Why are some people successful over and over and over again?

Star Trek cast with J.J. Abrams — pic by Eva Rinaldi

Work hard and…

Star Trek Beyond is doing great at the box office, but some critics aren’t impressed. Owen Gleiberman at Variety has seen better:

Where is there left for the series to boldly go? I don’t believe that “Star Trek Beyond” is the answer. Justin Lin’s new film delivers in terms of action, but it’s a deluxe place-holder, earthbound in spirit and a bit leaden, all too rooted in ancient interplanetary tropes. It has visual extravagance (especially in the vertiginous climax), as well as tasty bits and pieces of the characters’ personalities, but it rarely gets both things together in the same place, and that’s a serious setback.

Another thing caught my eye about Owen’s review. Though he was a fan of J.J. Abrams first and second effort at the rebooted franchise, he had this to say about Abrams and his second Trek movie Into the Darkness:

By the time of his second “Star Trek” movie, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” it was more or less evident that Abrams was auditioning for “Star Wars.” He wanted to captain that franchise, and he earned the promotion by proving himself to be a master of retrofitted nostalgia.

Is that even true? Did Abrams use Star Trek as a stepping stone to Star Wars? After all Abrams wasn’t even a fan of Star Trek growing up, but he sure was a Star Wars fan.

Turns out this doesn’t seem true at all. Abrams turned down an offer from Disney to do Star Wars exactly because of Star Trek. From Neil Daniel’s biography of Abrams:

There were the very early conversations and I quickly said that because of my loyalty to Star Trek, and also just being a fan, I wouldn’t even want to be involved in the next version of those things. I declined any involvement very early on. I’d rather be in the audience not knowing what was coming, rather than being involved in the minutiae of making them.

Abrams finally considered Disney’s persistent offer only after Into the Darkness was done with production.

So what? Well, I think this shows us some interesting behavior Abrams exhibits about work and perhaps why he’s so successful over and over again.

On July 20, 1969, man stepped on the moon. That feat was an incredible collaboration of ideas and thinking from the most brilliant minds on earth. One of the key groups was Nasa’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory). The JPL wasn’t always Nasa’s. The JPL goes back to 1936 when they were the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory and were inventing and testing rocket technology for the military.

Given JPL’s age and history, in the 1990s, many of the engineers that helped put man on the moon were retiring. A new generation of JPL engineers were replacing them.

One problem. Those new engineers weren’t solving problems as well as the old ones. Sure they were smart. Came from the best schools. Knew their stuff. But they often weren’t able to complete difficult and complex projects all the way to practical execution.

What happened? And what could they do to fix it.

They discovered an article by Nate Jones. Nate ran a machine shop of engineers who worked on race cars and tires. He saw the same thing the JPL was seeing. The new engineers just weren’t problem solving as well. So he dug into interviewing folks and discovered a correlation, one that the JPL confirmed.

The older more senior engineers who were good at problem solving also happened to have grown up building gadgets, taking apart things, making their own soap box race cars, and just generally “playing” at being engineers before they were ever technically trained as engineers. The new engineers, who weren’t up to snuff, didn’t. They knew theory from text books, and learned all the things well that they needed to learn. But they didn’t grow up playing as engineers or embracing play even as adults.

This is just one anecdote from a wonderful book called Play by Stuart Brown, M.D. that explores powerful research and findings on how important play is for realizing our full potential. When we don’t play and everything is just work, we don’t grow like we should. Play is insanely important in the animal kingdom and through our own childhood. But we forget, it doesn’t stop being important. Adults need it too.

Let’s look a little closer at J.J. Abrams.

I think the reason Owen Gleiberman thinks Abrams was auditioning is that Abrams sort of is. But unintentionally. He’s playing. He’s taking something he did before and pushing it a little further. Kids play the same way. They take an ability and see if they can push it a little differently. They learn to swim and then try to swim backwards.

Abrams is the well known creator of the popular TV show Alias. But many don’t realize that Abrams was also the creator of a TV show before Alias called Felicity, which focused on college relationships and drama. Alias was Abrams playing:

What if Felicity were a spy

When you look into Abrams past you see he was playing at being a movie maker even as a child. He’d shoot Super 8 films and create special effects like a “lighting bolt” monster by scratching the actual film frame by frame. (Turns out Spielberg was shooting Super 8 films too as a kid.)

And Abrams never lost that sense of play.

In fairness, I don’t think I’ve stopped writing dodgy screenplays. When I was in college I wrote around ten screenplays. Some were about young people going through crazy adventures. Some were more offbeat — there was always an odd love story at the core of it. It was the beginning of wanting to try to figure out how to write a screenplay. There’s never a moment you go from being an amateur writer doing the best you can to being a professional writer who does great — you’re always doing the same thing but if you’re lucky at some point, you make a living from it. I don’t feel any different when I sit down to write something today than I did back in college. It still starts with: “What if I did this?”’

He doesn’t feel any different from when he was a kid just playing. I think that’s a huge reason Abrams has been able to get to where he is and why he remains so prolific even after strings of failures.

I think it’s not about when your time is and isn’t, and people have ups and downs. I think you can’t predict anything. You don’t know what anyone’s going to say.

“You can’t predict anything.” According to Brown one of the key ingredients to making something play is its apparent purposelessness. I think Abrams admitting that he can’t predict what his work will do allows him to still treat his projects as play even when it’s now his job.

Don’t get me wrong. You can’t just play and become the success J.J. Abrams is. Plenty of people used a Super 8 as a kid and aren’t the next Spielberg. But I think most successful people, if you look closely, you’ll see they’ve figured out how to turn work into play. And it’s an important part of getting through all the stuff in our way.

I spend time trying to teach my daughter the importance of working hard and being smart. As she goes to sleep I’ll tell her how proud I am of her that she’s learning so much and working so hard to figure things out. I praise her curiosity and how much time she spends asking us questions.

My wife was pretty shocked when my daughter then was giving our pet cat, Tela, advice randomly one day. She told Tela, “You need to work hard and…”

Tela definitely needs to get off the table. But yes, my daughter just taught me a lesson that I often forget. Work hard and play.

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