Will Smith rocked the house at LPL Financial’s national conference this week.
He didn’t sing, but the rap artist, TV star and blockbuster actor shared the inspirational story of his upbringing and his recipe for success, as well as personal satisfaction, with a crowd of 3,500 advisors and their staffers (and more than 2,500 other guests) at the firm’s annual conference on Tuesday.
“There’s nothing like having a hit record when you are a senior in high school,” Smith joked at the beginning of his interview, which was conducted by Lisa Hughes, a Boston-based TV anchor, and highlighted his 30 years as an entertainer.
Play to Your Strengths
“I was always the kid doing a pose and looking at the camera,” said the superstar.
But it took encouragement to help him make the switch from being rapper The Fresh Prince to doing the TV show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
“Quincy Jones, my mentor, told me to keep going, and so I gave it a shot with the show for six years,” Smith said. (Jones wrote the music for the popular show’s theme song; Smith wrote the lyrics.)
“We used improvisation for the scenes. I had freedom and was comfortable, so I did the dumbest things I could come up with — and they put it on TV!” the actor explained.
The Big Picture on Performance
Hollywood has been good to Smith and vice versa — with his films bringing in some $7 billion.
While the “Men in Black” series has been a big slam-dunk, the actor says he is not always sure of how his films will turn out.
“I’ve learned to not be concerned with the outcome, but focused on the creation and art of it,” he said.
For instance, when he was first asked about playing the star role of Muhammad Ali in a movie, “I said ‘hell no’ at first,” Smith said.
Slowly but surely he worked with Ali to improve his performance and understanding of the boxer. “Mentorship has been so important in my life,” he said.
Your Legacy Is All About Character
“I was a pallbearer at Ali’s funeral in Louisville, Kentucky, [in June] and we went through the whole city. Nobody was sad. Everyone was celebrating his life,” Smith explained, “because he lived such an incredible life, and thus in the end it was joyous. This has been such a revelation for me.”
The experience caused him to ask himself if he should make adjustments in his own life, so that he can be remembered in such an uplifting way.
“It was beautiful,” Smith said about the June 9 service, which included leaders of many different religious faiths.
“It covered the full, complete rainbow of humanity and spirituality. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life — a totally inclusive and spectacular event.” Success, No Regrets
When asked if he’d had any standout “learning moments,” the actor replied: “I have done tons of stuff I probably should not have done, but I do not have regrets.”
As he learned from his father, who ran an ice business in Philadelphia, “Fail early, fail often and fail forward,” Smith said.
Failure is “not bad,” he explains. “Nobody succeeds their way to the top. You fail your way to the top.”
Doing comedy taught him the value of this humbling approach, Smith explains: “You do it, and you are not funny a lot. Maybe, six out of 10 times you are very good. It’s training in comfort.”
It’s All About the Effort
In a book written about the superstar, Smith explained, “I will outwork everyone.”
He takes this approach, he says, “because I want to be the best.”
This goal was passed down to him from father, Willard Smith, who had trained as a refrigeration engineer and ran a family ice business. “A strong work ethic was hugely important to him,” he son explained, “though selling ice in Philly in the winter didn’t work out so well.”
When his father had a brick wall torn down at the plant and asked his children to rebuild it “one brick at a time, I did not think we could.”
But Smith helped mix the concrete and lay the bricks, even while he was in school. “Don’t every tell me there is something you can’t do,” his dad said when they had finished.
“So, I lay one brick perfectly today and another tomorrow. Then, you are going to have a wall!” Smith explained. “I got really comfortable having perfect brick moments, and then when you string them together and look back, I know I will have a career.”
Perils of Stardom
Smith has quite the “brand” in Hollywood. In fact, he is considered to be the only actor to have had eight consecutive films that brought in $100 million in the U.S. box office, 11 that drew over $150 million worldwide and eight in which he starred that opened in top spot in the domestic box office.
“This record means you are very marketable, but doesn’t that create pressure?” Hughes asked him at LPL Focus 2016.
“Never let success go to your head, and never let failures go to your heart,” said Smith, explaining that he learned that lesson from one of his co-stars from “The Fresh Prince.”
“All we have is the ability to do hard work, grind, study and understand what is happening — and then surf [and enjoy] what is happening,” he explained. People First
Through his 30 years in the entertainment business, Smith says his mission statement has “not been about making money or being number one, but the missions was to improve lives, as my grandmother and the Baptist Church taught me. It’s all about service, so for instance, I do not make commercials for alcoholic beverages.”
His value system comes down to asking the question, “Does it improve lives? That’s my north star, and it is the only mission statement that sustains vs. hitting quarterly numbers. Yes, I want to do that, too, with the goal of making everyone’s lives better.”
At the LPL event, Smith said he was speaking with the United Nations about taking on a humanitarian role.
Just as financial advisors have to separate themselves from how the stock market or their portfolios perform, movie stars have to separate themselves from how their films do.
“It’s excruciating,” Smith said. “Financial success does not equal self-worth.”
“Technology is forcing transparency … and honesty – it’s forcing you to be who you should be anyway,” Smith explained, joking that there is “no more cheating” in relationships due to media coverage of any move you make.
“It’s forced us to evolve in a way that is painful and actually beautiful,” he said.
“Racism is not getting worse, but it is getting filmed. Truth is on the table,” the actor stated.
Truth can be painful and entail “dark periods when it’s out there on the table,” but that is “the dark before the dawn,” he explained.
Just like with his own marriage counseling, Smith said, “Politics means getting things on the table, having them understood and then getting through the dark times. Facing the truth is, when you look back, what happens in life to [get] you where you are today.”
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