Your Actions Don’t Have to be Extraordinary to be Extraordinary

In 2007, I was a recent college graduate that owned a business called Novel Projects, inc. I’d founded the company on some interesting ideas of how to use computers to measure the writing style of books. The idea was simple – if you knew how one book was written compared to another, you could use that data to help a reader find books to read based on what they liked in the past. The problem was that I had no resources – I had a degree in Psychology, hardly the ideal business candidate. I had no money, no employees, and I’d just moved to a new town after graduation – I had no contacts.

At the time, Google operated the largest full text scanning project in the world, and I thought, “Ah, this might be of interest to them.” Unfortunately, they didn’t answer my phone calls. They didn’t respond to my e-mails. So after months of putting off doing anything at all, I bought a plane ticket and flew to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. I was completely unannounced, they had no idea that I was coming or who I was, and my goal was to sit in their lobby every day for two weeks until someone at the company heard out my ideas.

I arrived in Mountain View, drove to their campus, blissfully walked by all the security guards that had been hired to keep out guys like me, and introduced myself to the first receptionist I found.

“My name is Aaron Stanton,” I said, handing over a business card – printed for $12 at an online business card store. “I own a business called Novel Projects, and I’m working on a project I think Google should know about. Is there anyone I can talk to?”

I was rejected. Undaunted, I immediately left that lobby and walked around until I found another. I tried again, with a slightly different angle.

“My name is Aaron Stanton,” I said. “My father just nearly died from an embolism, it scared the crap out of me, and I’ve flown 700 miles from Idaho to talk to someone at Google and make him proud of me.” All true, by the way. The response I got from this variation was very sympathetic, but still a No. Google wouldn’t give me a meeting just walking in the door. After about 2 other lobbies, I eventually gave up and returned to my rental car.

Luckily, I had a backup plan. I had started a website called CanGoogleHearMe.com – a blog with video postings documenting my attempts to be heard inside the castle walls of one of the largest Internet companies of all time. Its entire purpose was simply to be a viral marketing technique inside of Google. If someone at a front desk asked me what they could do to help, I could give them my website and ask them to pass it up to the next person they thought might be able to help. What I figured was that if I could get one person inside the company to be my champion, I’d get my chance.

I returned to my rental car and made a video post about my rejection. By midnight of that night, word started to get around. By the next day, nearly 3,000 people from inside the Googleplex in Mountain View had visited the site. Soon it was picked up by bloggers and the mainstream news – stories were spun about David vs. Goliath, the little guy vs. the big guy, a description I’ve never been comfortable with. I was interviewed by Wired, PC World Magazine, and the Seattle Times. I had calls from ABC News, and was interviewed on BBC in England. I was on the front page of the largest newspaper in Australia, and was compared to the founder of Apple Computer by the founder of AOL. And I received e-mails. Thousands of good luck e-mails from complete strangers wishing me luck, at one point at a rate of about 10 e-mails per minute. During my first week in California, CanGoogleHearMe.com was the 5th fastest growing website in the world, with hundreds of thousands of users passing through the site.

The response to the blog was amazing, and I ended up getting my meeting with Google. It was my first significant public success, launched me on the path I’m on today, and much of this book is built on the lessons learned on the entrepreneurial journey that’s followed.

But this is the point of this chapter: All that response, the thousands of good luck e-mails, the interviews, the media attention, all of it was basically for something as simple as going up and knocking on the front door. I didn’t really do anything that special. In fact, sales people do cold calls all the time. So the question is, why did I get so much media attention? Why did people care so much?

That’s a hard question, but there’s one obvious answer. It worked because despite the fact that getting on a plane without knowing the outcome of your journey isn’t that hard in concept, actually doing it makes you more unique than you think. I’m not talking about just showing up and asking to be let in. I’m talking about making the decision to stop whatever you’re doing – take a break from your job, family, friends, and the comfortable, settled normality of regular life – and one day decide to do everything in your power to make your dreams happen. To set aside the fear of rejection and failure and to give it your best.

Taking that sort of leap, putting that much faith into something as intangible as “the future” without a solid history of success, is scary. In other words, as simple as it might seem, most people never make it far enough to actually get on the plane, and act. Sometimes the extraordinary part is not what the action is, but simply that you’ve got the guts, gumption, and drive to follow it through.

Sometimes you can prove your qualifications for the job simply by showing up.

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Business is More Like High School Than the Jungle: Don’t Fear the Reaper

Fear has killed more good ideas than almost anything else. Fear of being rejected. Fear of failure. There’s a list right now on the whiteboard in the Novel Project office. I call this list, “Things we are afraid of, but must do.” We are afraid of launching. We are afraid of seeking money. We are afraid of being embarrassed.

One of the most valuable things you can do is know what you are afraid of. Some of those fears keep us alive, like the small voice that warns against crawling into the tiger’s pin at the zoo, or voting for the wrong political party. But other fears don’t keep you alive; they just slow you down.

Following a dream can feel a great deal like surviving in the jungle. Eat or be eaten. The weak don’t survive. But when it boils down to it, staying afloat in dream chasing – be it business, the arts, or whatever – is far more like surviving high school than it is staying alive in the wild. Unlike the jungle, where survival is determined by the size of your bicep and the ability to swing on vines, high school is all about social interactions. Just as in the business world, most of the people you interact with are not out to get you, but simply to ignore you unless you’re interesting. Occasionally you find bullies. Sometimes you’ll be doing things alone, and sometimes in group projects. In high school, you don’t have to be afraid of being eaten for dinner, but you do run the risk of being rejected by that cute girl at the Homecoming dance.

High school is filled with what I call Fake Fears. Fake Fears are the things that frighten you but really shouldn’t. The consequence of asking a girl to dance and getting rejected is that you don’t get to dance with her. The consequences of not asking the girl to dance is that you don’t get to dance with her. The outcomes of both actions are the same, but we’re far more afraid of asking and being rejected than we are of just assuming rejection without the wasted energy of confirming it.

That’s a fake fear. And you don’t realize it, but half of the things you would like to have in your life right now and don’t have is likely due to some fake fear that you’ve been harboring since childhood. Virtually every big chance in life, the ones that take you to the next step, is more the equivalent of asking the cute girl (or guy) to do a little jig than it is to outrunning a predator in the dark undergrowth of some rain forest.

Once you leave high school, the names for these fears change. Being shy becomes, “Fear of Failure”. Being afraid of being different is called, “Fear of Success.” Not picking up the phone and calling that cute girl to ask for a date is called, “Being afraid of that huge and scary company that might like your ideas, but is huge and scary.” But the consequences will be much the same – they’ll either like you, or most likely ignore you. Nearly every business or dream chasing venture you might consider will be overwhelmingly influenced by the social interactions that are needed in order to make it work. Your job is to figure out which fears are the type that keep you well stocked in the basics needs of life – like food and shelter – and which are just keeping you in check for no real reason at all.

Start by writing a list. On this list write down everything you want in life professionally or personally, and then break them down into immediate actions. If you were to stop writing silly lists and start doing something to get closer to that goal, what would it be? What about after that? Your first action items should be in the immediate time frame – what can I do today to get a step closer? What can I do tomorrow?

After you’ve written your list, look at the first item. Ask yourself, “If I did this action and it failed, what would be the consequences?” If the answer does not end in, “My life will be drastically worse because I’ll have no food, money, shelter, and nobody will like me,” then why aren’t you doing it? It doesn’t even matter that you might run out of steps by the 6th item – in all likelihood, you’ll end up rewriting your list after about two or three steps, because the actions you take will change your expectations.

Let me use the CanGoogleHearMe experience as an example. If I had created CanGoogleHearMe.com, gone to California, and been completely ignored, what would have been the consequence? Nothing. No one would have known I was there – Google would have ignored me, no one would have visited my site, and I’d have gone home in two weeks no worse off than I was before. I wouldn’t have danced with the girl. Period.

If there is a real consequence to your actions, meaning that your life will be substantially worse, that the consequence is more than just being a little embarrassed or wasting your time, it’s a matter of deciding to either rewrite the action to be less risky, or accepting the consequence as a reasonable risk. But at least by that point you’ve moved a little beyond being afraid of asking the cute girl to dance, and you can identify the tigers when you see them.


The Importance of Taking Action: What are the Chances of Becoming Famous?

Try this. Take your parents out to lunch and say, “Hey, Mom, Dad. I’m going to become an actor.” Watch their expressions. See what happens when you tell them your new plan for the future is to become famous in Hollywood. Nearly everyone knows that moving to Hollywood to become a famous actor is… well, it’s insane. No one actually does it.

Or do they? This first chapter is about the importance of taking action – just do it, as Nike would say – and the real chance of succeeding at impossible dreams. So let’s start with a classic example of the impossible. If you got up from reading right now and declared that you want to be a famous actor, how likely is it that you’ll make it? How likely is it that someday I’ll see your name in a big screen production?

One way of looking at this question is to ask yourself, “Who do I have to beat to get the job done?”

A study by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006 found that 1.4% of the population in the United States were writers, or artists, or actors, or employed in some form of creative work as their primary job. That’s about 2 million people in a country of 305 million, with an additional 300,000 that work in the arts, but make a living some other way. Almost half of those are designers and architects, which means the remaining 1 million people account for the vast majority of everything you read in a book, magazine, or watch on TV.

Aside from this rather amazing example of a very small portion of the population affecting great change, this has a direct impact on the question of your and my chances of becoming a famous actor. So here’s the point of this chapter. Of all the artists working in the U.S., about 2% are actors, or 39,717 people.

Half live in California, with New York claiming about 20%. So let’s take a look at this historically risky thing to do: Moving to Hollywood to become an actor. The first step is defining what is considered “famous”. Let’s define famous as having one of the top 200 acting jobs in Hollywood. I got that number by looking over a complete list of TV shows on Wikipedia, and counting every show in the last five years that would be considered a hit, or at least familiar enough that people would recognize the lead actors on the street. I stopped when I reached about 200 shows, and wasn’t all the way through the list. If each show has at least one lead female and one lead male role, that leaves us with about 200 top roles that you qualify for by gender. We’ll not worry about movies at the moment. So how many people do you have to beat out in order to get one of those top 200 spots?

Well, sitting at home thinking about becoming an actor, you’re competing against all the millions of others that would like to be rich and famous, just like you. The odds are hugely against you being successful, because it’s one vs. millions.

But here’s the magic bullet. As soon as you make the decision to become a full time actor, you’re no longer competing against the millions that want to become rich and famous, you’re only competing against those that are actually doing something about it. And according to the NEA, that’s about 40,000 people. If you take yourself very seriously and move to California to act as your primary occupation, you take a step that most wannabe actors never take, and now you’re competing against the 20,000 actors living locally.
Half of the roles will be for one gender or another, cutting your competition in half again.

We’re now at 10,000 or so competitors. These are the people that really take this seriously; like you, they’re here chasing their dreams. But now we look at you, and your skills. Let’s say you’re a good actor, and a good networker. In fact, at these two skills – which is what you need to get off the ground – let’s say you’re in the 80th percentile; you’re better than 80% of the actors out there.

So, really, in auditions, you’re up against the other 20% who are as good or better than you, and the 10% who are worse, but have the right characteristics for the role. 30% of 10,000 is 3,000 people competing for those top 200 roles.

 

3,000 / 200 = 15 people per role.

 

There’s a lot in there that we can’t account for, like luck. We also can’t help that those top 200 roles may only be for beautiful people, and that you and I look like lumps of coal. But if you’re good at what you do, and you look at yourself and say, “Yes, I have the characteristics needed as qualifiers in the industry,” then your odds of being successful, of being one of the 200 most successful actors in Hollywood, is about 1 in 15.
This means that right now, sitting in your room reading this, there are a series of known steps that you can take that improves your chances of succeeding by thousands of times. Great odds? Not really. That’s only about a 7% chance of pulling it off, after all. But as bad as you would expect? To become the next Julia Roberts or George Clooney?

I don’t think so.

After all, if I put your name in a hat along with 14 other people, and told you I’d give you 10 million dollars if I picked your name, you’d be pretty excited.

But here’s the point: It’s all a chain. It’s a chain that starts with you sitting in your living room thinking about how cool it would be to be rich and famous. And the actions in that chain – the things that you start in motion – are what separate you from the millions.

Stop for a moment and think about how powerful that is. Thinking about becoming an actor makes you like millions of others, but becoming an actor makes you like only 2% of the population. All that means is that when someone asks you what you do for a living, you say you’re an actor. That’s it. You don’t have to be a good actor or a bad actor at that point. From that point out, taking a chance and going to the places where there are acting jobs with national fame potential available eliminates all but 1% of the population. What’s interesting to realize about that is that we were able to eliminate 99% of your competition before we even asked one question about your skills and abilities. Being able to judge your own skills and abilities is vitally important to your success, but the biggest differentiating factor between you and that guy acting on TV is that you’re reading about doing something, and he’s doing it.

If you’re talented and good and willing to follow through, your odds of becoming a famous actor right now are 1 in 15. But no one will ever really pull your name from a hat and declare you famous. They won’t come to your house and pull you out on their own.

And if you actually get done reading this, stand up, and become an actor – or whatever your dream is – then you really are on your way to success. But if you just nod after reading this, think it’s interesting, and then close the book and go make yourself lunch and that’s it – then welcome to the millions.

Your odds are entirely determined by your own next moves.

 

Note: I should also add that the biggest problem in acting, really, is not that hitting the top 200 spots is impossible, but that hitting lower doesn’t make much money. According to the survey, most actors are better educated than the rest of the world (strong competition) and earn less than their peers at about $23,400 annually. When people say that acting is a hard business, they don’t really mean that getting to the top is impossible, just that getting to the middle is far easier. And the middle in this industry is not as lucrative as others.