In the course of writing Will together, I ended up spending dozens of hours with Will Smith, both observing him while he worked and in private conversations.
Aside from sharing great content for the book, he said a number of things that influenced me personally. I’ve included three of them below.
“The Trick Is, You Bite Off More Than You Can Chew… Then You Chew It.”
In 2018, I was writing three books at the same time: my book, Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope; the Audible original, Love Is Not Enough; and doing research and interviews for Will’s book, Will.
It was 12-hour days, every day, for about nine months straight. I was a mess.
In the 90s, Will used to simultaneously do a film, an album, and a TV show, every year, for six straight years. So one day I asked him, “How the hell did you do it? I’m doing three books and I feel like I’m about to die over here. How’d you keep it up for so long? I feel like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew here”
He smiled and said, “The trick is: you bite off more than you can chew… and then you still chew it. Your mind always believes it can do less than it actually can. It will tell you it’s too much, to stop, to take a break, to cancel this or that. But your mind will lie to you to keep you small.”
Today, all three books are out and successful. And I feel as though I can chew more than ever before.
“There’s No Such Thing as ‘Just Business,’ Everything Is Personal.”
If you ever spend enough time with Will, eventually you will hear him go on a rant about people saying, “It’s just business.” Nothing is “just business,” he would yell. “There’s no such thing. Everything is personal.”
That employee you’re letting go has a family, has friends, has insecurities, and an identity that you’re disrupting. That film script you’re passing on has years of someone’s hopes and dreams attached to it. That friend you’re too busy to call back is relying on you, they care about you.
Will’s point wasn’t that you should say yes to everything. His point is that if you must say no to someone, say it with dignity and respect. Even if you’re about to crush someone’s dreams, you can do it in a way that still honors those dreams. Denial should be accompanied with empathy and generosity, not cold detachment. Because it’s never “just business.” It’s always personal.
“For Me, It’s Not Actually Winning Unless People Are Happy That I Am Winning.”
In show business and entertainment, there are countless ways to screw people over, to trash someone’s reputation or steal their ideas. Many people succumb to the temptation to do these things to get ahead.
In my own career, it’s quite easy to get ahead by just shitting on whatever popular viral thing is going on. In fact, most online media has optimized their business model around this: getting ahead by tearing others down. The result is a toxic cultural environment where nobody likes or trusts anybody else.
But by Will’s definition of success, none of these companies or influencers are truly successful. Sure, they’re “successful,” but the rest of the world resents their success, therefore they are not destined to be there long.
Instead, Will redefined success for himself as winning in such a way that others are satisfied with his success. This implies not only excellence but also magnanimity. It’s like when opposing crowds would give Michael Jordan standing ovations. Or when fellow golfers would congratulate Tiger Woods on his shots. Or, you know, when conceding politicians used to say nice things about their opponents.
It’s a standard of success and excellence that’s been widely lost and, I daresay, we need back.