Nowadays, it seems that success comes first, prison only later. But with true success, it works the other way around.

In the Torah portion of Vayeishev we read of Joseph’s exploits. Sold into slavery by his brothers, he winds up enslaved to Potiphar, “a prominent Egyptian” (Genesis 39:1). But Joseph is no ordinary slave; rather, his master quickly realizes “that G‑d is with him, and all that he would do, G‑d would make successful in his hand.” As a result, Potiphar “appointed him over his entire household.”

But trouble is brewing. Joseph, “handsome in form,” attracts the attention of his master’s wife. When Joseph rejects her advances, she sets him up, landing Joseph in prison. But it is not long before the new kid in the cell block has taken charge of the ward. “G‑d was with Joseph, and He endowed him with charm.” As a result, the warden appoints Joseph to run the prison, “and everything that was done there, he would do.”

A close reading of the differences of wording in the Torah’s descriptions of Joseph’s two successes—in Potiphar’s home and in prison—reveals the key to true and ultimate success.

Where G‑d has slated you for success, there are two possible paths along which you can tread. You can assume a mindset and perception that it is the hand of man that attains success, with the apparent support and assistance of G‑d. Or else, you can see the hand of G‑d as the source of your success, with human endeavor serving as a mere vehicle through which the divine blessing is channeled.

In his days as a slave, Joseph’s perception was that his success was achieved by his own hands—with G‑d’s help, of course. “All that he would do, G‑d would make successful in his hand.” As a prisoner, his perception changed—“G‑d was with Joseph, and He endowed him with charm.” There is no mention made of Joseph’s hands: his success is not of his own doing, but stems entirely from a supernal source.

The key to success in this world is to make place for G‑d’s blessing in your life. The less full of yourself you are, the more room you leave to be filled by the G‑dly presence and the bountiful blessings that come with it. Where a bloated ego fills your entire being, there's no room left for G‑d.

The experience of slavery afforded Joseph a healthy dose of humility. As his own self-regard shrunk, G‑d’s presence in his life only grew, and success came to his hand. Still, “his hand” was a dominant factor, though sufficiently hollowed to allow G‑d’s blessing to fill it.

When Joseph became a prisoner, he was utterly shattered. This further diminution of self paved the way for a more complete divine occupation of his being. Now his success was no longer limited to his own hands; it arrived from a source completely over his head.

This, then, is the jailhouse route to success. To bring yourself divine blessing and abundant success, a bit of jail time might be required. But perhaps Joseph’s is an extreme case. The rest of us can begin by placing our ego under lock and key.