Sean Kanan | Defining Success in Yourself

When I think of discussing inspiration and how it relates to success, I become immediately impassioned! When I was asked about this topic, in my exuberance I blurted out, “Inspiration serves as the genesis of all success.” Sounds good, right? Makes sense.


As the author of three books, two of which tackle the subject of success and motivation (Success Factor X and Way of the COBRA), it seems reasonable that my perspective should merit some gravity. However, those words rolled out of my mouth with a little too much immediacy rather than thoughtful contemplation. Dare I say bordering on glibness.


I began to give some serious thought to what I had said. While I do believe that inspiration is, in fact, the genesis of success, I needed to take a serious look at how I arrived at that belief.


My contemplation brought me back to my childhood in a small blue-collar town in western Pennsylvania. As a young boy, I was overweight and painfully insecure. Both of which made me a target for bullies. The psychic scars from years of physical and emotional abuse have taken a lifetime to heal.


Repetitive daily taunts, insults, and attacks were targeted at my appearance and for being Jewish. This was devastating to my self-esteem. Yet through all that pain and anguish, I eventually began to shift, and something beautiful took root. A sense of defiance was born. The legion of haters who were shouting out that I would never achieve success unintentionally inspired a relentless strength to start building inside of me. That humiliation built an inferno that still burns to this day.


This newfound inspiration created the foundation for my WHY. What is a WHY and why does it play such a critical role in determining our success? Your WHY serves as the driving force that propels you to accomplish your goals. It’s that energy that gets you out of bed at five in the morning, full of passion, waiting to conquer the day. It’s what picks you up off the ground when you’ve been knocked down. When the going gets tough—and believe me, it will—your WHY will remind you in the darkest hours why you must continue the struggle to succeed.


Having a tangible representation of your WHY is a powerful tool. It can be anything from a tattoo to a photo to a promise you have made. My wedding ring serves as my WHY. It functions as a constant and reassuring reminder of my commitment to my wife, Michele, and the love I feel for her. Whenever life momentarily appears overwhelming, all I need to do is glance down to my left hand, and I am immediately reminded of why I do what I do. I never want to see buyer’s remorse in her beautiful brown eyes. I never want to see a glimmer of disappointment that implies I am not living up to my potential.


Two types of inspiration exist. The first moves you away from something that you do not want. In my case, it was the mental image of a scared young boy unable to fend for himself. Years of training in a martial arts dojo hardened my body, built my confidence, and ultimately allowed the man I am today to emerge. It has taken many more years to finally accept and make peace with that scared young boy, my inner child.


The second type of inspiration moves us towards something. Since I was a teenager, I knew that I wanted to become an actor and there was a life waiting for me beyond the horizon of my small town. This inspiration came to me in a way that I didn’t understand at the time but now, in retrospect, seems so obvious.


Sean Kanan – Movie Mentors
My frequent trips to one of the three movie theaters in my town served as a sanctuary, an oasis apart from the chaos that permeated my adolescence. Alone in the dark, I could escape the slings and arrows from the outside world.


When the theater doors closed and the lights faded into darkness, my hopes and dreams would take flight. I sat mesmerized by the fearless characters and exotic places that flickered before me on the silver screen. My earliest mentors were Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars.


These larger-than-life characters were my earliest mentors teaching me about bravery, grit, compassion, and cool. They not only inspired me to become the best version of myself, but they also planted the seeds in my heart and mind to become an actor.


For years I believed that my choice to become an actor was born from the desire to escape myself and ultimately be loved. Years later, I realized that the essence of this choice, when distilled down to my core, was actually my desire to inspire the world. To achieve this, my belief was that I would need to take the path less traveled, and I definitely discovered more than a few obstacles in my way.


As my parents’ only son, I was expected to take over the family business—a large chain of retail jewelry stores headquartered in my hometown. Choosing this well-worn path would have all but assured me some degree of success. However, it would have also placed my chances of true happiness in serious jeopardy. Not wanting to disappoint my father weighed heavily upon me. He had gone into the family business like his father before him, and I was expected to follow.


Eventually, I stumbled upon an invaluable realization that to this day has proven one of the greatest lessons I have learned. If I were to truly be successful, that success would need to be my created achievement. Each one of us carries within our hearts a feeling of what we need to truly be successful for ourselves.


Most of us share certain common denominators for what we require to feel successful: the love of our family, a fulfilling career, and a level of financial freedom and security. However, we also have some very specific requirements that, while important to you, may not necessarily be important to anyone else. It is imperative that you define YOUR success, not the success dictated to you by external forces.


Let me tell you what success is not. It is not the images from television commercials that constantly bombard us with things we must have to be successful. It is not the airbrushed pictures of nearly unattainable physical beauty that grace the covers of fitness and fashion magazines. And it is certainly not what you see on the Instagram feeds of celebrities who parade their conspicuous consumption in the form of luxury cars, yachts, and private jets.


I have worked in Hollywood for over thirty years, so allow me to pull back the emerald curtain and offer a little insight. Many of the “extraordinary” lives you see these people sharing on social media are a fantasy utilizing beauty-enhancing filters and fabricated with borrowed ultra-expensive toys. There’s a saying; I’m not sure who said it, and I wish it was me, but it’s true, nonetheless. “Things aren’t always what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream.”


As a corollary to this insight, may I also suggest that gorgeous models twerking on sports cars generally don’t eat calorie-laden triple cheeseburgers, nor do athletic, ripped guys running shirtless on the beach consume a case of beer with their buddies as you will be led to believe.


If you succumb to society’s definition of success, you may very well find yourself feeling hollow and tormented by the echo of dissatisfaction pinballing in your mind. Brad Pitt’s Fight Club character, Tyler Durden, said it best. “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your f***ing khakis.”


If material acquisition and personal wealth were the only determinants of success, a spectacular percentage of the population would be deemed unsuccessful. The English band, The Verve, captures the tragic insanity that has become the motivating force for so many of us in their epic song, Bittersweet Symphony:


“It’s a bittersweet symphony, this life.
Tryin’ to make ends meet, you’re a slave to the money, then you die.”


True success comes in many shapes and sizes. Imagine a man in his seventies who is an immigrant, doesn’t speak English very well, and has worked as a janitor for almost his entire life. This description is most likely not the first thing that comes to mind when picturing someone who is successful. What if, however, I told you that this gentleman who worked a menial job all of his life also managed to save a significant amount of money which he used to put his only daughter through medical school?


This daughter was the first person in her family to graduate university and later went on to become a brilliant research scientist, ultimately saving thousands of lives through her work. Wouldn’t you agree that our friend the janitor embodies success?


The following is an excerpt from my most recent book, Way of the COBRA:


Don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of defining success in yourself or others by superficial standards. Let character guide the path to YOUR success. Stop envying other people’s lives. Remember: Other people’s success is not your failure.


Allow their success to inspire you, to motivate, and drive you to accomplish your goals and achieve the success that is yours and yours alone. Examine the success of those individuals you admire. Look for clues. Ask yourself how they achieved success and what you may learn from their journey. Chances are, they trained to get to where they are instead of just figuring it out on the fly.


The difference is like a very good bar-room brawler versus a highly trained professional boxer. Nine out of ten times, the boxer will wipe the floor with the brawler because consistently working with other professionals who push you and force you to bring your A-game makes for a formidable competitor whether it’s boxing or acting.


My parents raised me to appreciate education and understand the doors that it opened. When I first moved to Los Angeles to pursue my career in acting, I knew that in order to have any realistic chance at succeeding as a professional actor, I had to acquire a very specific, difficult, and expensive skill set. I was just one of many young actors from the small-town USA looking to parlay youthful good looks and untrained charisma into legitimate, trained talent and a career in film and television.


Besides learning acting techniques, character analysis, script analysis, and about a hundred other things, I needed to face some old ghosts. I needed to learn how to break down the emotional walls that I created to protect me from years of bullying as a young kid. I had to access my internal vulnerability. In the acting game, naked, honest emotions are the silk required to spin gold that glitters in Tinseltown.


I began studying with the late Roy London, universally considered one of the greatest acting teachers of his time. He was demanding, critical, and brutally honest. He also possessed a keen intellect, allowing him to intuitively understand the essence of a scene and convey that to his students. This made him one of the best. He was indeed a COBRA. This also made his class one of the most respected and difficult to join. I was very green, but I was very determined.


Between expensive private coaching, the occasional work on a professional set, and real-life experience in the “city of lost angels,” I slowly began to improve. As hard as I worked, there were others who had been there longer, had way more professional experience, and if I’m being honest, had a better work ethic. Something in retrospect that I wish I had cultivated at a much younger age, and I’ve had to learn as an adult through banging my head against a wall until I found a better way.


One of the other young actors in my class was from Missouri. He was both incredibly handsome and highly talented. His name was Brad Pitt. In the beginning, we frequently auditioned against each other, and one time I actually beat him out of a part for a television show called Baby Boom starring Kate Jackson from the original Charlie’s Angels series.


On another occasion, I remember leaving an audition for the film Days of Thunder. To say that the audition hadn’t been stellar would probably be an understatement. Although I was growing as an actor, I had a very long way to go. As I made my way into the parking lot, I remember seeing Brad sitting on the curb alone. He had auditioned just before me. I smiled at him and asked, “How’d it go?” He cracked his now-famous sideways smile.


I’m not exactly sure now what he said, but it didn’t seem like he set the room on fire either. Apparently, both of us were right, because Carey Elwes wound up winning the role to play Tom Cruise’s rival, Russ Wheeler, driving the number 51 Exxon Chevrolet. Loved that film. It goes without saying that Cruise is a COBRA, as is Brad.


Obviously, my career and Brad Pitt’s career have taken wildly different paths. If I were to compare my success with Brad’s success, I would find myself in a perpetual state of envy, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness. Instead, I’m inspired by his success and honestly very happy for him because he’s a good guy. Hell, I’ll say it with confidence: I’m a fan. We all have our own internal compass that lets us know when we’re moving in the right direction toward our personal definition of success; it’s called confidence. Confidence comes from knowing that you are successful, and the only way to know success is to design it for yourself.


This requires several things. First, determine your WHY. Next, define YOUR success, and lastly, remain passionate and inspired. The most sure-fire way to accomplish that is to impassion and inspire those around you.


Way of the COBRA is available on Amazon and eBook on KINDLE.

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