Lessons from the Biography of Elon Musk

I recently completed reading Ashlee Vance’s riveting portrait of Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, CEO of SpaceX, chairman of SolarCity, and previously the founder of PayPal and other companies.

'Elon Musk' by Ashlee Vance (ISBN 0062301233) Elon Musk has emerged as the foremost superstar/visionary-entrepreneur of Silicon Valley since Apple’s Steve Jobs passed away in 2011. Vance’s biography reveals how Musk’s “willingness to tackle impossible things” has “turned him into a deity in Silicon Valley.”

Vance’s biography portrays Musk as an obsessively focused and a remarkably driven entrepreneur, but one who is almost unbearably difficult to work with. Musk is tirelessly demanding of employees, has low tolerance for underperformers, and does not like to share credit for the success of his ventures.

The key take away from the book is actually an admonitory lesson: Elon Musk may well be one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time—if your characterization of success is rather narrow. But, extreme personality and intense success come at the cost of many other things. In his push to win, Musk sacrifices friends, business associates, and even his family to get what he wants. The story of Elon Musk exemplifies what happens when an overachieving leader regards individuals as tools and attaches more importance to his projects than to his people.

Complement Ashlee Vance’s “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” with biographies of two other entrepreneur-visionaries with aggressively competitive personalities: Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” and Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon”. Like Elon Musk, both Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are reputed for wielding great personal influence on every aspect of Apple and Amazon’s products and services and for being demanding and demeaning to people who helped them realize their visionary aspirations.

Inspirational Quotations #594

The past is but the beginning of a beginning, and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.
H. G. Wells

Once you have read a book you care about, some part of it is always with you.
Louis L’amour

Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.
Leo Tolstoy

The noblest search is the search for excellence.
Lyndon B. Johnson

Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Man is an intelligence, not served by, but in servitude to his organs.
Aldous Huxley

Courage is the thing. All goes if courage goes.
J. M. Barrie

Wealth is not a matter of intelligence it’s a matter of inspiration.
Jim Rohn

What is true of the individual will be tomorrow true of the whole nation if individuals will but refuse to lose heart and hope.
Mohandas K. Gandhi

See that your character is right, and in the long run your reputation will be right.
Charles Caleb Colton

Justice advances with such languid steps that crime often escapes from its slowness. Its tardy and doubtful course causes many tears to be shed.
Pierre Corneille

There will be no lasting peace either in the heart of individuals or in social customs until death is outlawed.
Albert Camus

The greatest evils and the worst of crimes is poverty; our first duty, a duty to which every other consideration should be sacrificed, is not to be poor.
George Bernard Shaw

What Everybody Ought to Know about Writing Better Emails

Concise Guide to Writing Better Emails

Over the last decade and a half, email has evolved into the modern organization’s primary medium of communication. One survey estimated that professionals tend to spend one to three hours per day reading and writing emails, and waste half of this time reading trying to interpret ineffectively written emails. Poorly written emails are a result of weaknesses in style and structure.

Poor style is characterized by improper spelling and grammar, meandering and complex sentences and abstract, technical or indirect language. Style is a function of formal education, developed primarily through practice.

In contrast, poor structure refers to disparity between logical sentence order and the reader’s comprehension of those sentences. Often, the central argument does not develop over the course of the email. Consequently, the email’s goal is unclear. Though poor structure is more pervasive, it is also easier to correct.

In this take-away from my “Write Right Emails” workshop, I provide a few guidelines to improve your the style and structure of your emails.

Write for Impact

  • Before you compose an email, address two key questions: (1) “Why am I writing this email?” and (2) “What do I expect the reader to do and when?”
  • Compose your email from the reader’s point of view. Make it easy for him/her to understand immediately why you have sent that message what response or action you expect.
  • Be brief. It saves everyone time and drives action. Summarize information such that your readers are more likely to read the email and actually respond. Attach all supporting material or offer to provide details if the reader is interested.
  • Make each paragraph’s first sentence as clear and persuasive as possible. Assume that the reader will read only the first sentence before deciding if he/she is interested in the second sentence and beyond.
  • In each paragraph, make your most important point first before providing details. The reader will better understand the major (abstract/summary) ideas first before he/she is presented with the minor (constituent) details.
  • Make your emails count the first time. Anticipate any missing details that could cause an extended back-and-forth. Anticipate any supplementary information the reader may need.
  • Do not rush to send emails. Dedicate time to proofread each message. You can usually improve the wording, make a point more concisely, or generally improve. Do not give your readers an excuse to misread you.

Use Great Subject Lines

  • Use Great Subject Lines State your email’s objective in a meaningful subject line. Give readers a clue as to what your email is about and, more importantly, your expected response.
  • Include two components in each subject line: [Context/Project] + [Message summary/Action required] E.g., “Need MATLAB help: how can I calculate variance,” “Competitive pricing problem: recommended solution.”
  • Avoid indistinct and elusive subject lines: “Hi,” “One more thing …,” “FYI,” “Can you do this,” or, “Help, please???”
  • Prefix the subject with ‘URGENT’ if the matter is pressing.
  • Try composing all-in-the-subject-line emails. E.g., “Friday’s lunch: rescheduled to 1:00 PM [eom]” or “Reminder: budget reports due today at noon [eom].” Within your team, adopt a few standard practices and abbreviations (e.g., EOM for end of message) in your team.
  • When replying to emails, change the subject if the thread’s topic has changed or if the original subject was too vague.
  • Do not discuss multiple subjects in a single message. Send multiple emails, each with its own meaningful subject line.

Improve your Writing Style

Improve your Writing Style

  • Keep sentences short. Use fifteen or fewer words per sentence. Use simple vocabulary. Avoid jargon and buzz words.
  • Limit paragraphs to four sentences. Each paragraph should not be more than one inch tall on a computer screen’s display.
  • Limit your entire email to one screen size; the reader should not have to scroll vertically or horizontally to read your entire email.
  • Break longer messages into bulleted or numbered form.
  • Use the active voice (e.g., “I appreciate your thoughtfulness and assistance”) and avoid passive voice (“Your thoughtfulness and assistance are greatly appreciated”). Active voice is direct, simple, and more concise.
  • Personalize your emails: Use “I,” “you,” “we,” or “Mike from Quality Assurance” as subjects of sentences instead of “our company,” or “the Quality Assurance team.”
  • Compose emails in Microsoft Word while writing, editing and proofing text. Then copy your messages to your email software.
  • In Microsoft Word’s “Options” dialog box, activate all the “Spelling & Grammar” settings. Enable the ‘Check grammar as you type’ and ‘Check grammar with spelling’ options. Select ‘Grammar & Style’ from the ‘Writing style’ drop down and click on the ‘Settings’ button. When proofing text, use “Tools”-“Spelling and Grammar” or the keyboard shortcut F7 to check spelling and grammar.
  • In Microsoft Word, turn on “Readability Statistics” in the “Spelling and Grammar” options dialog box. After the spelling and grammar check (see above tip), Word displays the Readability Statistics dialog box. For better readability in technical writing, target a Flesch Reading Ease score of 60 to 70 and a Flesch—Kincaid Grade Level of 8 to 9.
  • Do not write in ALL CAPS. This is the digital equivalent of shouting. In addition, ALL CAPS are harder to read.
  • Avoid SMS/texting language and acronyms such as ‘u,’ ‘afk,’ ‘ty,’ ‘jk,’ etc. Use normal capitalization. Use correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Avoid unnecessary exclamation points.

Observe Proper Email Etiquette

  • Keep language professional and courteous. Email tends to be a relaxed medium. Still, avoid humor, criticism, sarcasm and informal language. Be mindful of your tone. Email tends to transmit anger more easily than other emotions. Do not reply in anger.
  • Avoid emails that simply say “thanks,” “got it,” “see you at the meeting,” “you’re welcome,” “glad you got it,” or “Great, I’ll see you too.”
  • Be selective in your choice of recipients. Have a purpose for every addressee. Use “TO” and “CC” to differentiate between readers who have action items in the email and readers for whom the email is merely informative. Never use the “BCC” field. Do not overuse “reply to all” – include just the appropriate readers.
  • Email Etiquette When forwarding or replying to a thread, trim everything irrelevant to keep the conversation going.
  • Keep attachments small. Use alternative means of exchanging large files.
  • Avoid prolonged conversations over email. Problems are often easier to defuse using a more personal means of interaction. If you have difficulty saying something via email, pick up the phone or if possible, talk to your recipient in person.
  • Have a face-to-face meeting or telephone call if a topic (discovery and problem solving, especially) involves a lot of discussion, debate, or data exchange.
  • When requesting a routine action from an employee, copy his/her boss as a courtesy. When requesting a special (time-consuming) action from an employee, first write to his/her boss and request for the employee’s time. It is not wise to circumvent the boss.
  • Do not “copy up” (copy someone’s boss) as a means of coercion. If you have not gotten a response to an earlier email, call the person.
  • Email is a public and permanent record and could be used in legal proceedings against people and organizations. Do not state anything that may be potentially hurtful or damaging.
  • Do not use your company’s email account to send private messages. Your company owns the content of your company email account.

Inspirational Quotations #593

The less routine the more life.
Amos Bronson Alcott

Diseases of the soul are more dangerous and more numerous than those of the body.
Cicero

I have found in life that if you want a miracle you first need to do whatever it is you can do—if that’s to plant, then plant; if it is to read, then read; if it is to change, then change; if it is to study, then study; if it is to work, then work; whatever you have to do. And then you will be well on your way of doing the labor that works miracles.
Jim Rohn

If your determination is fixed, I do not counsel you to despair. Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance.
Samuel Johnson

It is not so important to know everything as to know the exact value of everything, to appreciate what we learn, and to arrange what we know.
Hannah More

The clew of our destiny, wander where we will, lies at the foot of the cradle.
Jean Paul

Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? Our poets do not write about it; our artists do not try to portray this remarkable thing. The value of science remains unsung by singers: you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.
Richard Feynman

Plunge boldly into the thick of life, and seize it where you will, it is always interesting.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Inspirational Quotations #592

To know is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.
Confucius

One discipline always leads to another discipline.
Jim Rohn

I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.
Indira Gandhi

Developing expertise or assets that are not easily copied is essential; otherwise you’re just a middleman.
Seth Godin

This life is worth living, we can say, since it is what we make it.
William James

Love never reasons but profusely gives; gives, like a thoughtless prodigal, its all, and trembles lest it has done too little.
Hannah More

Anger, which, far sweeter than trickling drops of honey, rises in the bosom of a man like smoke.
Homer

The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think—rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.
John Dewey

The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Don’t ever slam a door, you might want to go back.
Don Herold

We are always acting on what has just finished happening. It happened at least 1/30th of a second ago. We think we’re in the present, but we aren’t. The present we know is only a movie of the past.
Thomas Wolfe

Man… cannot learn to forget, but hangs on the past: however far or fast he runs, that chain runs with him.
Friedrich Nietzsche

The Futility of Attachment to Expected Results

The Futility of Attachment to Expected Results

Attachments Can Cause Suffering

Hindu and Buddhist philosophies posit that focusing on the rewards or outcomes of one’s actions is a prominent cause of emotional bondage in our material existence.

Buddhism holds that, above all, desire (selfish craving or tanha) and ignorance (unawareness or avidya) lie at the root of suffering (unsatisfactoriness or dukkha.) Desire is the yearning for hedonistic pleasure, affection, possessions, relationships, power, and even immortality.

The Bhagavad Gita on Detachment from Fruits of Labor

कर्मण्ये वाधिकारस्ते म फलेषु कदाचना।
कर्मफलेह्तुर भुरमा ते संगोस्त्वकर्मानी॥
— श्रीमद्भगवद्गीता 2:47

karmaṇy evādhikāras te mā phaleṣu kadācana
mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te sańgo ‘stv akarmaṇi
— Bhagavad Gita 2:47

Translation: “To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction.” [Source: “Bhagavadgita” by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan]

“The wise are not bound by desire for rewards”

This verse suggests that the anticipated results of actions should not be the motivation for the performance of those actions.

Expounding this verse, the Hindu philosopher Madhvacharya (1238–1317) advocated godliness through right actions:

All rewards are factually independently ordained by the Supreme Lord … therefore, it is not correct to imagine that any reward which one receives is due only to one’s own efforts. … So one who is spiritually situated performs actions unattached to reward. Verily such is the way of action. … Actions performed without desire as a matter of duty are full of wisdom. … One should understand that it is fallacious to believe that one is the ultimate controller of their own destiny because the Supreme Lord ultimately ordains all results.

Hinduism (and Buddhism) actively advocates right conduct to attain definitive rewards: liberation (moksha, mukti, or nirvana) and salvation. Another Hindu philosopher Adi Shankaracharya explained that hankering for the fruits of labor results in entrapment in the cycle of birth and death, thus inhibiting liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

Buddhism encourages virtuous actions (in addition to the eschewal of bad actions) to beget positive karma for favorable rebirth and perhaps nirvana. While the abovementioned verse discourages attachment to outcomes, it does not imply that a person who performs actions without attachment to the rewards will not receive its rewards.

The Bhagavad Gita on Letting Go: The Power of Detachment

श्रेयो हि ज्ञानमभ्यासाज्ज्ञानाद्ध्यानं विशिष्यते।
ध्यानात्कर्मफलत्यागस्त्यागाच्छान्तिरनन्तरम्॥
— श्रीमद्भगवद्गीता 12:12

śreyo hi jñānam abhyāsāj jñānād dhyānaḿ viśiṣyate
dhyānāt karma-phala-tyāgas tyāgāc chāntir anantaram
— Bhagavad Gita 12:12

Translation: “Better indeed is knowledge than the practice of concentration; better than knowledge is meditation; better than meditation is the renunciation of the fruit of action; on renunciation follows immediately peace.” [Source: “Bhagavadgita” (1948) by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan]

Describing the psychological and spiritual benefits of renunciation of the rewards of actions (“karma-phala-tyagas,”) the Hindu Philosopher Madhvacharya explains this verse:

Superior to meditation with knowledge is non-attachment to performing actions for rewards and the renunciation of the rewards of actions coupled with bhakti or exclusive devotion to the Supreme Lord. … All one’s activities should be intended as an offering to the Supreme Lord because from such activities realization dawns and renunciation of the rewards of action arises and liberation from material existence manifests and the Supreme peace is attained.

Let Go of Attachments to Results

Idea for Impact: Let Go of Attachments to Results

Having no expectations of actions and lowering your expectations of people is liberating and can lead you to a happier life, not to mention of better relationships.

In terms of pursuing goals, freeing yourself from attachments to a particular outcome has to do with comprehending that there are certain things you cannot control. The attachment to a result takes hold when you believe that in order to be happy, you “must have it,” or you “should reach a goal.” Equally this attachment also arises from the anxious anticipation of a strong negative feeling if you do not reach your goal.

Alas, this attitude of letting go of attachment to results is not easy to implement. Psychologically, human beings are habitually driven by our hopes for the future, by desires from our relationships, and by a variety of other optimistic constructs like knowledge, power, status, and glory.

You can start by letting go of your attachments by redefining the form you think the results should come in. That way, should you not achieve the goal as you wish, you will remain content. Though it is an intimidating thought, remembering that many things are outside your span of control can help you let go of steep expectations.

Rather than limit the focus of your goal, a healthy approach is to consider instead your anticipated results as preferred results. By deliberating, “I prefer to have this outcome,” you can be open to anything that happens—good or bad. When good stuff happens, you can count your blessings. When bad stuff happens, you can just change direction without whining and self-pitying about how bad stuff was not supposed to happen you. Lowering expectations and detaching yourself from specific outcomes can reduce disappointment when things don’t go just as you desired.

Complement this philosophy of actions (karma or work) and results from the Bhagavad Gita with,

  1. Artist Vincent van Gogh’s Calvinistic belief that work, like religion, was a way to communion with God.
  2. General Dwight Eisenhower’s awareness that, after ordering his troops across the English Channel during World War II, the success of the invasion of Normandy was no longer in his own hands—that one could control efforts but not outcomes.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my friend Venkatasubramanian, founder of the Bangalore-based Vyoma Linguistic Labs for help with this article. Vyoma is a non-profit organization devoted to the translation, preservation, and dissemination of rare classic Indian texts. It also produces Sanskrit learning products.

Inspirational Quotations #591

We read that we ought to forgive our enemies; but we do not read that we ought to forgive our friends.
Francis Bacon

Never try to reason the prejudice out of a man. It wasn’t reasoned into him, and it cannot be reasoned out.
Sydney Smith

Hope is independent of the apparatus of logic.
Norman Cousins

Confidence: The feeling that makes one believe a man, even when one knows that one would lie in his place
H. L. Mencken

I would never have amounted to anything were it not for adversity. I was forced to come up the hard way.
James Cash Penney

The darkness of death is like the evening twilight; it makes all objects appear more lovely to the dying.
Jean Paul

Your friends will know you better in the first minute they meet you than your acquaintances will know you in a thousand years.
Richard Bach

Truth lives on in the midst of deception.
Friedrich Schiller

We should have a great many fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas only, and not for things themselves.
John Locke

The love of gain never made a painter, but it has marred many.
Washington Allston

There is a great difference between him who is ashamed before his own self and him who is only ashamed before others.
The Talmud

All mankind are happier for having been happy, so that if you make them happy new, you make them happy twenty years hence by the memory of it.
Sydney Smith

Inspirational Quotations #590

In youth we learn; in age we understand.
Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

The painter who is content with the praise of the world for what does not satisfy himself, is not an artist, but an artisan; for though his reward be only praise, his pay is that of a mechanic.
Washington Allston

Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear.
Dinah Craik

The efficient man is the man who thinks for himself.
Charles William Eliot

Anything you really want, you can attain, if you really go after it.
Wayne Dyer

A scholar is greater than a prophet.
The Talmud

The problem of education is two fold: first to know, and then to utter. Everyone who lives any semblance of an inner life thinks more nobly and profoundly than he speaks.
Robert Louis Stevenson

The next best thing to knowing something is knowing where to find it.
Samuel Johnson

The long unmeasured pulse of time moves everything. There is nothing hidden that it cannot bring to light, nothing once known that may not become unknown.
Sophocles

The virtues of society are vices of the saint. The terror of reform is the discovery that we must cast away our virtues, or what we have always esteemed such, into the same pit that has consumed our grosser vices.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Every time we’ve moved ahead in IBM, it was because someone was willing to take a chance, put his head on the block, and try something new.
Thomas J. Watson

These Celebrities and Hollywood Actors Didn’t Just Wait Around for Dream Jobs to Turn up

“He who lives uprightly and experiences true difficulty and disappointment and is nonetheless undefeated by it is worth more than someone who prospers and knows nothing but relative good fortune.”
Vincent van Gogh

Stories of superstars who struggled in their early careers are very inspiring

Some superstars had it made. They came from privileged backgrounds and had spectacular starts to their careers. They were lucky enough to attend the best schools, get the right pedigree, make the right connections, get an early break, or join the fast track to the top.

Other superstars were not so lucky in their early careers. Most of these men and women—particularly the archetypical self-made person—came from humble backgrounds and struggled to establish themselves. They found productive jobs to eke out a living, all the while never losing sight of their ambitions. They took every opportunity to learn and prove themselves. They worked hard to get a foot in the door, toiled in the trenches, learned everything about their trades, and painstakingly built their spectacular careers from the ground up. In sum, they didn’t just while their time away waiting for their desired jobs and dream gigs to show up.

Jack Nicholson, Robin Williams, Brad Pitt

Jack Nicholson, Robin Williams, Brad Pitt---Hollywood actors with humble early careers who didn't just wait around for dream jobs to turn up

Consider three Hollywood superstars who struggled during their early careers and worked modest jobs to earn their living but never abandoned their ambitions.

  • Hollywood legend Jack Nicholson (b. 1937) ran errands and worked as a messenger at Hollywood’s MGM animation studios before being “discovered.” He had moved from New Jersey to pursue his dream of becoming an actor and lived with his wannabe-actress mother (whom he thought was his sister until he was 36, a full ten years after her death.)
  • Comedian and Hollywood actor Robin Williams (1951–2014) gained precious experience in his twenties working as a mime artist in front of New York’s Museum of Modern Art while trying to find acting gigs. As a child, Williams hardly fit the stereotype of someone who would later pursue comedy. Born to a successful Ford executive, Williams grew up a shy, lonely child playing by himself in an empty room of his family’s mansion. He overcame his shyness only after taking drama classes in high school.
  • Celebrated actor and producer Brad Pitt (b. 1963) worked a variety of odd jobs while struggling to establish himself in Hollywood. To pursue his passion for the big screen, he moved to Los Angeles from Missouri two weeks before he was about to earn his degree in Journalism. He took acting lessons and made contacts. Within months, Pitt got uncredited roles in three films. For the next seven years, he gained increasing recognition in supporting roles on television and in films before securing leading roles that catapulted him to worldwide fame.

Examine the purpose of these examples viz. to emphasize that successful people find something productive to do while improving themselves and waiting for their big break. Take note of a crucial nuance: we are not discussing humble part-time or casual summer jobs that later-superstars held in their youth—e.g., Pope Francis worked as a bouncer in Buenos Aires, German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a barmaid in Leipzig, Bill Gates as a page in the United States Congress, Warren Buffett as a newspaper delivery boy in Washington, D.C.

Albert Einstein, Soichiro Honda, Stephen King

Albert Einstein, Soichiro Honda, Stephen King---Celebrities with humble early careers who didn't just wait around for dream jobs to turn up

Other disciplines also present plenty of superstars who pursued their ambitions while holding humble first-jobs.

  • Physicist and philosopher Albert Einstein (1879–1955) spent two frustrating post-college years searching for a teaching job before becoming a clerk at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. In between examining patent applications and during his spare time, he worked on physics problems. In his third year at the job, he wrote four groundbreaking papers that transformed physics.
  • When Japanese engineer and industrialist Soichiro Honda (1906–1991) moved to Tokyo at age 15 to find work as an auto mechanic, a repair shop owner hired him as a nanny to his infant. With a child in tow, Honda often meandered about the garage, observing and learning from the mechanics. When the child was asleep, Honda tinkered with engines and started giving suggestions to the mechanics. He strengthened his passion for automotive engines just as the nascent industrial base of Japan was finding a new enthusiasm for machines.
  • 'Carrie' by Stephen King (ISBN 0307743667) Best-selling author Stephen King (b. 1947) struggled for years after graduating from college. He and his writer-wife grappled financially and lived in a trailer home. He worked hard at building a career as a writer and developed ideas for many novels. King sold short stories to men’s magazines and worked small jobs to make a living. When working as a janitor in a school locker room, he was inspired to write a novel titled “Carrie”. Set in a girls’ locker room, Carrie features a schoolgirl who exercises her newly-discovered telekinetic powers to exact revenge on her bullies. Carrie turned into King’s first published novel and lent him his big break.

Idea for Impact: Self-disciplined people don’t wait for the right answer or the golden path to present themselves. They understand that the best way to get unstuck is to start somewhere, focus on action, keep themselves productive, amend their course if necessary, and do all this without losing sight of their goals and ambitions.

A note of caution: Stories of superstars’ successes are but cherry-picked examples

“Welcome to Hollywood. What’s your dream?
Everybody comes here. This is Hollywood, the land of dreams.
Some dreams come true, some don’t. But keep on dreamin’.
This is Hollywood. Always time to dream, so keep on dreamin’.”
— From “Pretty Woman” (1990)

More than we possibly realize, so much of life’s success in life has to do with luck (or fate or destiny.) As I’ve written previously, success is often more about being at the right place, at the right time, and with the right person than about possessing the right skills and working hard.

The above are merely examples of a few lucky superstars who made it big in Hollywood or in their chosen disciplines and followed their passions as careers.

For every Stephen Hawking or J. K. Rowling, there are thousands of wannabe writers whose creative writing doesn’t even pay enough to buy the notebooks they use.

For every Jack Nicholson, Robin Williams, or Brad Pitt, there are countless Hollywood wannabes struggling in the “Land of a Million Dreams.” What’s more, among actors who manage to find work, an even smaller fraction of them actually make a living doing it. Part-timers are paid so little that they must work at stores, restaurants, or bars at night and on weekends. The cost of living in Southern California has hit the roof; even professionally-done headshots cost hundreds of dollars. The celebrity impersonators and street performers on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame have even started aggressively pestering tourists and photographers for bigger tips.

Celebrity impersonators and street artists on Hollywood's Walk of Fame pestering tourists for bigger tips

In the la-la land of Los Angeles, chances are that any random person you meet is an aspiring actor, model, designer, musician, songwriter, screenplay writer, director, stunt-double, makeup artist, or is trying to get some gig in the entertainment industry. Each aspirant is taking classes, trying to make contacts, looking for auditions, hoping to land jobs, wishing to be “discovered” by an actor or noticed by a talent agent at a restaurant, club, or elsewhere.

Competition is brutal and the market for fame is saturated

In Hollywood, anything is possible and yes, “some dreams come true.” However, in reality, there’s an infinitesimal chance that any aspirant will ever get a break. Even still, thousands of hopefuls flock to Hollywood every year (and thousands of rejects move out.) After endless auditions, rejections, or false starts, they wake up to the harsh realities of competition and get jobs that are more gratifying than chasing a near-impossible dream.

“He that lives upon hope will die fasting.”
Benjamin Franklin

If you have a passion for something that will not pay adequately, pursue it on the side. Here’s some sage advice from my mentor Marty Nemko:

Do what you love, but don’t expect to get paid for it. Want to be on stage? Act in community theater. Want to be an artist? Convince a restaurant to let you decorate its walls with your creations. To make money, pick a field that pays decently and has few liabilities. Chances are, that will lead to more career contentment than pursuing a long-shot dream as your career. Treating a long-shot dream as an avocation gives you most of its pleasure without forcing you to endure a life of poverty.

Inspirational Quotations #589

It’s not the work which kills people, it’s the worry. It’s not the revolution that destroys machinery it’s the friction.
Henry Ward Beecher

Health is the soul that animates all the enjoyments of life, which fade and are tasteless without it.
William Temple

Ambition is pitiless. Any merit that it cannot use it finds despicable.
Joseph Joubert

He that has never suffered extreme adversity, knows not the full extent of his own depravation.
Charles Caleb Colton

Physical deformity, calls forth our charity. But the infinite misfortune of moral deformity calls forth nothing but hatred and vengeance.
Clarence Darrow

We should all be obliged to appear before a board every five years, and justify our existence… on pain of liquidation.
George Bernard Shaw

The miracle on earth are the laws of heaven.
Jean Paul

No one loves the man whom he fears.
Aristotle

A good goal is like a strenuous exercise—it makes you stretch.
Mary Kay Ash

Patience: A minor form of despair disguised as a virtue.
Ambrose Bierce

The history of man for the nine months preceding his birth would, probably, be far more interesting and contain events of greater moment than all the three score and ten years that follow it.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A timid person is frightened before a danger; a coward during the time; and a courageous person afterward.
Jean Paul

Knowledge is the antidote to fear.
Ralph Waldo Emerson