The Myth of the 'Overnight Success' and How Brilliant Ideas Actually Emerge

Anecdotally, Jerry Seinfeld’s pitch for one of the most famous sitcoms of all time starts with this phrase: “I have an idea for a show.” The notion that all it takes is one great idea to become Seinfeld-rich is a siren call for a lot of entrepreneurs. It’s irresistible, it’s driving, and it’s (unfortunately) wrong.

In the world of entrepreneurship, it’s easy to want to pursue overnight success. To strike it rich. The entrepreneurial personality is inclined to go big and risk it all on a blind hand. But the truth is, it takes years to cultivate a valuable idea. Epiphanies aren’t actually immediate; they are the outcome of long-term memory and arduously obtained knowledge.

Grounded in non-conscious processing, the phenomena of an epiphany is enigmatic even to the most esteemed psychologists. However, the lightning bolt of inspiration — or appealing billion-dollar idea — isn’t sudden at all. The truth? Nobody is an overnight success. That’s just not how ideas work.

How ideas actually work

Epiphanies and the successes that seem overnight are misleading because they are often sudden and surprising. They almost feel like they come from outside ourselves, and they are highly motivating. 

In the book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson talks about the eureka moment, outlining brand new developments, from pencils to batteries to drug therapies. He details identifiable patterns of innovation. Some things have adjacent possibilities, and a good example is emerging technology like neural networks, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).

The increased sophistication of these technologies open new adjacent possibilities for innovation, which means that people will be having light bulb moments as they’re equipped with new tools to actually create something new. Is AI new? Alan Turing would say otherwise. People who find “overnight successes” using these technologies are in fact just taking advantage of something that has long existed, and only recently has the collective understanding advanced enough to make some new application possible.

Another way ideas develop is something Johnson calls slow hunches. In other words, it’s a germ of an idea that builds over time. When shared or built upon, something new may emerge. There are numerous other tracks along which new ideas run, and they are invariably informed by or impacted by something that already exists.

It’s important to see how new ideas, epiphanies or inventions spring up in a wider social context. At an individual level, entrepreneurs are plagued by the personal mission of becoming an overnight success, often dismissing the suggestion that they are influenced by something that existed before them. Egocentricity aside, it’s important to see the microcosm that is an individual person. With limited resources and brainpower, people at the individual level don’t wake up one day thinking something completely novel. 

Instead, an aggregate sum of unconscious or subconscious processing — hopefully well-informed by education and collaboration — may one day result in a golden egg. But no one gets there alone or overnight. This can be a blow to quixotic daydreams of individualism or self-importance, but it’s important to remember the realities of life that actually do result in growth.

The value of failure

A first predictor of success is the opposite of success: failure. Leadership expert John Maxwell wrote a book in 2007 called Failing Forward, which touted a quantifiable commonality among high-achievers. He explains that the real backdrop to any great success isn’t how they deal with making it: It’s how they deal with failing. Every entrepreneur faces the real possibility of failure, and there’s no better way to cultivate grit than to try and try again.

The power of grit

Psychologist Angela Duckworth wrote a book called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. It instantly became a New York Times bestseller, and Duckworth discusses shared traits among successful people in a variety of contexts, from the National Spelling Bee to West Point Academy. She explains, “…there are no shortcuts to excellence. Developing real expertise, figuring out really hard problems, it all takes time―longer than most people imagine.” Effort, or grit, is the key: “Without effort, your talent is nothing more than unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.”

Getting comfortable with failure and cultivating grit are two proactive ways to work toward success. What you are working toward is equally important.

A just cause for an infinite win

Going viral is not the same thing as building an enduring, legacy business. Simon Sinek has broken a lot of ground over the past decade as he guides business owners to practice more perseverance, more empathy and more nuanced goal-setting. 

In The Infinite Game, he describes the goal of a lasting business to be centered on a “Just Cause”: “A Just Cause must be: For something—affirmative and optimistic; Inclusive—open to all those who would like to contribute; Service oriented—for the primary benefit of others; Resilient—able to endure political, technological and cultural change; Idealistic—big, bold and ultimately unachievable.” 

A just cause is along the lines of “changing the world” or “eradicating poverty.” It’s big and bold, often bombastic and — most importantly — impossible. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s the pursuit that really energizes an entrepreneur, not the win. So, overnight successes may be impossible, and epiphanies may be misleading, but every single day someone lives and works is an opportunity to cast a vote for the future, investing in the ideas that may one day make him or her rich.

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