I have said it. Many times.
So have many school counselors, bosses, friends, even parents. Typically it was uttered as sage advice to dissuade a foolish act, to protect a loved one from crushing disappointment or, in my case, to steer an executive away from an ill-advised career choice that was sure to be a setback.
It is a safe phrase to use. How could anyone go wrong using it when giving advice? Well, apparently it took an actor of extraordinary accomplishment and success, Will Smith, to set the record straight.
“Being realistic is the most commonly traveled road to mediocrity.”
To add some historical heft to his beliefs, Mr. Smith likes to trot out the Chinese social thinker and philosopher Confucius who wrote, “He who says he can and he who says he can’t are both usually right.”
I was on the fast road to writing off Mr. Smith’s spiel as just so much bunk, sort of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” wrapped in 21st century Hollywood glitz. It is easy after all to be a purveyor of secrets to success when you’ve got it made, like a gambler with a Royal Flush who feels he is the smartest person at the poker table. There is some skill involved but man oh man, luck is in the mix as well. But more than anything else, you have to have confidence and courage.
So, I thought, perhaps Mr. Smith, like so many positive thinkers before him, is on to something. He crystallized that for me when he said, “But you have to make it real.
“There is a redemptive power in making a choice, who are you going to be and how you are going to do it. Then you just have to decide.
“There is no reason to have a Plan B. It just distracts from your Plan A.”
In the end, those who succeed are not necessarily the people who are realistic. Mr. Smith’s rationale goes like this:
It was not realistic in the early 1880s to think you could walk into a room, flip a switch and turn on lights, to illuminate homes and businesses, indeed entire cities, but Thomas Edison, who was partially deaf and suffered as a child from hyperactivity, thought it was entirely possible.
It was not realistic in the early 1900s to think you could wrap aluminum around a steel frame and fly people across the ocean, but Orville and Wilbur Wright were not to be deterred. Their invention of three-axis control, which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively, was a major breakthrough that led to commercial flight.
History is, in fact, filled with examples where being unrealistic produced game changing inventions, game changing results. Just ask Broadway Joe Namath, the New York Jets quarterback who confidently predicted, to much ridicule and disbelief, that his underdog AFL team would defeat the powerful Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. They did, 16-7, but it just wasn’t realistic to believe that could happen.
The secret, Mr. Smith believes, is that “you must possess a desperate obsessive focus with all your fiber, your whole heart and every ounce of your creativity.” It also helps to fear not being successful, he added.
For those of us who interview candidates for leadership jobs or counsel executives in transition, there is an almost overwhelming tendency to be wise, circumspect and to play it safe. We can always summon up dozens of barriers (excuses) — competitive environment, established relationships, access to capital — to make the case for not taking such a risk but in doing so, are we doing someone a service, or an enormous disservice? Perhaps the wise advice would be to ask, Can you really make this real? Do you have the courage, the stamina, the heart and the creativity to sustain your plan?
“It is always too early to quit,” Dr. Peale once said. “Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.”
The Rev. Mr. Peale, ordained as by Methodist-Episcopal Church, began his 52-year tenure as pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City in 1932. It was the Rev. Peale’s positive outlook and his belief that all manner of things were possible that enabled him to oversee the church’s membership growth from 600 to more than 5,000. He became one of America’s most famous preachers.
Perhaps the phrase “being realistic” is similar to another overused phrase when trying to find a reason not to do something. But then “conventional wisdom” which, time has proven, is seldom right.
© 2021 John Gregory Self