When he was 21, Will Smith was going to move to Los Angeles. He was from West Philadelphia born and raised, on the playground was where he spent most of his days. (I just made you sing.) His manager, James Lassiter, told him, "Listen, if we're going out to L.A., we probably should have a goal." The transition from rapper to actor would not happen by accident and Lassiter knew if they went to LA without a goal that city would eat Will Smith alive. "I want to be the biggest movie star in the world," Smith replied. That sentence in and of itself isn't that unique. A thousand people riding buses from the Midwest out to Hollywood say that same thing every week. But what he did next radically changed his life and it's a simple principle you can use to change your life, too. I call it, "Borrowing someone else's diploma" and I'll explain how to do it in this episode.
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Hey, everyone, and welcome to the All It Takes Is A Goal podcast. I’m your host, Jon Acuff, and I love goals. Why? Because a goal is the fastest path between where you are today, and where you want to be tomorrow. And best of all, finishing a goal feels amazing! You will never forget the first time you sign a copy of a book you wrote. You will never forget what it felt like to pay off your house. You will never forget the first time your small business posts a profit. That’s why restaurants have their first dollar framed behind the cash register. It’s not about the amount of money, it’s not. It’s what that money means. It means they did it, they finished. That’s the best feeling in the world. And I want that feeling for you. I want you to have that moment, I want to help you cross the finish line of whatever goal you care about. Because the future belongs to the finishers. That’s why I’m doing this podcast.
In today’s episode, I’m going to teach you a technique that I call “borrowing someone else’s diploma.” One of the things that fear does, one of its main goals at the beginning of a new adventure, at the beginning of a new goal, is to try to isolate you. You see, it’s easier to get you to believe lies and get you stuck on the starting line when you don’t have a community that’s telling you the truth. In order to separate you from the herd, to pull you from your friends, fear will tell you a very popular lie. And that lie is you have to do it all on your own. You have to do every part of this goal on your own. You can’t ask for help. You just have to do it. You’re a one-man wolf pack. It’s all on you. This always reminds me of toddlers, they’d rather fall down a flight of stairs than hold your hand because they want to do it “all by my big self.” We become adult toddlers when we refuse help from people.
And believe the lie that seeking assistance is a sign of weakness. Sometimes we’ve learned that from the people we work with. A friend of mine is a chef and he told me that he used to have a chef he reported to when he was coming up in his career. And he was looking at a book one day back in the kitchen and his chef walked in, grabbed the book, and threw it into the garbage and said, “We don’t read recipe books. We don’t learn from other people. We create on our own.” And that’s a ridiculous thing to do. But it taught my friend, “Okay, I better I better do this all on my own. I guess I just have to create things. I can never learn from anybody else. I can never ask for help.” It doesn’t have to be that way though. My friend and author Jessica Turner knows the power of learning from other people. When she was going to do a webinar for a sales team that I had done a webinar for, she called me and interviewed me. I’d learned a lot and made some mistakes. For instance, if you want people to show up at your webinar, you have to email them twice on the day of. Three hours before and then five minutes before it starts. Those are the two times. Three hours before and then five minutes before it starts. How did I know that? I didn’t, until I learned it from Lewis Howes. I learned that technique from him. I tried it and it dramatically increased attendance at the next webinar I did. I passed that on to Jessica. If you don’t have any information of your own, someone else does and will give it to you if you ask the right way. That’s the beauty of the internet. Someone has already done that thing you’re attempting to do. And best of all, they’ve usually done it publicly and left some pretty clear steps if you’ll just look hard enough. I call this borrowing someone else’s diploma. Where does it say that you have to be the one who has the experience to learn from the experience? It’s taken me 13 years to build a career as an author and a public speaker.
When I coach someone who wants to do that too, I tell them everything I’ve learned because I don’t want it to take them 13 years too. I share my diploma. This isn’t a particularly new technique either. Rapper and actor Will Smith did this decades ago. I told this story in my book Finish and sometimes I tell it to groups of leaders I speak to. One time in the middle of a speech, instead of saying “Rapper and actor Will Smith,” I combined them and said, “Raptor Will Smith.” And that’s, that’s honestly a hard thing to recover from onstage because suddenly everyone in the audience is thinking about Will Smith running around with these tiny little dinosaur arms. “Life finds a way.” Will Smith’s approach to borrowing someone else’s diploma probably started with the IRS. When he was 19 years old, the IRS asked Will Smith for $2.8 million. I don’t know if that’s done via a phone call, a letter, maybe like a reverse Ed McMahon big check with balloons, but that’s definitely a frightening day for a teenager. It wasn’t a donation they were looking for, but back taxes. Now Smith didn’t come from money. His divorced parents were middle class. His dad worked seven days a week to run a refrigerator company and his mother was employed by the school board. A run in with the IRS would have crippled most people. But Smith started gathering new information in the midst of that season.
Two years later, as he got ready to move to LA from West Philadelphia, born and raised, on the on the playground was where he spent most of his days, his manager James Lassiter approached him and said, “Listen, if we’re going out to LA, we probably should have a goal.” That was what he said to him. That’s a direct quote. “Listen, if we’re going out to LA, we probably should have a goal.” The transition from rapper to actor would not happen by accident and Lassiter knew that if they went to LA, without a goal, that city would eat Will Smith alive. So Will Smith said back to him, “I want to be the biggest movie star in the world.” That sentence in and of itself isn’t that unique. 1000 people riding buses from the Midwest out to Hollywood say that every week. Smith also had very little evidence that it would work. He wasn’t a blockbuster actor yet. He was a 21 year old rapper whose biggest hit at the time had been a PG-flavored rap called “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” The goal wasn’t unique, and there weren’t a lot of reasons that it should have worked. But Lassiter, his manager, realized something brilliant. Here’s what he realized, someone had attempted this goal before. They knew they weren’t the first people to try to be big stars in Hollywood. 1000s of people had already accomplished that goal. What if all those trailblazers before Will Smith actually left a trail? Wouldn’t that goal be easier to accomplish if you could follow a trail of someone who has already done it? Of course it would! Which is why Will Smith and his manager studied the top 10 highest grossing films of all time. Why the top 10 highest grossing films? Because if you want to be the biggest movie star, you have to be in high-grossing films.
You can do some in between indie films, but you have to be in big blockbusters. So they studied and Will Smith said they studied it with a specific question. Will Smith said, “We looked at the movies and said ‘okay, what are the patterns? ‘”They went through the data and they looked for a pattern. And here’s what they found. Will Smith said, “We realized that 10 out of 10 had special effects. Nine out of 10 had special effects with creatures, eight out of 10 had special effects with creatures and a love story.” That’s crazy. And it bears repeating. 10 out of 10 of the highest grossing films of all time, had special effects. Nine out of 10 of the highest grossing films of all time had special effects with creatures. Eight out of 10 of the highest grossing films of all time had special effects with creatures and a love story. But that, that seems too simple to work, right? There’s no way you can plan a 25 year film career in the ficklest industry in the world with a top 10 list that everyone has access to. Think about how hard it is to predict results in Hollywood. There was a movie once that had Han Solo in it, Harrison Ford. It had James Bond in it, Daniel Craig. It was directed by Jon Favreau, fresh off of Iron Man. It was produced by Ron Howard, fresh off of everything. On paper, it looked perfect. That movie made $11 million. Not, not in the first weekend. Not in the first week. It grossed $11 million and was a monumental failure. It was called Cowboys and Aliens, maybe saw it. Contrast that movie with Smokey and the Bandit. Smokey and the Bandit barely had a script. They ad-libbed most of the film. Burt Reynolds would just show up on set and be like, “I got a moustache start filming! Whoo hoo!” It was directed by a stunt man who had never directed a film before. How do you even make that career transition? Someone comes up to you and goes, “Hey, You’re amazing at jumping cars have a piles of dirt. You wanna, You want to direct the whole movie?”
The plot was terrible. Here’s the plot, Bandit and Cledus must drive from Georgia to Texarkana, Texas, with an illegal shipment of Coors beer. That’s not a movie. That’s a UPS route. When asked about the movie, Sally Field said, and I quote, “I thought it was the end of everything I had worked so hard to achieve.” She thought the movie was going to be the end of her career. That it was going to ruin her career. That movie should have been a colossal failure. Instead though, it made $300 million and the year it came out. It was the number one movie except for one other movie you might have heard of called Star Wars. You can’t predict Hollywood. You can’t! Especially with a formula as simple as Will Smith’s “special effects, creatures, love story.” You need something more complex and sophisticated. Do you know why we like complex solutions? When it comes to our goals, do you know why we like them? Because then we don’t have to do them. If someone wants to lose a few pounds, and I say, “Okay, ready? Four words. Eat less, move more.” They often push back, “No, no, no, no, no, that’s too simple. It needs involve beets, like, which tastes like hot dirt. And Pure Barre and a complicated system of biking and an app that tracks how often I blink.” Blink blink blink. We like complicated solutions because then when it doesn’t work, we can blame the system instead of ourselves. Will Smith’s system was not sophisticated enough. Or so we think until we see the list of Will Smith’s six most successful movies. Here’s what they are. Number one, Independence Day. Special effects, creatures, love story. That one grossed $817 million worldwide. Number two, Suicide Squad. Special effects, creatures, love story. $746 million worldwide. Handcock. Special effects. $624 million worldwide. Number four, Men in Black. Men in Black 3, actually, it’s the third one. That had special effects, creatures, love story. $624 million worldwide. Number five, Men in Black. Special effects, creatures, love story. $589 million worldwide. Number six, I Am Legend. Special effects, creatures, love story, if you count the dog. $585 million lifetime gross. Does doing this guarantee success? Nope. Wild Wild West was a wild wild bust. But in most goals, it’s not about winning all the time. It’s about winning more than you lose. We’re not aiming for perfection. All you have to do is win more today than you did yesterday and then repeat the whole thing tomorrow. If six of the 23 movies you star in make nearly $4 billion, guess what? You get to make more movies for a very long time, even if some of them flop. Want to start a goal and increase your odds of it actually working?
Don’t overthink it. Find someone with an amazing diploma, and then borrow it. That’s one approach to learning something new. You find someone awesome and see what they did. The flip side though, can be equally helpful. I think it’s great sometimes to find someone who sucks at the thing you’re attempting to do, so that you can realize you can probably do it too. That’s why I tried comedy in 2018. I’d been telling people for years that I was going to do a comedy show, like a full real comedy show in a comedy club. But deep down, I was terrified of it. I always communicate with humor in my corporate speaking, but pure comedy felt like a completely different animal. It was far easier to talk about it than to actually do it. But then one night, I went to see one of the most successful comedians in the world. He was doing a show at a huge auditorium that probably seated 2000, maybe 2500 people. Before he came on, he had an opening act. And the opening act was not funny. I don’t know if that’s on purpose or not. Like maybe if you’re a comedian, you want to have a mildly funny opening act, but not a hilarious opening act. Chris Rock actually talked about that in an interview he did with Judd Apatow and Vanity Fair. He said, “The low point in my career happened about a year after I was off of Saturday Night Live. I was cocky. Even though all the evidence said I wasn’t a star I thought I was. I drove a red Corvette. I kept my shades on indoors. Anyway, I had a gig in Chicago where I was the headliner. At every gig there would be some opening act that would try to make noise, but by the time I was on stage, people had forgotten them. One night in Chicago as usual, I was the headliner. And on this night, my opening act was an up and coming comic. Now normally I never used to watch the opening acts, but I was in my dressing room and I heard outroar. I got up to see what was going on. I thought it was a fight or something. So I got up and I went to the side of the stage. When I got there, I realized that wasn’t a fight. It was people laughing so hard that the building was shaking. People were crying, standing, stomping their feet, screaming laughter, ” and then Chris Rock says, “I was terrified.” That comic he was talking about was Martin Lawrence. That’s who was opening for him. And he had no idea and Martin Lawrence was absolutely killing it. So maybe that’s just part of comedy.
The opening act is okay, but not amazing. That night though, as I sat in the dark theater watching this opening act, for the first time in my life I thought, “If that’s, if that’s what comedy is, I, I can do that.” That’s a powerful moment that happens a lot of different goals. Sometimes it’s a friend who gets in shape. Someone just like you who starts doing small, seemingly easy things over a period of time. And instead of seeing someone who seems to have a completely different life than you, someone unreachable, you think, “I, I can do that.” Sometimes it’s discouraging to me when people tell me, “Hey, you need to study Mr. Beast on YouTube, like, because he gets 72 million views in four minutes on his videos, and you need to study that.” And then I go and look at it and realize in the video, he gave away five Lamborghinis. And I currently have zero Lamborghinis. I think he creates amazing content. Don’t get me wrong, it’s just really hard for me to relate my tiny little YouTube channel with 200 views, where it’s just me sharing an idea, to what is the number one Youtuber in the world. I used to think about that all the time when people early on in the pandemic would say things like, “Ah, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet during a pandemic.” Yeah, he was also Shakespeare. He was also the greatest writer in the history of the English language. I don’t know if the pandemic is what is stopping me from being Shakespeare.
That’s a weird thing to compare yourself to the greatest in the world. So as you scan your life to learn from other people, don’t just borrow the diplomas of the best people in the world. Some days, that will be overwhelming. It’ll be discouraging. It’s not always encouraging to go compare yourself to someone that’s 10 years ahead of you in your field. Go to an open mic night. Order a product that’s like the one you’re trying to create. Take an online course in the field you’re trying to enter. Go to one session of Orange Theory in your town. Find a way to interact with people who are at your level or close to it. I promise you’ll have the same reaction I had that night in the auditorium. “Oh, I can. I can do that.” Find an open mic. And if you ever find yourself tempted to overthink anything in your life, check out my new book Soundtracks, you can pre-order a copy in the show notes.