Career & Jobs

Will Smith’s Memoir Challenges Us To Reconsider What Real Success Looks Like

Most of us will never get a glimpse into the private lives of uber wealthy successful individuals—their path to success, insecurities, triumphs, mishaps and vulnerabilities, but that’s precisely what veteran actor and mega-entertainer Will Smith serves up in his refreshingly revealing new self-titled memoir. Instead of offering an endless stream of advice based on years of enviable “success,” the memoir instead lays out his path to extraordinary professional achievement, then offers the reader a front row seat as he seemingly questions some of his core philosophies, values and ultimately his definition of “success.” While many may view Will Smith’s journey and struggles as not terribly relatable, in many ways the essence of his internal struggle and lingering questions mirror the burning core question that many professionals face—what does success look like, really? At the end of the book, he hasn’t figured it all out. Instead, he’s focusing more time and energy on turning inward to question some of his long-held beliefs and maxims—99% is the same as zero, one must either achieve the goal or die, etc.—and soberly consider the significant costs of his success, arguably ignored or minimized during his ascent.

One of the pivotal scenes in the book comes during his early acting success when his manager presses him to clarify his ultimate professional goal. With little hesitation, he responds that he wants to be the biggest movie star in the world. Likewise, many early career professionals reflexively espouse similarly lofty goals—to be the CEO, be #1 in my industry, become the most decorated athlete in my field, make head partner, etc. While ambition is certainly an admirable quality, it can also be reckless. It can be reckless when it’s not measured and thoughtful and instead largely blind to the very real risks and costs that may accompany said goal.

Opportunity cost is an important economic concept. It’s defined as the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. In non-financial terms it can be viewed as what you’re giving up when you make a particular choice or all the things you won’t be able to do because you’re choosing to do x. While most of the book recounts his ability to turn his undeniable talent, skill and fortitude into dizzying levels of success, achievement and reverence in his field, the latter years seem to reflect on much of the collateral damage inflicted along the way—arguably, the seemingly overlooked opportunity costs.

I have to admit that when he announces to his manager that he wants to be the biggest movie star in the world, it felt ridiculously naïve to me (as someone who has trained leaders and teams for decades). It felt both surprising and naïve first because it seems unattainable (although clearly not as his track record attests). But mostly, my initial thought was “Why in the world would you want to do that? Don’t you know how horrible their lives typically are?” Most of the super famous stars I thought of typically lived lives marked by seclusion, tragedy, highly-publicized family and personal problems (while mid-level stars seemed to reap the benefits of stardom while avoiding the notorious downside).

Arguably, the most insightful question may not have been “What do you want?” but instead, “Why do you want it?” Indeed, many professionals are quick to respond to the “What do you want?” question with what feels like an obligatory CEO-like goal instead of taking the time to gingerly, strategically consider a range of options, landing on the one that offers the optimal benefit/cost outcome. Yes, while it may sound sexy to proclaim a desire to be #1 in a culture that too often insists “second place is for losers,” the truth is that for many professionals the absolute top spot most likely isn’t the best fit (for them or the organization) so why waste energy on a phantom goal?

To resist the reflexive, somewhat naïve “be the best” response and instead identify a more thoughtful career goal, consider these questions:

·      How are you uniquely gifted and which roles are a natural fit for those skills?

·      What are some of your inherent weaknesses and which roles best accommodate them?

·      What role would you pursue if you weren’t scared?

·      What are your personal values and passions? Which industries or roles best accommodate those?

·      What is required to achieve that goal/role?

·      What are the likely risks and costs associated with achieving that role/goal?

·      What types of lifestyle tradeoffs would likely be necessary to achieve that goal?

·      Why do you want to achieve that role/goal?

·      What would you do if money weren’t a consideration?

Clearly, as we determine our life’s aspiration, we shouldn’t settle or sell ourselves short. It’s important to be ambitious and determined, and rarely can we sense our full potential during the early years. As the McArthur Genius Fellow Angela Duckworth reminds us in her New York Times bestseller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, the ability to push towards a goal is undeniably a key element of success. But, it’s arguably just as important to remember that moderation, balance and perspective can offer a more holistic sense of achievement. Virtually no quality—no matter how admirable or “good” it may seem on the surface—pushed to the extreme doesn’t have negative unintended consequences. After all, water may be the healthiest drink on the planet, but if you drink too much, it’ll kill you. Ultimately, moderation and modulation really are the keys to true success. While the ability to continue to push along a specific trajectory is critically important, it’s also important to know when to unlearn, relearn and even change course as organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s New York Times bestseller Think Again asserts.

It’s exceptionally rare to find a leader (much less a celebrity) who has achieved unparalleled success but yet possesses the humility and introspection to bravely share their own trauma, inadequacies and imperfections. Clearly, Smith shares such a revealing account of his own life not simply for his own cathartic cleansing but as a gift for the rest of us—struggling with the same fundamental question: How do I reach the highest levels of success without sacrificing what matters most?

Will is not just a gift for the reader but an absolutely entertaining treat as well (particularly if you’re a 90s hip-hop aficionado). It’s filled with laugh out loud, nostalgic references alongside poignant, powerful, relatable life and career lessons. (For a real treat, listen to the audio book—Smith’s impressions highlight his comedic genius.) While we often think of leaders as successful, powerful….and oftentimes rich, Smith reminds us that the best leaders are really vulnerable, relatable and teachable. True to form, Smith’s memoir doesn’t close with edicts for us to follow but instead with an illumination of key questions that he’s still trying to answer.

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