I recently finished reading Will Smith’s memoir, Will, and marveled at his life journey going from self-described “fearful child” in West Philadelphia to the biggest celebrity in the world. Oprah Winfrey called the book, “The best memoir I’ve ever read,” and it’s an amazing story of personal transformation and the power of perseverance.
Smith has lived over 30 years in the public eye so there is plenty to google about his family and personal life, not to mention the incident at the 2022 Academy Awards.
However—from a personal development perspective—as the adage goes, “success leaves clues.” So for anyone interested in a tiny slice of Smith’s success the book is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at his focused effort to achieve the impossible: Reaching the pinnacle in the three mediums of music, TV and film.
Here are some of the key takeaways that particularly resonated with me:
1—Decide what you want. In every movie, the desire of the characters is what drives the story forward. The hero wants one thing and the villain wants another and the resulting conflict is why we buy the ticket with a large popcorn and a Coke. We can relate to these characters regardless of whether they are fictionalized pirates or space explorers because we inherently understand the power of desire. Since we’re all characters in our own real-life movies the same logic applies to our lives.
According to Smith, clarity of mission is a powerful cornerstone of success and once you go all in on a goal things tend to conspire in your favor. “Knowing what you want gives direction to your life, every action you take, what you eat, how you sleep, who you associate with and what you consume can all be corralled and launched toward your wildest dreams,” he says. Decide what you really want and start cutting things out of your life that are distracting you from your objective.
2—Set bold goals. Fresh off The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air TV show Smith’s manager asked him what he wanted to do next. Smith said he wanted to do what Eddie Murphy was doing on film and he wanted to make people feel how he felt the first time he saw Star Wars. Smith declared aloud, “I want to be the biggest movie star in the world.” Outrageous? of course. But you only get one life, why not think big? Allow yourself to dream about what your ideal life could look like, then write it down and make a plan. It really won’t manifest itself any other way.
3—Look for patterns. It’s easy to declare a big goal, so how do you make it happen? Smith describes how he and his manager, James Lassiter, examined the top ten biggest grossing films of all time and sought to reverse-engineer their success by looking for the similar attributes. He found these blockbusters had three things in common:
1. Creatures or aliens.
2. Special effects.
3. A romantic sub plot.
Dubbing his strategy the “Will Smith Cinematic Success Story” he sought out scripts that met this criteria and the approach kicked off a multi-billion-dollar box office run with movies including, Independence Day, Men in Black and I, Robot.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Look at the people who are successfully doing what you want to do and see where you can replicate that with your own unique angle. And remember there is always more than one route to get where you want to go.
4—Identify your superpower. Smith readily acknowledges he is not the most talented, best looking, best educated, or smartest person in a given room. So he makes it a point to leverage his key strength, that of always being the hardest working person in the room. “The only thing that I see that is distinctly different from me is that I will not be out-worked, period,” Smith has said in interviews throughout his career. “It’s such a simple, basic concept. The guy who is willing to hustle the most is going to be the one who gets that loose ball.”
If you aren’t getting where you want to be take an inventory and see if you are using your main superpower.
5—Commit to lifelong learning. When young Smith got his first acting gig in 1990’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air he walked on set with the swagger of a Grammy-winning rapper. But veteran actor James Avery quickly knocked him down to size telling him acting was a whole new skillset than music and Smith needed to “humble himself to the craft.” From reading books on success (such as The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho) to acting coaches and mentors to relationship and spiritual counseling Smith has moved forward through the decades by tapping the endless pool of of knowledge from others. “There’s no new problem that someone hasn’t already had and written about it in a book.”
No matter how old you are there is always more to learn and it’s never been easier. Reading, listening to podcasts, YouTube videos and networking opens up a world of endless learning opportunities never dreamt of in human history.
6—Cultivate your imagination. Smith relates how he marvels at commonplace things most of us take for granted, for example, how people “sit in an aluminum tube and fly thousands of miles through the air.” We have air travel because people executed on ideas born from their imaginations. Smith said that since childhood he could make his mind believe anything. “My imagination is usually a white-water rapids ride of possibilities and potential,” Smith writes. “My imagination is my gift, and when it merges with my work ethic I can make money rain from the heavens.” This might be trash talk if it wasn’t backed up by $20 million leading-man paydays.
Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge” and Smith is a serious proof point. One trick Smith uses is believing he can do anything—such as flying the space shuttle—if only he learns how it’s done and does whatever work is needed to get there. He applied that ethos to building successful careers in both music and acting.
What’s stopping you from believing that you can do what you want; why can’t you reinvent yourself? Expand your interests and keep an an open mind to new ideas or paths. Ask, “Why not?” more often. And tap into your inner child to find new creative outlets and draw, paint, write or make videos. If you don’t believe the sky’s the limit for your dreams then who will?
7—Commit to continuous self-improvement. Smith details his experiences with a therapist and how he daily sought to be a better version of himself. A man who is self-aware, self-reliant, self-motivated and self-confident. A man who knows who he is, what he wants and endeavors to use his gifts to serve others. The Will memoir is at it’s core a self-help book, and with Smith’s carefully curated image he has willingly assumed the role of global role model. And that high perch is easy to fall from. The situation with Chris Rock is not indicative of what Smith described in his book as his highest self. One particular line seems appropriately prescient: “Some of the most impactful lessons I’ve ever received, I’ve had to learn in spite of myself. I resisted them, I denied them, but ultimately the weight of their truth became unavoidable.”
The lesson here is not to let the fear of stumbling keep us from trying to be the best versions of our own selves; to maximize our talents, skills and abilities for the service of others. And we can learn from people—including Smith—from their best selves to their worst selves.
8—Don’t be overwhelmed by the big picture. One particularly useful tip is to approach projects with a mason’s mindset: “Stop thinking about the wall, there is no wall, there are only bricks. Your job is to lay this brick as perfectly as you can. Then move on to the next brick and lay that brick and then on to the next one.” As the mason focuses on laying each brick the wall takes care of itself. The lesson here is to break each project down into doable tasks and give each task your utmost focus.
“For my entire career, I have been absolutely relentless,” Smith writes. “And the secret to my success is as boring as it is unsurprising: you show up and you lay another brick. Bad opening weekend? Lay another brick. Album sales dropping? Lay another brick. Marriage failing? Lay another brick.”
It remains to be seen where he will place his next brick. But you need to focus on your own wall. As Paulo Coelho wrote in The Alchemist, “Realizing one’s destiny is one’s only obligation.”
The question is, what’s the next chapter in your future memoir?