The myth of the overnight success

Not an ardent fan of professional basketball, I had to turn to my trusty search engines and the magic of Wikipedia to be updated on the latest sensation to come across my sports-minded Twitter feed: Jeremy Lin. It’s likely you’ve heard about him at least in passing. (Seriously, even NPR has talked about him.)

Jeremy Lin

Here’s the thumbnail sketch: Lin grew up in Palo Alto, Calif. He played basketball. He wanted to play Division I basketball in college but the West Coast schools only told him he could walk-on, making no promises of whether he’d be associated with the team let alone actually get to play. He ended up at Harvard (a pretty good safety school) and played four years for the Crimson helping the program to some of its best years in school history. He graduated in 2010 with a degree with a degree in economics. Pursuing a professional basketball career over the past two seasons, he was twice put on waivers. It was the New York Knicks who most recently signed him as a back up to their back up point guard. Injuries and poor performances by the Knicks gave Lin a roster spot and a chance to play.

Lin seized the opportunity. He became the first NBA player with at least 20 points and seven assists in his first four starts. He scores points. He sets up his teammates. He hit a game-winning shot against Toronto. Add to the mix that he is Asian-American — a minority in the world of pro basketball — and you have the story of the season in the NBA and one of the most inspiring sports stories of the year.

Perhaps the best perspective came from Kobe Bryant after Lin dropped 38 points against the L.A. Laker’s:

Players playing that well don’t usually come out of nowhere. It seems like they come out of nowhere, but if you can go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there from the beginning. It probably just went unnoticed.

And that is what draws me into the story. His skill level went unnoticed. Have you heard the line that it takes 10 years of work to become an overnight success? The mythology of the overnight success creates such a limiting story. Overnight successes come out of nowhere. They are blessed with miraculous abilities. They are special and gifted. They find their niche and attain success instantly.

But those “overnight” success stories didn’t really happen overnight. They were likely years in the making. Years of people sticking to their dreams, believing in themselves, surrounding themselves with positive people. The work may have been challenging at times and life may have been frustrating, but they kept plugging away because they loved what they were doing. It was an expression of who they were and what they wanted to be. In fact, probably didn’t even matter if they actually struck gold or not, because doing what they loved and being authentic was the real prize, regardless of outside recognition and acceptance.

The challenge here is twofold. It starts with examining where you are looking for your own overnight success to spontaneously occur and deciding if it’s something you want to pursue. The second challenge comes in how we view other people. Do we see their passion and their skills? Or do pass over the possibilities of others because they don’t fit the traditional mold?

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