We live in a society that is headed in a frightening direction. It is rapidly becoming a culture that shields our fragile egos from failure. The result is a society of people who applaud potential instead of results, and a mentality of “good enough” rather than “better than ever.”
Our hypersensitive society has created a mentality that can’t handle failure. Whether you’re first or last, we preach “Good try!” instead of “Work harder.” We do it with everything, and we do it in the worst ways possible, such as with our health. We coddle ourselves, and it’s the reason why so many people think it’s okay to be overweight and out of shape. Or why so many have rationalized their inability to exercise and eat in a healthy way. You fail once and then tell yourself that something better isn’t a possibility.
The reality? You’ve been taught to quit at failure. You don’t smell success, because there’s no incentive to push forward. There’s no hurt, pain, or disappointment when you fall short. For you to evolve, that must all change.
The problem is apparent everywhere. Look no further than today’s youth. Children play sports games where goals aren’t counted and everyone gets a trophy at the end. I’m all for providing a nurturing environment for children to grow up in. Heck, almost all of the charity organizations I work with are designed to provide better
lives for kids. But people need to be pushed—both externally and internally. That internal fire can never burn without some fuel, and that fuel can come in the form of disappointment, embarrassment, and even jealously. The poison, no doubt, is in the dose, as these traits are incredibly corrosive if held on to for extended periods of time, but if you can learn to convert them into positive actions, they can help you tremendously.
I benefitted from failure. I needed to feel it. I needed to sit in it. I needed to know what losing felt like, and I needed to get angry about it and never want to feel that way again. Without it, I would have been robbed of the lifeblood that has propelled me all these years later. It would have eliminated my opportunity to stand taller.
I hate failing, and, even worse, I hate admitting it. But at night, I can look at myself in the mirror and know that every time I did fail, it was the best thing for me. I got back up, devised a better plan of action, and went back with fire in my stomach for those who doubted me when I told them what I wanted to achieve, changes I desired to make, and who I wanted to become.
I issue that same challenge to you. I want you to look at your failures, embrace them, and immerse yourself in them. Then I want you to use that pain as fuel and set up this one seemingly simple goal: What can you change in a year?
I’m going to need you to accept nothing less than your best effort. You owe it to yourself to know, once and for all, how far you can go. I want you to look in that mirror and love what you see, inside and out. I want you to feel like you’ve earned your sleep at night.
All I ask is that you believe that what I’m telling you has worked for me and to do the footwork.
THE LONG, HARD ROAD OUT OF HELL
What do you see when you look at yourself?
It’s an honest question that I asked myself years ago. What you see now when you look at me did not occur by accident, and it wasn’t easy. My “instant” success was a twenty-year journey, and I want the path I took to inspire in you the confidence to rise up after you’re kicked in the face. Because as you’re about to learn, the most impressive people in the world are the ones who suffered from failure and learned how to respond.
After I played Flash Thompson in the movie Spider-Man in 2002, I ended up not acting for four years. How does this happen? The ins and outs of my fall from acting boil down to a vicious cycle caused by my drinking too much, smoking too much, and acting like I had won the lifetime lottery, because I’d had a role in a big movie. It began a downward spiral that resulted in my getting dumped off of my own personal elevator to hell, at the bottom floor.
One of my professors at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, Victoria Santa Cruz, used to say, “The moment you say ‘I did it!’ is the moment the devil walks in the door,” and that’s exactly what happened to me.
I spent several years in a blur and for the most part was unhireable. I had immense trouble finding the will to motivate myself to do simple things such as leave the house, let alone train the way I wanted. I began to accept that most likely acting wasn’t going to happen for me; that I had gotten into the wrong profession out of ego, had burned too many bridges and made a mistake. My mind spun all day, consumed by the question “What if?” What if I could somehow get out of my own way long enough to make a change? And unbelievably, through a series of bizarre events—and, looking back, perhaps divine intervention—I found it within myself to begin the process of cleaning up my life.
Through a friend of a friend, I was introduced to this professional hockey player: an NHL enforcer who had been suspended by the
league multiple times. We became instant buddies. He mentioned that he needed a sparring partner to help him get back in shape and make his push to return to the league. We bonded over our similar struggles, and little did I know it, his comeback would mirror my own, in ways that I could have never imagined.
I had never really boxed before in any structured way, but I had absolutely nothing else going on for me, so I said yes.
We started boxing training three times a week. It was a habit that helped me put an end to my other vice: chain-smoking. We’d get in the gym at six o’clock in the evening. I’d make sure I wouldn’t smoke beforehand, and then afterward, I’d eat, shower, and go straight to bed—before the urge to smoke could overtake me. That good habit led to other good habits, and just like that, my entire mind-set began changing.
I was no longer seeing what I could get away with; I was seeing what I could do.
Eventually my friend went back to hockey, and I was left with an empty bank account, not having worked as an actor in four years. I now faced the overwhelming question of what to do with the rest of my life. I had always loved the book The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, which is loosely based on the life and personality of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. At one point in the story, the protagonist’s personal life and career as an architect completely implode. He is forced to close his office, and he decides to take a job breaking rocks all day at a quarry. I was always confused by and in total awe of that gesture. The fact that this highly trained, brilliant architect would lower himself and take an entry-level manual-labor job had perplexed me for years. Why would he do that? I decided to find out for myself.
I took a job at a masonry company working long days, shoveling sand and gravel from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon.
In my mind, my acting career was over. No one would return my phone calls, and I’d been rejected by every agent and manager in town. There was something about driving the truck in the morning, picking up my orders, and shutting off my brain and shoveling for hours.
During that first week, I thought I was going to die. I couldn’t see how I was going to make it through. My back hurt, my legs and shoulders hurt, and I started waking up with a throbbing headache every morning. I took Advil and drank plenty of fluids, but nothing would get rid of that headache—that is, until I started breaking a sweat by shoveling in the 90-degree Los Angeles heat each morning. I was like a junkie or an alcoholic with the DTs, shaking violently until I got my morning fix. It was as if my body and soul were screaming at me, “You need this!” I showed up day after day for work on that truck and within weeks my body started changing drastically. It was as though for my entire life, there had been a genetic barrier inside me that was stopping me from filling out physically and packing on muscle, but my daily construction workouts removed it completely.
At this point, I was almost three years off of drinking and two years removed from smoking. I started getting serious about my diet and made it my business to go to the gym after those long days working construction. I was twenty-eight years old, and I wanted to see how much I could fill out. I wanted to know what it would be like to be big.
I took that job in construction because I needed to pay my bills, but the act of humbling myself and accepting who I was and where I was changed my life. For the first time in a long time, I started to grow. Working that difficult job epitomized the anti-ego mentality that I needed to begin really succeeding. Slowly but surely, I began to understand why the hero in The Fountainhead took the job at the quarry. The monotonous, repetitive physical labor was a cleanse of sorts for my head and my soul. I was alone in my bubble every day finding out exactly what I was made of. I was taking inventory and digesting everything I had been through. I still thought my dream of an acting career was over, but in the meantime, I was going to
become the greatest shoveler, cement mixer, and jackhammer operator of all time.
Looking back, that humbling experience is what turned me into the man I am today, in just about every way.
With the addition of those postconstruction gym sessions, I began pushing my life back into alignment. I didn’t just train after work; I hit the gym like an animal. I pushed myself to the point where the people around me were borderline frightened. I was a man on a mission.
WHY POTENTIAL SUCKS
How hard have you pushed yourself?
That’s the question I want you to ask. Got your answer? Good, ’cause now it’s time for a little love.
Most guys don’t realize that the hard work they put in isn’t enough. They look around and wonder why everyone else has success. They want to know why they can’t catch a break. You know why it doesn’t happen for them? It’s because those who reap the benefits of life don’t wait for breaks to happen; they make them happen. It’s an aggressive approach to life and an endless pursuit that will lead to what you want. The best don’t see a locked door and walk away in another direction. They wind up and kick the damn thing down! Or better yet, they smash through the brick wall next to the door, because they can.
During my fall, I had become okay with being comfortable. Comfortable with being average and less than I wanted. Comfortable with not rising up or pushing back when I was knocked down and not being a little tougher. As a result, I settled for less.
Those who truly evolve are the ones who leap off of life’s cliffs. Their world is not one of haves and have-nots, and it’s not one of potential. It’s one of hustle, ambition, and endless determination.
My wish for you is to have that magic moment like I did in which you fully take responsibility and eliminate your excuses.
I’m not passing judgment here. I’m merely letting you know what it took for me to make the most out of all my opportunities and what it will take for you to get more than you think is possible.
Don’t accept yourself as a finished product. Ever. We all have weaknesses. And those weaknesses don’t mean that you’re weak. It means that you have so much more you can accomplish.
What would have happened if Michael Jordan quit when his game wasn’t good enough for him to make his varsity basketball team?
What if Arnold Schwarzenegger had listened to all the naysayers in his tiny little village in Austria on his way to becoming the world’s greatest bodybuilder? Or action star? Or governor?
What if Steve Jobs had quit after Apple failed and was being crushed by the PC world?
Those who work on their weaknesses, shortcomings, and/or failures are destined to become great. Those who don’t, fall behind.
GREAT PEOPLE WHO OVERCAME SETBACKS AND FAILURES
J. K. Rowling
Acceptance is an inner state of humility achieved only after a period of grueling and thorough hard work. Falling flat on your face and then getting up for more.
I shudder to think of the way my life could have gone if I had talked myself out of auditioning for the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, due to the fact that I didn’t have the money to afford the tuition, even if I was accepted. In fact, it would have been even easier for me to give up after I did muster up the courage to audition right out of high school—only to be subsequently rejected.
They told me “no.” I had failed . . . but I knew that I could do better. So I came up with a plan.
I decided to attend the University of Pittsburgh because (A) I could afford the in-state tuition, (B) they had a liberal arts theatre studies program, and (C) the campus was within walking distance to Carnegie Mellon.
It was time to go to work.
That first semester, I took every acting class I could fit into my schedule. It got to the point where my guidance counselor pulled me aside and suggested that I ease up, due to the fact that I would use up all of my theatre courses in my first two years . . . but I never had any idea of being there past the first.
I auditioned for every play I could at Pitt and wound up being cast in lead roles in several of them, much to the chagrin of some of the graduate students.
I answered every possible casting notice I could find in the paper. I rode endless subways and bus transfers to auditions and shoots for the most amateur, local, nonpaying, crazy video jobs you could possibly imagine, just so I could get in front of a camera.
I took classes studying all of the classic plays and signed up for film philosophy classes.
I volunteered for photo shoots with up-and-coming photographers in return for free headshots.
All the while, I was developing new audition monologues that I would practice performing for the kids who lived down the hall from me in my dorm.
After being rejected by CMU, I spent every single moment of that year making myself better and finding out how much I could change and grow. If I was going to be rejected a second time after that year, then I needed to be able to look back and know that I did everything I possibly could. That was the only way that I knew of that I could possibly walk away from my dream.
That year flew by, and one fateful Saturday morning in early February, I walked across Forbes Avenue from Pitt to CMU and tried out again. I didn’t apply to any other schools and I never had a backup plan. That was it. There was no “Plan B.”
I got in.
That year, I was one of only seventeen actors accepted out of eight hundred, and upon learning of my financial situation, the head of CMU’s acting department found a 75 percent scholarship for me to attend.
Looking back at my life, it was the obstacles, the shortcomings, and the failures that forced me to fight harder, to reach inside and pull something truly extraordinary out of myself that I didn’t even know existed. My failure was essential to my growth, because every time I failed, I learned that it was because I did not fight as hard as humanly possible.
Notice I didn’t say “fight my hardest.” There are a lot of people who try as hard as they can. But their ceilings and limitations are perceived barriers that restrict what they can achieve. We don’t know what we can really do until we push past the farthest point we’ve ever been and go where we’ve never gone before. There is a place beyond the conscious perception of what is achievable and that is where real success occurs.
After years of failure, I learned that there was another gear somewhere inside of me, and oftentimes it took failing to find the upshift. I began to believe that if, given enough time, and if I followed an intelligent and disciplined plan, I could change so drastically that you wouldn’t even recognize me. I had learned to evolve.