How Success Smothers Greatness

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Five years ago, I wrote this piece about Russell Brand's show, Messiah Complex, which fell far short of his grand ambitions - and my expectations for someone with his natural gifts. Seemed like he simply hadn't done the hard work to reach the heroic heights he craved. While the ideas and lessons in this piece are as relevant today as ever, my view of the man has evolved, as has Russell. In the past five years, Russell has:

  • earned a degree in Religion & Global Politicsmarried and had a child (not easy for an ex-drug and sex addict)
  • educated himself on topics he once winged, by interviewing experts on his podcast. Turns out economics are not jazz.
  • released a terrific Netflix comedy special that felt true to who he is

Finally, it feels like his work, ambition, life & spirituality are aligned. I aspire to do the same and wish that for you. And, do check out the rest of the piece and embedded podcast.

Last Thursday, a friend invited me to see a gifted young English singer-songwriter named Robert Leslie. I agreed, but couldn’t stay long. I already made plans with a recovering drug addict, sex addict, and flamboyant jester. Russell Brand is equal parts Shakespeare, Lenny Bruce, and scatological stripper. He also embodies the strange, destructive power of success.

Unlike the small, dingy café where Robert triumphed, Russell would perform to a packed theater that already screamed TRIUMPH – all by itself. The crowd was pregnant with expectations. After all, Brand has shown flashes of genius. Doing hilarious interviewsschooling dim-witted TV hosts, and satirizing some contrived Hugo Boss event. Few performers have his gift of improvisation, language, or wielding sexuality like a rapier. That made his chosen subject, The Messiah Complex, that much more intriguing. Would Jesus or Gandhi surrender to a sexual deviant in tight pants?

The crowd greeted Brand with a two minute ovation as he peacocked across the stage. Sadly, what followed were tiny rations of wit served on giant plates of libido and narcissism. Brand propositioned female fans, gyrated in places where punchlines should go, and hid behind his mastery of language. It was like a Greek orgy where only one invitation got delivered.

If he were a 20 year old upstart, this might have felt like seeing Radiohead after their first album came out. Average material that has yet to match its performer’s potential. But Russell Brand is 38. He already sells out theaters at $60-$200 per ticket. And his stage persona is rooted in fame. Without it, he’d seem as strange as Siegfried and Roy working construction, sharing a studio apartment, and taking their Bengal tigers for walks through the neighborhood – while wearing golden robes.

The last time I saw Chris Rock, he did 20 minutes of hit-or-miss material opening for Louis C.K. at Caroline’s Comedy Club. Why? Because he’s great. Like Louis and Bill Burr, Chris spends a year doing small clubs to chisel rough ideas into a masterpiece worth hefty ticket prices.

Russell Brand performed like a kid who can pass the test by cramming the night before. He is on the verge of depriving his audience and himself of his full potential. And the worst part is – he doesn’t know it.

Hear Steve discuss this article on the Glimpse of Brilliance Podcast


From beautiful models to high school football stars to young entrepreneurs, success can intoxicate. It can make others believe you have powers well beyond your field. It opens doors that others don’t know exist. Success and fame are at their most sinister when you start to believe your own hype. It’s why Michael Jordan decided to quit basketball to play baseball. It’s why Sylvester Stallone decided to do comedy. And why Apple tried to be a social network.

Part of the problem is success is a magnet for yes-men. Truth becomes a scarce commodity when an ecosystem of dependents spawns around you. Everyone laughs at your jokes, inflates your ego, and builds false confidence that dulls self-awareness. Even when good advice seeps in, it must duel cockiness. I’ve seen it happen to a few very successful executives.


It takes extraordinary discipline, humility and character to resist the delusions of success – especially when it comes early. Mentorship can help. Only recently did I recognize how important it is.


In the movies, there’s that touched-by-an-angel moment when a teacher, boss or Lawrence Fishburne recognizes your potential. He takes you under his wing and helps you become The One.

In real life, you have to fend for yourself. A few get lucky. Others go through a parade of indifferent, cosmetic, or assigned mentors. Many never find one. I haven’t. That’s probably my biggest professional regret. But I don’t stay up all night crying into my tub of Haagen-Dazs. (Just an hour or two.) I’m using my network to meet the kind of people who might someday be my Laurence Fishburne.

Whatever your age or professional status, it can be humbling to ask for help. That moment couldn’t feel more awkward. There’s always the chance someone says ‘no’. Or as I experienced recently, they want to charge you for it. I get it. Time is money. But that’s therapy, not mentorship.

What I’ve learned from my search so far is a mentor has to be ready. They have to be at a point in their career where they’re secure, have the time, and are ready to give. Someone who is still busy conquering might take you under their wing – as long as you help them conquer. But then you’re just their tool. I’ve been in that position a few times. The key is for the mentor to be impartial – to have nothing to gain or lose from the choices you make.

It also doesn’t hurt to be surrounded by friends and family who can still give you crap when you act like an idiot. That’s how The Most Interesting Man in the World stays grounded.


There’s no substitute for hard work. But things get harder as you mature. When you’re young, rookie mistakes earn nothing but second chances. If you’ve got the legs, you can wear that sexy mini-skirt to help close a deal. (It never worked for me.) Age forces you to change your game. If I still had to get by on my youthful beauty and charm, I’d be eating out of dumpsters. Time demands craftier tools.

Many Major League pitchers start their careers throwing the ball 95-100 miles per hour, or baseball’s version of the mini-skirt. That never lasts. When it’s straight as an arrow or drops to 90, balls go flying. The great pitchers adapt. They develop new pitches, study opposing batters, and master speed and location. Jaime Moyer pitched until he was 49 and rarely reached 80mph.


I don’t know Russell Brand (and after this article, likely never will), but he’s probably a few phone calls away from convincing Louis C.K. or Billy Crystal to help him harness his substantial gifts. Maybe a mentor can do for him what Jerry Seinfeld did for Colin Quinn. Their collaboration produced a masterful Broadway show – by far Quinn’s greatest achievement.

Otherwise, Brand will remain a prisoner inside his own success. Perhaps having a global harem is adequate consolation for narrowly missing greatness. I’ll never know.

The good news is Robert Leslie is paying his dues. His star will continue to rise as long as he stays away from tight pants and Katy Perry. For now, enjoy his October Song. (Or buy it here.)

(From Steve Faktor’s original article on LinkedIn.)

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Provocative predictions & prescriptions on where innovation, economics & culture will take us. Fearless. Funny.