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Will Smith — the sometimes rapping, oftentimes acting, always captivating kid from Philadelphia — just released his first memoir aptly entitled, Will. It is not just the name his father gave him, it is the human faculty Smith has been cultivating and exercising his entire life. It is the reason for all of his outward success — his continual choice to be the hardest worker in the room, no matter what the challenge or opportunity. Smith once said in an interview that if he is up against someone on a treadmill there are two options: Either he will be the last man standing, or he will be dead. That is the power of human will, embodied in a man known by the same name. It is the knowledge and choice that you can accomplish anything or die trying.
The prologue to the book is entitled “The Wall” and it tells the story of how when Smith was 11 years old, his father made him and his younger brother build a large wall in front of his father’s shop. It took nearly a year, but eventually they finished constructing the wall. When it was complete, Smith’s father stood next to his two children looking at their accomplishment and said, “Now, don’t y’all ever tell me there’s something you can’t do.” The most profound lesson, however, did not come out of completing the wall (after all, we have all heard that hard work pays off); rather, it occurred early on in the process.
I first heard Will Smith tell this story more than 10 years ago in an interview, and I have not stopped thinking about it since. This is a story about more than just will. Here are the four lessons I have learned from this story over the years:
1. You don’t set out to build a wall.
The idea of building this huge wall was overwhelming for an 11-year-old child and his younger brother. It seemed impossible. Very often the greatest challenge when it comes to life’s biggest goals is just getting started. Whether it’s getting in shape and losing a bunch of weight, writing a book or building a company, the idea of completing such a large-scale undertaking oftentimes feels impossible. So, many people give up and fail before they even begin.
Never starting, however, is the only for sure way to never reach your goal. The key is to start, and the only way to start is to overcome the overwhelmingly deep feeling of impossibility sitting like a brick in your gut. To do that, you must take your eye off of the impossible task and focus on the first step. Pick up your first brick, whatever it is, and lay it in its place. In other words, simply begin.
2. Every wall is made of many bricks.
Every seemingly impossible task consists of many very small and achievable steps. Before you begin, try to understand what it will take to build your proverbial wall. Assess what resources, knowledge and skills you will need and which of those you already have. This will allow you to create a blueprint for your success.
There was a day when Will Smith and his brother, Harry, were “in a particularly stank mood” and complaining about having to build this mammoth wall. It was when his father overheard Will say that the task at hand was impossible and could never be done that everything changed.
“Stop thinking about the damn wall!” he said. “There is no wall. There are only bricks. Your job is to lay this brick perfectly. Then move onto the next brick. Then lay that brick perfectly. Then the next one. Don’t be worrying about no wall. Your only concern is one brick.”
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3. Lay each brick perfectly.
Everything you do in life is a reflection of who you are. Every moment is an opportunity for you to shine and give your whole self towards creating something new and unique. Why would you ever want to be seen as anything less than who you are? Take pride in your work. The care and quality you put into laying each brick represents you and is a reflection of your character. In addition, the result will only be as perfect as each step taken along the way, so every brick matters. If you rush and try to take shortcuts, your work will be sloppy and your finished wall will be poorly built. Your success will be short-lived.
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4. Find the bricks you want to lay.
Life is about the journey, not the destination. If your life purpose is your “wall,” then it is lived and achieved through each brick. In other words, your life is spent laying bricks of some sort. Because of this, your happiness and personal fulfillment must come through laying your bricks and must not be based on completing some grand wall. As Will’s father said, “There is no wall.” Who knows how far you are going to get in building your wall, what external forces might prevent or prolong its completion, or whether you will die trying? You must choose something in life that you can wake up and enjoy doing every day, regardless of how far you get.
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