The comedian learned a lot from his struggles.

By Brandon Lewis
October 6, 2017

You wouldn’t expect the University of Southern California’s 2017 commencement speaker to open their speech with tales of streaking incidents or how receiving an honorary doctorate prepared them to perform minimally invasive surgery—unless, of course, it’s Will Ferrell.

Ferrell’s stories of ambition, failure, and perseverance ring true with anyone who has striven for greatness and fallen down along the way.

He explained the beginning of his career in comedy: “I wasn’t extremely confident that I would succeed during this time period, and after moving back to [Los Angeles], there were many a night where in my LA apartment, I would sit down to a meal of spaghetti topped with mustard, with only $20 in my checking account, and I would think to myself, ‘Oh well, I can always be a substitute schoolteacher.’”

Much like all successful business leaders, Ferrell didn’t give up on his dream of becoming a comedian. Instead, he fought vigorously for his dreams.

Here are four lessons you need to learn from Ferrell’s speech:

Keep throwing darts

When a business leader finds success in one portion of their life or business, it’s easy to stop trying new ideas. But what is entrepreneurial success? Where is the best time to stop, kick your legs up on the desk, and say you’ve reached your ceiling?

Never.

“And yes, I was afraid,” Ferrell said. “But my fear of failure never approached in magnitude my fear of ‘what if.’ What if I never tried at all?”

Don’t stunt your personal and professional growth by closing off your options. Constantly challenging and discovering yourself and your company will alter opportunities and open new doors.

Stay on your toes by attending networking events. Connect and share your thoughts on social media, especially in LinkedIn groups. Talk to your peers for tips on how they’re developing professionally, keeping skills relevant, and growing their businesses.

What’s more, take educational courses to brush up on your current skills, learn new ones, or dive into something you’ve never taken the time to learn.

Don’t expect immediate success

When you finally take your career leap, it’s hard not to expect immediate success.

“So I graduate and I immediately get a job right out of college working for ESPN, right?” Ferrell said. “Wrong. No, I moved right back home.”

It’s setbacks like these that make us feel like failures, but most successful business leaders got to where they are today after overcoming a major obstacle. Usually, it’s these setbacks that teach the most valuable lessons and launch people into their rewarding entrepreneurial adventures.

While there is no time limit on success, it’s important to have goals and timelines to keep yourself moving forward. Find mentors who have walked down similar paths with their businesses. Ask them to share their own timelines, setbacks, expectations, and harsh reality checks along the way.

Know when to listen to criticism

Critics are everywhere and in every business. Even Ferrell received—and continues to receive—harsh feedback.

“[TV critic Tom Shales] told me congratulations on my time at [Saturday Night Live] and then he apologized for things he had written about me in some of his early reviews of my work,” Ferrell said. “I hadn’t read his reviews.”

With the constant use and availability of social media and the press, no successful business leader is exempt from critics. While a certain amount of constructive feedback can be helpful, taking it too personally is detrimental to your confidence.

Be open to growing, but don’t lift your head from your dream. As you push forward, take each piece of criticism with a grain of salt. Know when someone may be saying something relevant and when to walk away.

Remember who you are

Know who you are at the very core of your being. This is an important, but often forgotten, key to being a successful business leader.

Ferrell advised, “No matter how cliché it may sound, you will never truly be successful until you learn to give beyond yourself. Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence.”

Constantly check in with yourself. Ask yourself what’s important, why you want to be a successful business leader, and what’s driving you forward. Some people use criticism or money to propel their ambitions. However, these two mindsets are dangerous places for entrepreneurs.

Focus on your passions and how your business affects the lives of others. If your passions change, reflect on your company and decide if adding or taking away certain aspects will benefit its future.

No matter where your path takes you, remember Ferrell’s final piece of advice:

“Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut; keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.”

Brandon Lewis is the president and CEO of Win More Patients.

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