Will Smith rocked the house at LPL Financial’s recent national conference.
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.
“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. Smith proceeded to share highlights from 30 years as an entertainer. “I was always the kid doing a pose and looking at the camera.”
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!”
Count your blessings
The actor’s films have grossed some $7 billion.
While the “Men in Black” series was a big slam-dunk, the actor says he is not always sure 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.” Then Smith worked with the boxing great to improve his performance and understanding of the man. “Mentorship has been so important in my life,” Smith said.
“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 recalled, “because he lived such an incredible life, and thus in the end it was joyous. This has been such a revelation for me.”
Your character is your legacy
The experience caused Smith to ask himself if he should make adjustments in his own life.
“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.”
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. “Nobody succeeds their way to the top. You fail your way to the top.”
Doing comedy, Smith added, helped him develop humility. “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,” he said.
Smith’s voracious work ethic has been well documented. 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.”
The edler Smith passed that value on to his kids, sometimes through tough childhood lessons.
Once, after the elder Smith had a brick wall torn down at the ice plant, he asked his children to rebuild it “one brick at a time.”
“I did not think we could” do it, the actor recalled. His father’s response: “Don’t ever tell me there is something you can’t do.”
“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.”
Adjusting to the spotlight
Smith has become quite the Hollywood “brand.” Consider this: He is thought to be the only actor to have had eight consecutive films that earned $100 million at the box office, and 11 that drew over $150 million worldwide. He also has starred in 8 films that smashed box office records when they opened.
“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 failure go to your heart,” said Smith. 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.
Put 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 mission 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.”
It follows that Smith has been speaking with United Nations officials about taking on an international 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 demands transparency
“Technology is forcing transparency… and honesty,” Smith said. “It’s forcing you to be who you should be anyway.”
Smith jokes about life in the proverbial fishbowl. There’s “no more cheating” in relationships, he said, due to the intensity of his media following.
What’s more, technology has “forced us to evolve in a way that is painful and actually beautiful.”
“Truth is on the table,” Smith said. “Racism is not getting worse, but it is getting filmed.”
Truth can be painful and entail “dark periods.” But as they say, it’s always darked “before the dawn,” Smith said.
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