seemingly overnight go from hard-working simpletons to millionaire or billionaire powerhouses. People like to categorize online platforms as overnight success stories: Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo, Youtube; but others attribute things like Amazon.com, Microsoft or even Apple as overnight successes. And if any of you have tweens at home, you know the power of Justin Bieber. One day you had never heard of them and the next day they’re all anyone can talk about. They’ve made it. They’ve hit the top.
I have to admit, as a young member of Generation X, I’ve often thought about overnight success, thinking maybe there’s something out there that if I do will make me famous, will make me rich, will prove to others just how amazing I am. I know the generation below me, millennials, think about overnight success as well, and even the one below them, Generation Z, is hoping to be the next Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, or Steve Jobs. Then there’s the musicians we love on the radio, who are the epitome of overnight success. One day you’ve never heard of guys named Billy Joel, Elton John, Dave Matthews, John Mayer, and then one day, there they are, playing to crowds of thousands, dodging the paparazzi, and showing off their beautiful new twenty million-dollar summer home. We look with awe at their success and stories.
But here’s the problem with the idea of the overnight success: any entrepreneur or business strategist, any actor or famous musician, will tell you that it’s just not so simple. Seth Godin, a blogger and business strategist said in one of his talks that “the myth of the overnight success is just that, a myth.” Godin reminds us that Twitter was an abysmal failure for over two years; “no one used it.” But, he said, if they had given up after two weeks, we never would have heard of it. They got to where they are, as Godin says, “by being patiently impatient.”
All you have to do is look up the rest to see that his theory on overnight successes is true. Bill Gates worked for eleven years before success came to him. Steve Jobs worked and failed over and over again for almost two decades. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook showed “a yearly net loss of $3.63 million” in its first two years. It took another five before it became an overnight success. And as for our musicians. Most famous musicians spent years earning little to no pay, playing in coffee shops, and on the street, working odd jobs for many years before getting noticed and hitting it big. Google any celebrity, it’s always a similar story: Kanye West was a sales associate at the Gap, Jon Bon Jovi worked as a Christmas decoration maker, Ozzy Ozbourne worked in a slaughterhouse.
Thinking about this idea this week, I started to wonder if the myth of the overnight success exists elsewhere in our world, beyond the realm of fame and fortune. What about finding success in being mentally healthy, happy, and strong? So many of us work for years, making mistakes, failing, over and over again, thinking that we will never be who we want to be, looking over at the greener grass on the other side, wondering how our friends and colleagues got to be so happy, so healthy, so confident. We mistakenly think that these people have never made mistakes, never failed once, that they were, in essence, an overnight success in life. Maybe they’ve got the job they want, or a beautiful family, a bigger house, a nicer car, or maybe they just always walk around with a smile. How did they get there? It wasn’t overnight. They, as Seth Godin tells us, were “patiently impatient.” They kept going when failures happened, they understood that mistakes were rungs in a ladder, not pits to fall into. They worked and worked and worked, taking risks, and failing, until they got to where they’ve always wanted to be.
In other words, Seth Godin was right, “the myth of the overnight success is just that, a myth.” It’s all about what we see, and if we dig a little deeper we learn the true story of hardship, failure, and mistakes that eventually led to success. Which brings me back to the Torah. If the servant who witnessed Joseph talking to his brothers had learned a bit more, he would have understood that Joseph’s story was a bit more complicated. He was a shepherd, a tattle-tail, he was thrown into a pit and left for dead, sold into slavery, thrown in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and eventually positioned himself at the ear of the Pharaoh. Hardly an overnight success. And this is just Joseph’s financial success. Think about his character as well. One might look at him as the viceroy of Egypt, crying to his brothers, and think, “this man has always been so humble, so caring;” little do they know that it wasn’t that long ago that Joseph was a spoiled brat who got his brothers in trouble trying to earn favor from his parents. It took him years of self-examination, ill-treatment and loneliness to change into the successful, forgiving, humble man who took in his family and provided them with all they needed.
We’ve all stumbled, all made mistakes, all failed at certain aspects in our lives. Sometimes we’ve deserved it, sometimes we haven’t. We’ve made missteps, we’ve been treated unfairly, we’ve been wrongly defined, we’ve tried and experimented with new ideas only to watch them flounder. When we’re in those moments, too often we forget that we are on the path to our own successes. There’s a quote I’ve always loved by former President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge:
Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
It may take years, it may even take a lifetime, but eventually, at one point, we find ourselves where we want to be. And the people we’ve always dreamed of being. And when we get there, like Joseph, we’ll know better than to think of ourselves as overnight successes.