“My experience has shown me that the people who are exceptionally good in business aren’t so because of what they know, but because of their insatiable need to know more.” — Milton Hershey
How many times, in school, did you hear stories about sudden, immediate, world shattering breakthroughs? I know I grew up with the old story of Isaac Newton, lying under a tree, getting hit on the head by an apple and saying Holy Shit, Gravity Exists!
But what if that’s not the way the world really works? What if science and technology and society and creativity and everything else doesn’t actually progress when people have big sudden moments of realization, out of the blue?
The breakthrough myth is that at some point in the lives of everyone who has achieved anything, they suddenly Saw The Light and realized the truth, or had one big idea, without warning.
The breakthrough myth tells us that Steve Jobs thought up Apple in a flash of inspiration while meditating.
The breakthrough myth tells us that people are touched by the divine and everything just immediately falls into place.
But the truth is, lives don’t change in an instant. Businesses don’t spring up out of the ground. Making something out of yourself, your life, your hopes and your dreams will never happen overnight.
There may be one big moment where all the threads come together, where the magic eye picture comes into focus, but it will only happen as the culmination and climax of years of work, effort, energy and learning.
Meet Milton Hershey.
In 1876, Milton Hershey started a candy business. He was trying to strike out on his own because he wanted to be his own man. He thought he had learned everything he could from his apprenticeship, and he thought it was time to roll the dice. And there wasn’t a flash of light, and there was no instant success.
In fact, Milton Hershey failed and flamed out. And then Milton Hershey traveled.
And he learned more.
He went back into training, and he came out the other end, and he got back in the saddle and started a second company. And you know what? He still wasn’t making the Hershey’s Chocolates we’re all about to eat come Halloween.
Because his second business flamed out too.
So Hershey started a third business. A third business, making toffee. This time, it worked out. He cut some big deals, had some big success, and eventually sold it. Which is the story of…The Lancaster Caramel Company.
Seriously, he still hadn’t started Hershey’s Chocolates. In fact, he wouldn’t start that company, the one that he’s known for to this day, until 1900. 24 years after he first became an entrepreneur.
That was 24 years of trying a bunch of things, and learning, and failing, and flailing and getting the hell back on his feet.
Milton Hershey didn’t have a sudden breakthrough moment. He had a series of attempts to apply what he had learned. And believe me, Hershey’s story is way more realistic than Isaac Newton’s.
That quote I started with? That’s one of Hershey’s. And it’s great. Here it is again:
“My experience has shown me that the people who are exceptionally good in business aren’t so because of what they know, but because of their insatiable need to know more.”
Hershey understood that it was about constantly moving forward, learning, growing, trying and giving it your best. It wasn’t about reaching a single moment of instant success.
Read more about Hershey…
Milton S. Hershey
With little formal education and having gone bankrupt twice before he was 30, Milton S. Hershey didn’t exactly start…
Your success is going to look a lot closer to Milton’s.
If you’re an entrepreneur, whether that means being a freelancer or a small business owner or a tech founder, you aren’t going to suddenly achieve massive success out of nowhere when you have a big breakthrough moment. It’s way more likely that you will work your ass off for years before anything big happens. That’s okay.
If you don’t have a breakthrough moment, you’re not a failure.
If you never feel that touch of divine inspiration that makes everything just happen, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you aren’t going to make it. You could go and build a better Microsoft Word instead of being hit with an idea about the future of mankind, and I’d still respect you.
In early 2008, I started my first business. I was 19, and I founded a music management company that would eventually fail and fall apart. That was the background to my first foray into small business. And looking back on it, a small part of me wants to give it some kind of break through moment.
That would feel good, to me. It would feel good to be able to pinpoint it as a big scene in a movie where I’m played by Jonah Hill (my celebrity lookalike), instead of a mundane example of total fucking failure in my real life.
But the fact is, my first company — whose Myspace page is probably still active somewhere — wasn’t a massive breakthrough for me. It was an opportunity to do a lot of things wrong, and learn a lot of hard lessons, and then go on to apply them in totally the wrong way.
It was a part of a pretty long process on my way to being who I am now, and doing what I do now.
The breakthrough myth doesn’t tell my story, and it doesn’t tell Milton Hershey’s story, and if you read between the lines and did some research, it wouldn’t tell Marie Curie, Barrack Obama or Nikola Tesla’s story either.
The breakthrough myth is neat, and it’s nice, and it sounds great. It lets you put everything into nice neat boxes and scripts and narratives, but it’s not a representation of what life is actually like.
- Don’t expect any massive overnight success. It won’t happen.
- It may take years before you reach any kind of breakthrough.
- Neat narratives may make good books, but they don’t make real lives.
- Every story you’ve heard about Isaac Newton is probably a lie.
Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, designer and creative director. She is the founder of branding and advertising firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.
Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack, and the author of the book #DIY, a manifesto for indie creativity.