“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face … The danger lies in refusing to face the fear … You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living
As a musician and actor, Will Smith has built an impressive list of accomplishments. So much so that in 2007, Newsweek called him “the most powerful actor in Hollywood.”
No doubt he earned that distinction partly because of his multiple Grammy Awards, Golden Globe nominations and Academy Award nominations. Not to mention the fact that his movies have grossed over $6 billion worldwide. It’s safe to say he’s come a long way from the hard streets of West Philadelphia where he was born and raised.
I’ve been a Will Smith fan for years. He starred in many of my favorite movies, such as The Pursuit of Happyness, I Am Legend and Independence Day, to name a few. Having come of age in the late 80’s, I remember when he “rocked the mic” as part of a quirky but entertaining rap duo named DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. To this day, I still get a good laugh whenever I catch a rerun of his 1990’s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
My fandom reached a higher level though, after I watched a 10-minute Youtube video composed of Will Smith interview snippets. When you watch the video, you get a clear sense of the experiences, philosophy and practices that have surely helped Will reach the heights of success he’s created in his life. Further, if you’re anything like me, you come away feeling inspired and enlightened about how you might reach the next level of success and fulfillment in your own life.
I could probably write for days about the many inspiring ideas Will shared during that 10-minute video. Today though, I’m compelled mainly by these words, which he spoke during a 2002 Charlie Rose interview:
“I’m motivated by fear … fear of fear. I hate being scared to do something. And I think what developed in my early days was the attitude that I started attacking things that I was scared of.”
Attack the Things That Scare You
Attack the things that scare you. I admit the language is somewhat macho, bordering on militant, but the idea is no less provocative. How might the course of your life change if you developed the habit of moving toward things that scare you rather than away from them? What if fear served not as a warning sign to back away from something, but instead, as a cue to move toward it?
I’m not talking here about the fear of physical harm or death. I’m not suggesting that you approach every shady character you see on the street simply because you fear being mugged, injured or killed. That would be reckless and unwise.
The sort of fear I’m referring to is best exemplified by the anxiety you might feel about giving a 1-hour talk to a room full of your peers. It’s the paralyzing feeling you experience when you believe your actions could make people think you’re unintelligent, incompetent or just plain foolish. It’s the feeling of apprehension that can emerge when faced with the possibility of rejection or ridicule.
It’s no stretch to believe Will Smith experienced feelings like that more than once in his life. What if you followed his example? What if – any time you felt that sort of fear – you moved toward whatever stimulated it? What if – like Will Smith – you made that a dominant behavior pattern in your life from this point forward?
Self-Mastery and the Patterns That Shape Your Life
Behavior patterns shape your life. What you do every day matters a great deal more than what you do once in a while. This is, of course, not a new idea. In 1892, the renowned psychologist William James said:
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”
Recently, I suggested that self-mastery is the key to greater health, wealth and fulfillment in the 21st century. But what is self-mastery really about? What does it involve? You might think it’s all about willpower and self-discipline; that it involves forcing yourself to do something – or abstain from doing something – whether you feel like it or not.
Based on my research and experience, self-mastery is more than that. Yes, willpower and self-discipline are part of it, but their real value lies not in forcing yourself to take action or resist temptation. Their real value lies in helping you eliminate destructive behavior patterns and create new ones that move you forward.
In other words, self-mastery mainly involves creating behavior patterns that move you toward your goals and aspirations. Willpower and self-discipline – along with a few other skills – play a supporting role in that endeavor.
“Our research shows that people with good [self-mastery] actually spend less time resisting desires than other people, because they avoid problem situations and cultivate good habits … A habit is a pattern of automatic behavior … The most successful people use their willpower to set up effective habits, rather than relying on it to bail them out of trouble or cope with problems.”
The Roots of Success and Fulfillment
Often, we look at people who are living an amazing life and making a positive impact in the world – people like Will Smith – and we see only what’s on the surface. It might be incredible talent, physical attractiveness, exceptional creative ability, a magnetic personality or even super-human self-discipline. Whatever they are, we point to these surface qualities as the explanation for their success and fulfillment.
If you’re able to look beneath the surface, you’ll usually find a different explanation. Rather than rare talent, exceptional ability or other qualities possessed only by the fortunate few, I believe you’ll find a quality that’s fundamental to each of us by virtue of being human. That quality – I contend – is the capacity for self-mastery. The capacity to consciously create behavior patterns that move you toward the life you want to live.
Will Smith used his capacity for self-mastery to change his relationship to fear. Instead of moving away from fearful situations, he developed a pattern of attacking them. In so doing, he consistently moved himself beyond his comfort zone toward ever higher levels of achievement in his life and career.
If you’re willing, there’s no reason you can’t use this same capacity to create behavior patterns that move you to the next level of success and fulfillment in your life.