philosophy

The Secret To Success

Here’s a thought:

There’s one simple secret that will make you successful at what you want to do in life. It’s not even really a secret, though, because I guarantee you already know it.

I’ve spent years reading books, taking classes, watching tutorials, listening to lectures, and more, hoping to hear the magic formula that would take me to the next level. I was convinced that someone would eventually say the correct combination of words that would give me the knowledge to be truly great at something.

I’ll save you some time: the answer is already in front of you. You can stop searching for it because I’m going to tell you what it is.

The secret to success is simple (at least in theory):

Find the thing you enjoy doing most, then do it as much as possible. After that, do it a lot more.

That’s it. It sounds simple, right? Almost too simple even. But it’s true - the way to be truly great at something is to do it as much as you possibly can.

I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but there are no shortcuts. You can’t cheat your way to being the best at what you do. You have to work at it nonstop - and then some.

I don’t think we (I’ll include myself here) like to hear advice like this. We want a magic pill or a secret elixir that will catapult us to the next level of proficiency. So we devour self-help books and TED Talks in hopes of gaining wisdom that will keep us from needing to truly work towards mastery in our given field.

The truth is: there is no Secret formula, there is no four-hour-work-week-quick-path-to-success. You’ve known the answer all along, now you just need to put in the work.

For me it’s stage time. I try to get onstage as much as possible. I do a hundred full-length 60-75 minute shows every year. Plus, I do unannounced open mics, cabaret spots, hosting gigs, and storytelling events around Chicago in between.

I love studying my favorite authors and learning about their writing process. Some people write by hand, others prefer a computer. Some write in the morning, others in the evening. It varies, depending on the individual - but all of them have this in common: they try to write every single day and reach a certain word count.

I’m also a part-time, non-elite runner. I enjoy logging miles along Lake Michigan in the summer and I’d love to be faster. When I read about elite runners I notice that the amount of miles they log is insane. They have to spend more time on their feet so they can run further and faster. Hard for someone like me - a self-employed artist - but I do the best I can to commit to runs as often as possible and gradually add mileage throughout the year.

No matter your interest, if you want to be great you need to spend as much time working on it as possible. You don’t need any more self-help books or online tutorials, just 20-30 years of hard work.


Other Thoughts:

  • The New York Times says human contact is becoming a luxury good so I guess that means I provide a luxury service now.

  • Some people asked about the typewriter in my recent photos. It’s an Olivetti Lettera 32, used by famous writers including Cormac McCarthy, Lady Gaga, Bob Dylan, and more. I’ll write more on it in a future post.

  • You have one chance left to see MIND READER in Chicago, then it’s off to Pittsburgh. All upcoming shows can be found here.

Stand Your Ground

I used to think I needed to do more

Offer more, provide more, be more, do more. I assumed having a career as a performer meant I would need to be a jack-of-all-trades. To be a full-time entertainer I would provide entertainment for children’s parties, corporate events, and everything in between.

And that’s what I did. For years.

I’d go from doing a suit and tie corporate event one day to doing a show about books at a public library the next. Once I even dressed as a magical Peter Pan for a birthday party just so I could pay my rent that month. (You can hear me tell the full story on this episode of the WBEZ “It’s All True” podcast.)

The general advice I received was that you needed to be willing “to do it all” if you wanted to do this at all. So that’s what I believed.

Need a birthday party magician? Check.

Balloon animals? I’ll watch a few tutorials and make it happen.

A show themed around educational initiatives? You got it.

And on and on and on.

Being a full-time performer has always been my dream. It’s the first thing I think about every morning and the last thing I think about before I fall asleep each night. It’s been that way since I learned my first trick when I was 3 years old.

I’m not exaggerating.

So if you told me I needed to sacrifice my social life to do this or that I could only do shows if I lived with 17 roommates in a one bedroom, then I’d stop hanging out with friends and sign the lease. And thinking that doing “whatever it takes” was the best way to do this meant that I really did whatever it took. I bent over backwards for clients for years. It sucked big time but it taught me everything.

I learned how to talk about myself. I’ve spent countless hours per day for twenty plus years telling people from all places what I do and why it matters. I know how to speak the language.

I learned how to get along with all people. From coast to coast, no matter the event, I had to get along with everyone I worked for.

I learned how to perform anywhere and everywhere.  I’ve done bar mitzvahs and summer camps, rooftop shows and back porches. I’ve had some real doozies.

I learned all of that and more, mainly because of one reason. When a client asked “Can you do XXX?” I always replied with my go-to magic word: “YES”. Then I hung up the phone and figured out how to make it happen.

But several years ago I learned that I don’t have to do that any more. I don’t have to be everything for all the people all of the time. I don’t have to do more than what I do.

The truth is, you don’t have to do it all. You don’t have to be more or do more or give more. Just do one thing and do it well. Less is really more.

Even so, I still get strange requests.

People want a certain costume or a custom idea or a different concept. They want to contort and twist and alter what I do. They want to haggle and negotiate and see if I’ll do things that don’t align with my vision.

And when I realize that the event in question isn’t a good fit I start to get nostalgic. I think back to being Peter Pan or getting locked in a room full of screaming children. I think about the bad gigs and the good. I think about how many skills I’ve had to learn to get here and how many sacrifices I made to say I was a full-time entertainer.

Then I smile and politely say my new magic word. 

NO.”

When you stand your ground people sense that you know who you are. They can tell you’ve paid your dues and know where you’re going. They appreciate your candor.

And quite often, they end up doing it your way. You just had to convince them that was what they wanted all along.

There are many paths to take to get where you want to be. But if you’re trying to be too much for too many people, then you’ll lose sight of your final destination.

You have to learn to limit yourself and say no and be willing to walk away. 

You have to learn to stand your ground.