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The one question most people fail to ask

Posted in the following categories: Motivation, Personal Development

The 29-year-old actor stared blankly at his bank account statement.

He had only $106 left to his name.

His acting career was going nowhere. He couldn’t afford rent on his cheap Hollywood apartment. He even tried to sell his dog because he didn’t have enough money to buy dog food.

To take his mind off things, he walked into a theatre to watch the world heavyweight title fight. Reigning champion Muhammad Ali was facing off against Chuck Wepner, a relatively unknown club fighter. The fight was supposed to be an easy win for Ali. But defying all odds, Wepner held on for 15 rounds before being knocked out.

Against one of the greatest boxers of all time, this supposed nobody had held his own. Inspired by this triumph of human spirit he witnessed, the actor decided to write a screenplay. Since he couldn’t get acting jobs in other people’s movies, he could use this opportunity to create a lead character for himself to play. He grabbed a Bic pen, lined sheets of paper, and started writing.

He finished the script in just 3 days.

One day, on his way out the door from another failed audition, he turned around, and on a whim, mentioned his script to the producers in the room.

Intrigued by the premise, the producers read the script, loved it, and offered $25,000 to purchase the rights. But they had a condition: They wanted a big name actor with a big box-office draw to play the lead.

The actor refused.

He had written the script so he could play the lead. “I’d rather bury [the script] in the back yard and let the caterpillars play [the lead],” he told his wife. “I would have hated myself for selling out.”

The producers mistook the actor’s stance for a negotiating tactic, so they kept increasing the offer. To $100,000. Then $175,000. And then $250,000.

Finally, $360,000.

He refused to budge.

The producers kept insisting they needed a big star to play the lead, but the actor wanted to live by the story he told in the script—about going after your unrealized dreams and having faith in yourself.

The producers finally relented and greenlit the film on the condition that the budget be kept low. The film was shot in 28 days on a meager $1 million budget. To make ends meet, the actor ended up casting several family members in the film, including his father, brother, wife—and even his dog, Butkus.

The film beat all expectations.

It went on to earn $225 million in global box office receipts, and won three Academy Awards in 1977, including Best Picture.

The movie, as you may have guessed, was Rocky, and the actor was a young Slyvester Stallone.

Most people in Stallone’s position would have given up the lead to another actor and just sold the script.

But Stallone wanted to be an actor. That was his north star.

With his long-term guiding principle clear, the decision was simple. He wasn’t going to throw away an opportunity to star in a potential blockbuster—playing a role literally created for him—even if it meant walking away from a lucrative deal with nothing to show for it.

Most people, and most businesses, have no idea what their north star is. They are often guided—not by long-term principles—but short-term outcomes that fail to transcend this week or this quarter. As a result, they end up chasing things out of alignment with who they are.

By north star, I don’t mean vague corporate values like “accountability” or “team work.” These values are meaningless unless they’re specific enough to guide how decisions are made at all levels.

Ask yourself: What is my north star? Why do I do what I do?  

If you have a hard time figuring out the answer, try Jim Collins’s 20-10 test. What would you do—and what would you not do—if you had $20 million in the bank or had no more than 10 years to live?

Determine your north star and let it guide all the choices you make—what you reject and what you embrace.

Decide what you want from life, and say no to everything that doesn’t bring you closer to it.

In the end, Yogi Berra had it right: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”

P.S. My calendar has been booked up with virtual presentations this year to businesses and organizations looking to reimagine the status quo through moonshot thinking. I recently kicked off the culture week for Vizient, the largest member-driven health care performance improvement company in the country. See below for some of the amazing messages that poured in from the audience!

To learn more about my speaking and submit a booking request, head over here.

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