Sometimes when I really want to depress myself I think of the deluge of epic failure that occurs in Los Angeles on a daily basis.
I conjure images of wanna-be screenwriters reading rejection emails, comedians (and I’ll use that term loosely) bombing at open mic nights, and countless actors checking and rechecking their phones for call-backs that will never come.
And that’s just the entertainment industry.
Like any other city there are applicants suffering through cringe-worthy job interviews, small business owners struggling to bring in customers, and artists painstakingly crafting works that will probably never see the light of day. But from all this failure, might something beautiful emerge?
What I’d like to do is offer a little bit of encouragement, and maybe some practical wisdom, on why dreaming big is still
a good the best idea and why choosing to stick with it may be one of the most important decisions you ever make.
In other words, if you moved to L.A. because you were set on pursuing your passion, but you’re experiencing some rough times along the way, this one’s for you.
I’m not saying there’s really anything new under the sun in the below points, but hey, a recapitulation of time-tested advice is something we could all use every now and again.
Now, about those dreams of yours…
1. The Possibility of Success
If success were easy…. *fill in the blank*
“Everyone would achieve it.”
“We’d all be rich.”
“No one would feel like a failure.”
Pick whatever cliched conclusion you want, but the reality is that everything that follows in this article requires work. Change results from action. And action, especially sustained action, is pretty damn difficult.
Economist Larry Miller has a talk where he basically says that there’s no way you’ll ever achieve your dreams, that you’re destined to live a life no better than mediocre… unless.
Unless… that’s the statement he leaves his audience with, held out there like a pair of legs dangling over the Grand Canyon.
The word is powerful and provocative and packed full of possibility. And it requires belief.
You have to start from a point of view that what you’re setting out to do is possible. Otherwise, you might as well throw in the towel right now.
But if you do believe, well, you’re already ahead of the game.
2. Goals Fuel Your Life
You probably have some vision of what you want your future to look like. It could be a line of patrons wrapping around the block to eat at your food truck. Maybe it’s as simple as seeing your name on the screen as the credits roll upon the end of a feature film. Whatever it is, make it something that inspires you.
American architect Daniel Burnham once said, “Make no small plans, for small plans have no magic to stir men’s hearts.”
It’s a pretty basic idea, the more you want something, the more you’re willing to do to get it. And the more grand the it is the more power it has to motivate. I mean, who wouldn’t want to jump out of bed every morning if they believed today was the day they’re going to make their biggest dream in the world come true?
The caveat is that you must have a carefully laid out, practical plan on how to get there. It’s the marriage of the dreamer and the doer.
A dream with a plan is a goal.
But without one?
That’s just a wish. And wishes rarely come true (more on goals later).
3. You Won’t Be Happy Doing Anything Else
There’s a reason you chose to pack your stuff up and move out west. There’s a reason you’re living in that cramped Koreatown apartment and you’re working two jobs and you’re dead tired at the end of your shifts but you push yourself to wake up at 6am the following morning and rinse and repeat day after mind-numbing day.
Robert Greene, author of Mastery, argues that passion and success are undeniably intertwined:
“…the difference between people who are successful and not are that those who are successful seemed to know from the age of 7 or 8, maybe older, they’re very in tune with what they love. I compare it to a voice inside their head, not literally a voice but something that says “you really are drawn to this subject” and they hear it throughout their lives.”
Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re automatically excellent at whatever it is you set out to do. It’s merely a statement of fact that you’ll be more willing to put the work in if the end goal revolves around something you’re truly passionate about.
But that’s the beauty of the journey, right?
Speaking of which…
4. What Matters is the Journey
Cervantes says, “The journey is better than the inn” and this valuation of walking the path over the end-result has been repeated ad nauseam in works of popular culture, self-help books, TED Talks, and pretty much everything in between.
At this point, I not sure anyone would argue that the attainment of a fleeting moment of success (recognition, arrival, achievement…) can outweigh the value of the moments it took to get there.
But the wisdom of the convention comes with two important caveats:
First, you have to know where you’re going. Are you wandering through the desert hoping a miracle will fall from the sky or are you locked in on a specific destination, unwavering in your focus of how to get there.
Second, you have to feel like you’re making progress. The absence of momentum is stillness. Make sure you’re always finding a way to move forward, no matter how small the step.
5. It’s Not Where You End Up, It’s What You Become
Ok, so appreciation of the journey is important, but why so?
Here’s more from Greene:
“What really allows for such dramatic changes are the things that occur on the inside of a person and are completely invisible. The slow accumulation of knowledge and skill. The incremental improvement in work habits and the ability to withstand criticism. Any change in people’s fortune is merely the visible manifestation of all of that deep preparation over time.”
To put it another way, success is a product of the kind of person you are, so if you want to succeed, you need to look inwards instead of lamenting the circumstances around you. And that kind of growth only comes from experience. From walking a path.
Ultimately, these internal changes are far more valuable than any accumulation of riches or power or fame or success. You can be stripped of power or have your bank balance depleted, but the reserves of personal growth that result from experience are life-lasting, and they will permeate every aspect of your existence.
Salvation, it seems to me, really does lie within.
6. You Have to Fail Before You Succeed
Mark Twain once quipped, “In order to succeed in life you need two things: ignorance and confidence.”
No one embodies this mindset more than American inventor Thomas Edison, who when asked about his early struggles once said, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
Another of my favorite examples of this kind of thinking is Stephen King.
As a teenager King submitted countless stories to editors and magazines in hopes of seeing his work in print. Week after week he’d send in submissions and week after week he’d receive rejection notices in the mail.
But the kid was not dissuaded. Instead he would eagerly scan each rejection letter looking for feedback. Notes on how to improve. Things he’d done wrong.
On some level, he craved the rejection if only so he could figure out ways to get better (and hopefully get the next story published). As a reminder to himself, he even pinned the letters to his wall, one over the next.
Over time the stack of rejections grew so thick that a pin would no longer suffice, so King opted for giant metal spike. He literally hammered the spike through the massive stack of papers, right into the wall!
It’s no surprise to me that the man who would become one of the most prolific writers in history is the same who hammered that spike. From an early age King knew something that it often takes others decades to figure out: You have to embrace failure in order to improve. It’s what Carol Dweck would call a growth mindset.
We’re all going to fail on our way to the top. In fact, if you’re not willing to fail (and fail a lot), chances are you’ll never make it.
I guess the question you have to ask for yourself is, how much are you willing to fail in order to succeed? And the answer to this question will vary dramatically depending on whether or not you can posit failure as an essential step towards improvement, or just a reason to give up.
7. Grit Will Carry You Through
Talent? IQ? Skill-sets? You’d think one of these might the biggest reason that most people succeed, but recent data suggests it’s something more along the lines of our ability to cope with difficulty and persevere through challenges.
This point is underlined by the research compiled by Angela Duckworth, which showed that the biggest predictor to success could be synthesized in something she termed simply as ‘grit’.
One study Duckworth conducted was at West Point, where her team tried to use grit to predict the dropout rate of incoming freshmen (quote per the N.Y. Times):
“Duckworth and her collaborators gave their grit test to more than 1,200 freshman cadets as they entered West Point and embarked on the grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks. The military has developed its own complex evaluation, called the Whole Candidate Score, to judge incoming cadets and predict which of them will survive the demands of West Point; it includes academic grades, a gauge of physical fitness and a Leadership Potential Score. But at the end of Beast Barracks, the more accurate predictor of which cadets persisted and which ones dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s 12-item grit questionnaire.”
To me, the best thing about grit is that it can be cultivated. Discipline can be learned. Habits can be changed. Our brains exist in a dynamic state. They are malleable.
When the going gets tough, the tough get gritty.
So What’s Next…
There is certainly a lot to unpack from the points I made above, but if you want to take some of the ideas I mentioned and put them into action, I’d humbly suggest the following four things as the lynchpins of your process:
1. Know exactly what you want (a goal).
Make it specific. Make it time bounded. Make it epic enough to motivate the hell out of you.
2. Write things down.
Writing things out clarifies ideas, and forces you to think critically about what you want to do.
3. Have the discipline to follow through.
See paragraph on grit written above.
4. Focus on the next step.
All that’s under your control in this present moment is what you’re doing next. Focus on doing the very next task to the peak of your abilities. Then repeat that process until your mission is completed.
So You Don’t Actually Have a Goal or a Plan…
If have something you’re really passionate about, but you can’t clearly articulate your goal or don’t know your next step then you probably need to backtrack and identify what it is that you want and how you plan to get there.
Personal development gurus and productivity experts all use some form of same goal setting exercises to help you hone in on creating this sort of game-plan. Here’s a version that’s worked for me in the past:
First, write down a list 20 goals you’d like to achieve over the next couple years of your life. Don’t be practical here. Think about the things that you really want. The vision of success that
Look at that list. Stare at that thing. Try to pair it down to just three that you’d really want to achieve. And once you’re down to your top three, pair it down again to just a single goal that you’d really like to accomplish in the next year or two.
Next, write down 20 concrete, actionable things you can do that would push you towards achieving that one goal.
Take a class. Read a book. Attend a seminar. Learn a skill. Form a relationship. Solicit feedback. By the time you get to 20 you’ll surprise yourself about a) how hard it was to come up with that many items on your list and b) how many things you hadn’t even thought of before that will probably greatly expedite your journey towards your goal.
You will probably find that some of the 20 actions probably required their own list of sub-actions.
So it goes.
Just keep breaking things down into smaller and smaller steps until you have what looks like a plan. It may just be the most important plan you ever create in your life.
Ultimately, every person is the captain of their own ship, the master of their own fate. Our futures are written beat by beat through single actions in present moments. So at the end of your life, sitting on your death bed many (hopefully) years from now, what story will you want to tell about the life that you lived?
Through the contents of this post I’ve argued you shouldn’t give up on your dreams most precisely because the reality is you have far more control over your destiny than you give yourself credit for.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It takes fortitude, forethought, discipline, failure, improvement, and yes, grit.
I guess if I had to summarize what I’m advocating above, it would be this: Don’t follow your passion, instead follow your plan.
Just make sure that your plan is rooted in something you love, that you’re fully prepared and invested to follow through on it, fail when necessary, and grow to become the person you need to be in order to achieve what you set out to do.
The only thing left now is a single question:
What are you waiting for?
What have been some of your experiences with success or failure in the city of angels? Let us know in the comments below.