The Formula for Greatness

The not-so simple way to become a world-class storyteller

March 26, 2023
min read

Greetings, Chief Storytelling Officers.

This week I took a quick trip to SF for a handful of events and some work with partners. It's great to see so much happening out here and generative AI has created a ton of energy.

Besides that, things have started to settle down after the SVB craziness. Deals are coming together, founders are getting term sheets, and the Q2 rush before summer slowdown is on.

I've been thinking a lot about what it takes to be the best. Not good. Not great. The best.

This deep dive might hurt some people's feelings. That's because it's for the people who want to be the best in the world at what they do.


DEEP DIVE: The Discipline of Success

I hated losing as a college baseball player.

I hated losing as a Nike sponsored CrossFit athlete.

I hated losing as a trial lawyer.

That drive to never lose has always pushed me to want to be the best. It's an obsession. I've never understood people who are okay with losing. I've never understood people who are okay with being okay.

When I decided to build Competitive Storytelling, I made myself a promise. I would work with the people that Tim Grover calls a "Cleaner". Michael Jordan was a cleaner and so was Kobe.

Cleaners are unstoppable. They are the best when the lights shine the brightest and they are also the best when nobody is watching. It's that combination that makes them special. They don't do it for fame. They do it for greatness. To fulfill their potential and make their mark on the world.

I can tell in a matter of minutes if a founder has what it takes to become a world-class storyteller. If they can be a world-class storyteller, they can shape the future of the world. History has shown us this time and time again.

What I see in these founders who are cleaners is clear. There’s a fire to them, an insatiable hunger that not all founders have.

I get a lot of founders who TELL me they want to be great. They say the words, they talk the talk, but when it comes down to it, I find they can’t walk the walk. I find they aren’t willing to spend the time, energy, and yes, money to get the job done.

I find that they aren't willing to sacrifice and suffer to get to the top.

These are the ones who usually want the formula—the hack for achieving their dreams of getting funding or scaling their company to an IPO or getting that 8-figure exit. They want the magic weight loss pill.

I'll tell them what it takes.

Hard Work + Raw Talent = Success.

That’s it. A math equation a first grader could solve. No calculus involved.

But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

Many of them have some talent but not to the level they need. Almost all of them fail the hard work test.

A quick glance at my own journey with my obsession on storytelling. I started studying propaganda, narrative, and storytelling back in 6th grade. I competed in extemporaneous speaking in high school. I wrote my senior thesis on narrative control in college. I competed on the National Mock Trial team in Law School. I tried 102 jury and was in the courtroom every single day for 7 years arguing in front of judges.

Storytelling is not the fairy dust, feel good, easy to do thing that the false gurus want you to think. It's hard and that's a good thing. It means most people won't take advantage of the opportunity.

One thing you know is that hard work is, well, HARD. It’s MUCH harder than we expect it to be.

The problem is that society thrives on success stories, and when we see them unfold in an interview or a Netflix documentary, the hard work is glossed over. Rocky Balboa trains to fight Apollo Creed in a three-minute montage. The time is compressed, because watching months of work in real time would be BORING.

Instead, these stories focus on the turning point—the moment when all of that hard work pays off.

As a result, we hear these stories about how successful people have struggled, and it desensitizes us to it. Of course they struggled to get to where they did! Of course they put in the hard work! And if they can do it, so can YOU!

The reality is much more bleak. When faced with the challenge of dedication and discipline, the vast majority of people will crumble.

Few would argue that the Navy’s special warfare unit—more commonly known as the SEALs—is composed of anything other than elite warriors. In order to earn the SEAL trident, sailors must go through what’s arguably the most rigorous training program in the world.

It’s a profession that’s certainly been glamorized by hollywood. From Charlie Sheen’s portrayal of a frogman in the 1990 movie Navy SEALs to Chris Pratt and Seal Team Six’s heroic takedown of Osama Bin Laden in the movie Zero Dark Thirty both films portray the grit and dedication needed to become elite.

But in real life, earning the title is much more difficult. On average, 75 percent of candidates don’t make it through the famed BUD/S training—and up to 90 percent of officers wash out. That’s NINE of 10—all of whom volunteered, thinking they had what it took.

“It’s not a Rambo movie, former SEAL Jeff Everage told NBC News. “Instead of focusing on the glamorous outcomes in the news, I would focus on what it takes to become a Navy SEAL—the mental and physical demands.”

That’s what real hard work looks like. You know what else it looks like?

During a 2011 60 Minutes interview, Anderson Cooper asked rapper Eminem to confirm a rumor that when he was a kid, he would read the dictionary to increase his rhyming repertoire.

“I just felt like I wanted to have all of these words at my disposal,” Eminem said. “Whenever I needed to pull them out, somewhere they’d be stored, like locked away.”

Talk about an insane level of tedious dedication. There certainly was no montage of Slim Shady reading the dictionary in his biopic 8 Mile, but the work seems to have paid off.

According to a 2015 Musixmatch study, Eminem uses more unique words in his rap than any other artist studied. His rap vocabulary is 8,818 words, and on average, he uses a word he has never previously used every 11 words.

Compare this with the average artist, who has an average vocabulary of 2,677 words—or The Beatles, who ranked 76th on the list with a vocabulary of 1,872 words.

Need more? What about Michael Phelps, who famously didn’t skip a single day of training—FOR FIVE YEARS. That’s 1,825 straight days of training—far too many to document in a three-minute montage.

“In the world of swimming, when you miss one day, it takes you two days to get back,” Phelps told Forbes. “So I was continuing to build on that throughout that time. That was just who I was. There are days you don’t want to do it; everybody has those days. But it’s what you do on those days that move you forward.”

Contentment ≠ Greatness

There’s another part of the formula that’s a bit more complicated than the first part. It’s that contentment doesn’t equal greatness.

I see plenty of people who think that by achieving greatness, they’ll be content. But it doesn’t work that way.

It’s something that Ryan Holiday talks about in his book, Discipline Is Destiny. He gives the example of Babe Ruth, who ate something like a dozen hot dogs per day. Ruth, an incredible talent in his own right, was content with his greatness. But as he later shared with fellow Yankee Lou Gherig, he regretted some of his slothful behavior.

“I made a lot of mistakes when I was coming along,” Ruth said. “I didn’t eat right, I didn’t live right, and later on, I had to pay for all of those mistakes. I don’t want you do the same.”

Holiday says despite all of Ruth’s achievements, they carry with them a tinge of sadness. What could he have accomplished if he had been hungrier, less content with his achievements? What greatness did he leave on the table? We’ll never know.

But that’s okay. Like Kobe Bryant said, “greatness isn’t for everyone.” It doesn’t devalue you as a person. You don’t have to be great to be content.

I’m a big proponent that people should live the life they are happy with instead of chasing what others push on them. A great 9-5 and a happy life is PERFECT for the vast majority.

But for those that need more, the ones that toss and turn at night and are never satisfied, the formula is the answer.

The greats have left those clues. Study them, learn from them, and follow in their paths.

RESOURCES for Founders and Storytellers

There are some unvarnished truths about becoming a SEAL—as long as you’re willing to strip away the Hollywood shine. Take a look at Chris Kyle’s book, American Sniper, or Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell. Though both ended up becoming the basis for quite good films, the books really detail the hard work and dedication it took for the authors to get there.

Being the best storyteller doesn't mean your perfect. You'll never be perfect and that's a good thing because it makes your stories connect to the audience. In fact, that imperfection is what sets you up to land that next big round of funding...if you know how to frame it the right way.


"If you think the price of winning is too high, wait until you get the bill from regret." -Tim Grover

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