Do you have any idea how amazing you are? Really?
I get that you’re not like most people. You wouldn’t be hanging out on this blog if you were. Yet I seriously doubt if you really understand the magnitude of the genius that you possess.
If you’re like most people, you don’t. You’ve bought into the lies, limiting beliefs and mind viruses. You settled.
You believe that other people have genius, other people are amazing. You are just you.
I’m here to tell you that yes, you are just you. And you are amazing.
If I’ve learned anything in 25 years of self-development, it is this: Everyone has genius. Some people demonstrate it by starting new ventures, others with a guitar or a violin, some by launching a movement, others by writing an opera, romantic comedy, or the great American novel.
Everyone has the gift of genius. Including you. But genius is not something you find; it is a process you develop. It starts with a decision: A decision to do something epic, something amazing.
The decision to be amazing is about the neighborhood you choose to hang out in. Everyone gets to choose. Here are the possibilities:
Mediocrity. This is where most people live. There’s a serious overpopulation issue here.
Good. Less populated, but still very crowded.
Great. Real estate values are high in this neighborhood. Lots of people want to live here, but few actually do.
Amazing. This is the place where the elite artists in any profession hang out. It’s a members-only club, but there’s no invitation. You qualify for the club just because you decide to. This is where you belong.
If you want to be amazing, you have to be willing to take risks. And be willing to fail. Because even an epic failure – as painful as that is – lets you know you’re in the game, and playing at a world-class level.
I’ve spent the last ten days locked in a digiplex, watching movies from the San Diego Asian Film Festival. It’s been a brilliant festival, thanks to Executive Director Lee Ann Kim, Artistic Director Brian Hu and their team of crack film-loving commandos. In addition to the sublime experience it provided to everyone who attended, it also provides lots of lessons for aspiring artists who want to be amazing. (And in case you missed it, all entrepreneurs are artists!)
Watching so many great films got me thinking about what it takes to unleash your creative genius. Obviously I approach this subject as a writer, but the lessons really apply to anyone who wants to do something amazing.
Probably my favorite film of the festival was 36, the debut feature from Thai director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit. His film did something that almost everyone in the world would tell you to never do: Thamrongrattanarit is an experienced photographer, and he utilized that skill in an unprecedented way in this picture, creating the whole film in 36 carefully-composed static shots. (His inspiration for the idea was when still shot film rolls came with 36 frames. Sometimes there are spaces of 60 or 90 seconds where the camera is showing nothing but a graffiti-marked wall, or a litter-strewn room. (Which would guarantee you an “F’ in any college film course, if not being summarily expelled.) You hear the dialogue as characters slowly weave in and out of the frame, and piece-by-piece, the story is revealed. The technique is unsettling, but practically mesmerizing. It breaks the most basic rule of filmmaking, but is nothing short of inspired genius.
It was preceded by a short titled, Night Falls on Glass, by filmmaker Norbert Shieh. It was simply 11 minutes of long camera shots from rooftops, focusing on the lives of anonymous people and their reflections in skyscraper windows. It was probably 30 percent too long for my taste, but give credit to Shieh for having the guts to try something different and unorthodox.
It’s important to remember that no one has a hit with everything. Seth Godin has books that bombed, sometimes Placido Domingo’s vocal cords won’t cooperate, and not every start-up venture is going to succeed. (And most will fail.) But every artist who wants to do something amazing has to be willing to fail. Because it is those failures that eventually lead you to amazing.
It doesn’t matter is you are a ballet dancer or entrepreneur, filmmaker or architect – there are rules you’re supposed to follow. The rules are there to give you structure. But if you want to do something amazing, something epic – sometimes you have to break the rules. Not only must you break them – but you have to know why you are breaking them.
For my money, the three greatest television shows ever created were (in order) The Wire, The Sopranos, and Lost. (With an honorable mention to the Sci-Fi remake of Battlestar Gallactica.) And who broke more rules than those shows? While the visual imagery was stunning and the acting was brilliant in all those shows, what really drove them was the writing, which was nothing short of genius.
The Wire sometimes used the N-word 150 times in a single episode. But it was absolutely real in depicting the gritty street lives of the characters it was portraying. It gave you a brutally raw glimpse into what growing up in the projects or a barrio can be. In The Sopranos, David Chase proved week after week that less is usually more. There were so many scenes where the dialogue was flying fast and furious and the final line would simply be…nothing. Chase was willing to leave things unsaid and let the audience figure it out. He made you think. Brando did the same thing with his acting. I’ll always remember a certain scene in Don Juan Demarco where all he does is grunt. He did more with that grunt than some actors do with 15 pages of script.
When I sent in the first draft of Risky Is the New Safe to my publisher, it included a sentence where I mentioned Mark Cuban, Richard Branson and Steve Jobs. The editor sent it back to me re-written as “Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Virgin Airlines founder Sir Richard Branson and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.” I thought it was clunky and wanted to know why she changed it. She said that not everyone would know who those three men were, so we should spell it out. I responded that the audience for this book knew exactly who those three guys are, and I wasn’t writing a book for stupid people. I didn’t say that to be mean-spirited or denigrating. At this stage of my career I’m just not interested in doing work that panders to the lowest denominator. The goal of “Risky,” and my work in general, is to cause people to think. I want them to think about things in ways they’ve never thought about them before. And I’m okay if they have to get a little breathless just to keep up.
This was actually a continuous theme for “Risky.” I believe one of the reasons it became a New York Times bestseller was because I had about 40 amazing endorsements from thought leaders like T. Harv Eker, Robin Sharma, and Bob Burg. The editor called me after receiving them and this is the conversation that ensued:
“Wow all those testimonials are amazing! How many of them do you want to include?”
“Um…. All of them.”
“Well we don’t usually do that.”
“And how many book usually become bestsellers?”
Another time she called to let me know that something else I was doing contradicted the way books were usually done. I replied that was perfect, since I had actually written a rock opera, not a book. (And to John Wiley and Sons credit, they did allow me to do these experimental things, which was a big reason the book became a bestseller and is now in 11 languages and counting.) I’ve had a couple books that have actually sold more copies than “Risky,” at least so far, anyway. But they weren’t better books.
What about you?
Are you dumbing down your work to reach the lowest common denominator? Or are you pushing the envelope, taking risks, and going for amazing?
You don’t break the rules just to break the rules. You break the rules because you know that doing so will allow you to create something ThermoFuckingNuclear.
Another favorite of mine from the film festival was a feature titled, Blind Detective from off-the-chain director Johnnie To. To is from the Hong Kong genre of filming where every reel is its own vignette. This film breaks a lot or rules, mixing mystery, crime drama and comedy – with a little suicide, cannibalism and eating (lots and lots of eating) thrown in. The end result is simply delightful. (Likewise with Confession of Murder, a thriller from Korean director Jeong Byeong-Gil that has an ending you never see coming and hit me on a deep emotional level.)
The genius of LOST was JJ Abrams’ willingness to break almost any rule. I mean how many scriptwriters sit in front of their monitor thinking, “You know what I’ll do? I’ll turn the protagonist into a fucking smoke monster!”
The series was groundbreaking in so many ways – because of the risks Abrams was willing to take at almost every turn. In fact, the only thing keeping me from rating this the number one series of all time was the final episode. I actually fought back tears at that last scene. But after five years of those Voice-of-God network promos promising, “all your questions will finally be answered,” I felt cheated because there were so many questions yet unanswered.
After five years of subjecting viewers to flashbacks and flash-forwards, the last show featured a “sideline.” This is a technical term in the literary world meaning, “when the writers are too god damned lazy to tie together the loose plot lines.” So in the final episode, all the main characters gathered for redemption and closure in a place that appears to be heaven’s waiting room. All of the main characters except Ecko, Michael and Walt, that is. So apparently living on the island is a lot like living in South Central LA: The whites and Koreans make out okay, and the Black people get screwed.
For creative works like film and television (or advertising, song composing, and opera), the writing is the engine that drives the train. Jeremy Piven is an acting savant, and he created one of the most iconic characters in television history with Ari Gold. But it doesn’t hurt to have lines like this:
“You know what other class I took at Harvard? Business Ethics. I don't steal other peoples' motherfucking clients. But in your case I'm going to make an exception. I'm going to take everyone. Your B-level sitcom stars, your reality TV writers. When I'm done with you, you're going to be repping sideshow freaks. You need ‘Jojo the Dog-Faced Bitch Boy?’ Call Josh Weinfuck, the lightweight pen-stealing fuckface."
[Insert the blog equivalent of a Marlon Brando grunt here.]
When you watch at least a dozen movies back-to-back like I did at the festival, it allows you to soak in a concentrated dose of artistic genius. And it also exposes the lazy, formulaic techniques too many filmmakers fall back on. At least three or four times, directors resorted to bathroom humor for comedic relief. And in almost every case I thought it was unnecessary, or if necessary, executed lazily.
That rule for comedic relief is there to be broken like every other rule. Sometimes a plot line is so serious, it should stay serious. And if you are going to employ comedic relief, at least do something original, not lazy. (Like Michael Mann did in Miami Vice using an alligator named Elvis.)
If you’re a regular reader of mine you know I’m the world’s biggest fan of Cirque du Soleil and often write about their creative genius. Shows like O and Mystere (or books like The Hobbit, DUNE and Harry Potter) come about only when you are willing to begin with a blank canvas, forgo all conventions, and break lots of rules. (And let’s be honest here: maybe ingest some class two narcotics.)
Take Cirque and the whole concept of Vegas shows, which provide us lots more lessons in creative genius. Since the very beginning of Vegas, the rules were set in stone: create T-and-F shows. (And the ‘f’ stands for feathers.) Every show in every casino followed the same formula: Have chorus lines of bare-breasted dancing girls with feathers and break it up with a magic act.
Then Steve Wynn, a card-carrying entrepreneurial artist if ever there was one, had a vision…
He was building a new casino (The Mirage) off the Las Vegas strip. In fact, he actually had a vision to re-create the whole strip. Wynn saw the potential in Siegfried and Roy to do a completely new kind of show. He offered to build them their own theater, if they could create a whole new experience, leaving the tired old show formula behind. The result was a breakthrough. The Siegfried and Roy show was an intoxicating mélange of magic, circus, rock concert, and spectacle. They sold out every seat of every show, twice nightly for years, with a line of hundreds waiting in case a ticket holder didn’t show up. Based on the success of that, Wynn went to Cirque and asked them what they could create for his new Treasure Island casino next door. The result was Mystere, one of the most captivating shows created since the earth’s crust cooled. The acrobatics, music, lighting, and costumes take you to a world that simply never existed before.
Fast forward a few years, and now Wynn is building Bellagio, the world’s first billion-dollar hotel. He wants a show to match, so he goes back to Cirque. I don’t know if this is true, but here’s how the story was related to me (and I love it so much that I want to share it with you, true or not): Wynn calls the guys at Cirque and says he wants something off the chain, like no one has ever seen before. They tell him they need $2 million. Just to do a proposal. Wynn writes the check. Months later, Cirque comes back and presents the proposal of what the show will be. It takes two days. Wynn loves it and tells them he wants it. They tell him there’s one little problem: The theatre they would have to build to do the show – would cost $30 million.
Wynn writes the check.
If you’ve seen O, you know it was worth every penny. And every drop of imagination, dedication and hard work it took the artists of Cirque to bring it to the stage. If you haven’t seen it, you should stop reading this right now, get on a plane to Vegas and see it tonight.
Okay now that you’re back, let’s look at another lesson from a Vegas show, unfortunately not the good kind. Another show I was excited about was Jabbawockeez, the amazing eight-man dance troupe that won season one of America’s Best Dance Crew. They had a limited run which I got to catch at the MGM Grand in 2010. It also included some members of Super Cr3w, season two winners of ABDC. It was a brilliant celebration of hip-hop artistry. So imagine my excitement when I learned they were now back as a permanent show at the Luxor. I bought the best seats in the house when I was in Vegas last month. The dancing is still spectacular, but to me, the show is ruined. Probably because they hired a consultant to help design the new show. The show still has the breathtaking dance moves, but has all the requisite schlock (cheesy backdrops, fart jokes, polishing the head of bald guys, pulling audience members on stage to make them look silly, etc.) of the formulaic shows designed for tourists from the Midwest. They could have created an edgy, breakout work of genius, like no show Vegas had ever seen. Instead they followed the “rules” for building a Las Vegas show.
And speaking of hip-hop dance, that takes us back to the film festival and a feature from Adam Wong titled, The Way We Dance. It wasn’t earth-shattering cinematic artistry (think Step Up meets Shaw Bothers), but it was a delightful romp, and is really a story about living your dreams disguised as a dance movie. And it gets extra bonus points for the ending. The plot revolves around the competition between the BombA and Rooftoppers dance crews, which culminates in the annual championship with the judge announcing, “And the winner is…”
And then fades to black.
The kind of ending Hollywood doesn’t seem to be able to do. Other than geniuses like David Chase who had the guts to leave us wondering if Tony Soprano really does get whacked in that diner at the end. (And Chase got crucified for doing that.) But that’s how you do amazing. You take chances and change things. Instead of doing it the easy way – the lazy way – you take the risk and go for epic.
Two other movies from the festival worth talking about here (actually probably 60, but this is a manifesto, not a book): Both are documentaries that get people to think and change the conversation.
The first is When I Walk, from Jason DaSilva. An emerging documentary director, his whole life changed at age 25 when he fell down on a family vacation and couldn’t stand by himself. Medical tests revealed he had the beginning stages of multiple sclerosis. He began to have difficulty walking, and went from needing a cane, to a walker, to a wheelchair or scooter. And naturally, made this documentary tracking the process. Truly a must-see film. Jason’s frustration at finding accessible restaurants, stores, restrooms and other public spaces led him to start AXSMap, which has now morphed into a movement to map out a searchable database of accessible sites.
The second documentary was the festival’s closing film, Documented. It was created by Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who also happens to be an undocumented immigrant. The film burned the house down on closing night and brought many to tears. It’s a bold look at a very controversial subject that will make you see and think about the immigration issue in an entirely new light. Like DaSilva’s, this movie is also spawning off a movement. DaSilva is a filmmaker who uses his movement as the topic of his movie. Vargas is an activist who chose to make a movie to galvanize his movement. But they’re both amazing.
So what about you?
A magic moment will come in your life, if it hasn’t already. (And that moment might be now, as you’re reading this manifesto.) It will happen when you stop rationalizing mediocrity and demand greatness from yourself.
The magic in the moment comes when you make this decision without guilt or feeling you have to apologize for having the desire to be amazing. When you realize that doing something amazing is risky, threatening to some, and may leave you open to criticism, ridicule or attacks – but you decide to be amazing anyway.
The truth is, if you’re not attracting some critics and some haters – you’re not doing something amazing. And the other truth is this…
The haters don’t really hate you. They hate themselves because they don’t have the guts to do what you’re doing.
By the way, it may not be your haters who are really holding you back. It might be your family and friends. The problem with most friends is they love you the way you are. In fact, they give you permission to stay the way you are. You need friends who challenge you to do more, have more and most importantly, become more. And when it comes down to crunch time, the only people who can really hold you back are the ones you allow to. Which is why I wrote this manifesto for…
I know you’re amazing and won’t ever let you forget it. Now I’m challenging you to be even more amazing.
Please. Don’t leave us with your start up venture never launched, your book unwritten, your foundation not funded, your canvass unpainted, or your song never sung.
Find an idea so big it scares the hell out of you. Then go attempt it. It may succeed it may be a commercial success, it may fail, it may change the world, it might make someone mad. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do it.
Do it because the world needs it. Do it because you need it. But mostly, do it because you’re amazing.