One day early in Will Smith’s career, his business manager and friend from back home, James Lassiter, confronted Smith: “If you want me to help you, I need to know what I’m helping you do.” Smith was baffled. “Things are going good! I think you’re just not seein’ it, J.”
After rising to overnight stardom while still a teenager with the hit single Parents Just Don’t Understand, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince forgot to pay their taxes. They then hit a severe sophomore slump, which bankrupted Smith. Thanks to Lassiter’s guidance, Smith was now back on top—with both the IRS and the music industry. Most recently, he was enjoying the surprise success of a hit TV show called The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
“I am seeing it,” Lassiter said. “I’m seeing it all over the place, and unfocused. I need to know what the goal is.”
“The goal is not to be broke,” Smith said. “To have fun. To travel. To do what we want. To not have the IRS taking our sh#t anymore.”
“So technically,” Lassiter said, “that’s five goals. And that’s the problem. What is the Dream? What are we trying to build? What do you want?”
What Top Talent Craves
Like Smith, Lassiter was also in West Philadelphia born and raised, on the playground is (presumably) where he spent most of his days. But unlike the charismatic, high school-educated Smith, Lassiter had put himself through Temple Law School and was the stone-faced yin to Smith’s always-smiling yang.
Like many talented professionals, Lassiter didn’t crave the spotlight. But he desperately wanted to know the specific dimensions and exact location of Smith’s desired spotlight.
Two decades later, Harvard researcher Theresa Amabile and her husband Steven Kramer would give a name to Lassiter’s yearning. They called it "The Progress Principle." According to their research on working professionals, pay and praise are table stakes—they are necessary but not sufficient rewards for fully engaging talented team members. Lassiter didn’t want an “atta boy!” from Smith. He didn’t want a bonus or a new title or to yuk it up with Arsenio Hall.
What talented people want most is to be given the opportunity–day after day—to make progress toward a meaningful goal. Lassiter despised spraying his talent scatter-shot over a never-ending series of daily brush fires. He simply wanted a clear channel in which he could unleash his talent and energy.
Smith got the message. After a few moments, he sheepishly said something he knew would sound absurd to anyone who heard the rapper and one-time tv actor say. “I want to be the biggest movie star in the world.”
“Now that’s a goal,” Lassiter said.
The Fresh Principle in Practice
Lassiter immediately began pouring himself into mastering the ins and outs of the movie business—from uncovering the key features of the highest-grossing movies in history (special effects, creatures, and romantic storylines) to defining the distinction between a good actor and a bonafide movie star (the ability to fight, to be funny, and to be good at love scenes–the “3 Fs of movie stardom” as Smith dubbed them.)
By the end of the decade, Will Smith was indeed the highest paid, highest-grossing movie star ever.
The point is: Deciding the dream unleashes the talent of the team.
I like to call that mad rhyme “The Fresh Principle.” The easiest way to apply the Fresh Principle is to clearly answer the question James Lassiter asked Will Smith all those years ago: What is the Dream?