The Myth of the Overnight Success

Avish ParasharBy Featured Speaker Avish Parashar

Having a little nerd in me (ok, maybe a lot of nerd), I recently decided to use my NetFlix membership to watch the entire 9 season run of the X-Files on DVD. Hey, it could be worse – it could be Star Trek…and if you email me in defense of Trek, then you essentially make my point.

The amazing thing about watching a show like The X-Files is that you see so many guest stars who were unknown at the time but who have gone on to become famous and successful.

For example, the season one episode “Ice,” featured Felicity Huffman. This was in 1993. I saw that episode when it first came on, but at the time no one, myself included, knew who she was.

Five(!) years later she went on to star in Sports Night, an amazing show show that no on watched. “Shoe Money To-night!” And if you don’t know what that means, run out and buy the Sports Night DVD set – or at least add it to your NetFlix queue.

Four more years later she went on to star in the mega-hit, Desperate Housewives. In the last four years since Desperate Housewives hit the air, Felicity has been nominated for two Emmys, won one, and also been nominated for an Academy Award for her work in Transamerica. Not a bad result for a woman who started her career being possessed by an alien parasite.

Could you imagine being on an audition for a Season 1 X-Files episode, before anyone knew what it was?

Casting Director: “Ok, in this scene you’re trapped with two FBI agents and this little alien parasite which has been trapped in the ice for thousands of years is going to burrow into the base of your neck and take total control of you.”
Felicity: “Riiiggghhht. What network will this be on?”
Casting Director: “Fox! It’s gonna be a huge hit!”
Felicity: “Riiiggghhht. Excuse me, I’m going to go….somewhere else.”

But she didn’t. She took the part, and eventually went on to great things.

If you only know Felicity from her work in Desperate Housewives, or even Sports Night, then you may think that she “exploded on the scene” and hit this massive successive “all of a sudden.” It’s easy to forget that most of these “overnight successes” really did pay their dues. 10 years before landing a part on Housewives she had a guest spot on one episode of the X-Files. Five years later she finally got a lead on Sports Night. How many auditions do you think she went on before getting that? How many readings and auditions did she go on before finally hitting it big, “overnight”?

The list of people to appear when unknown on The X-Files who then went on to big success is pretty long (this is just a sampling):

  • Bradley Whitford – Went on to star for seven seasons on the West Wing
  • Jack Black – Star of many movies and one half of Tenacious D
  • Giovanni Ribisi – Move star and Emmy winner
  • Terry O’Quinn – Rocking it out as a main character on Lost, for which he won an Emmy
  • Ryan Reynolds – Star of many movies – and his X-files part was a little “blink and you’ll miss it” one minute bit
  • Lucy Liu – Went on to prime time fame and an Emmy nom with Ally McBeal as well as leading movie roles

(Ms. Liu also starred in Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, which has my vote for “worst. title. ever.” It also ranks as #1 on Rotten Tomatoes list of “Worst Reviewed Movie Ever.” Maybe you don’t see that as a success, but how many movies have you starred in…? Besides, people remember bad movies. She’s made her mark…)

We all love real magical success stories. Chris Klein was just a student at the high school where Election was going to be filmed, and someone liked his look. Shannon Sossymyn was DJing a party in LA and was discovered. Sylvester Stallone wrote Rocky in three days. These stories are inspiring, but they are few and far between and often, we don’t get the full story. Stallone had a bunch of bit parts (including in soft-core porn!) before Rocky.

More importantly, these stories steer people down the wrong path, daydreaming of being discovered, or putting all their eggs into one basket and then giving up when nothing comes out of their “big break.”

Real success much more often comes the Felicity Huffman route. Persistent, commitment, hard work, and the ability to get up and keep going no matter what happens.

The Roman Philosopher Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Most overnight successes spend years preparing and getting out there creating opportunities. How about you?

Avish Parashar is a dynamic keynote speaker who uses Improv Comedy to show organizations and individuals how to quickly make the most of whatever life throws at them. He weaves together humorous stories, witty observations, and interactive exercises from improvisational comedy to get people laughing, learning, and motivated!

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This post is by a guest writer. Please see the "About" section above for more information about today's featured expert.