How the Fresh Prince inspired my Fresh Start

(The following is the keynote speech I delivered at the 2015 Carol Morgan School high school career day kick-off ceremony. I wanted to use a painful truth, plus Will Smith’s reputation and celebrity, to build an instant connection with the students so that I could make a point about the importance of having, and working towards, goals.)

This may surprise some of you, but Will Smith and I have SO little in common.

  • One of us is an international celebrity.
  • One of us is handsome and has a rocking body.
  • One of us has a net worth of $250 million dollars.

I’ll let you guess who is who.

Now, having said that, Will Smith and I actually do have something in common: he and I are linked at a particular moment in time.

Will Smith and I were both born on the exact same day – September 25, 1968. We were born on the same day, and almost in the same place – Paterson, NJ versus West Philadelphia, PA. About 100 miles from each other.


I first found out about our shared birthday in 1999.

That year, I was 31 years old. I was married and had one child. I was working for an energy company. I worked in their communication department as a writer.

It was summer and time for all those summer blockbuster movies. And the biggest movie that summer was Will Smith’s western comedy Wild Wild West. I read an article about the movie and its star and that’s when I discovered that he and I shared so much.

At that moment, when I learned of our connection, I regretted almost every decision I had made in my life.

Now, regret is a powerful thing. says this about regret: The most painful thing one can ever experience…The feeling of doing something that you wish you had never done. Feeling regret, you would do anything to turn back the hands of time…

And that is exactly how I felt.

I regretted the courses I took in school.

I regretted the college I chose.

I regretted the job I was in.

I regretted the entire path I had put myself on.

Will Smith and I were the exact same age. We both had ambitious goals and dreams when we were young. But, he achieved all of his. And in the most spectacular way.

What happened to me? I didn’t achieve my goals. I didn’t even come close. I wasn’t even sure what my dreams were. I was 31 years old. I was in a job I didn’t really like. I spent most of my time each day searching for other jobs and then going home to complain about it to my wife.

I was a loser.

Will Smith, on the other hand, was a winner. If life is a game, Will Smith is the champion.

So, I decided to find out how he did it.

I did some research and here are the steps Will Smith followed:

First, figure out who you are. Who you really are. What do you like to do? What do you hate to do? What interests you? What bores you? Do you like working with your hands? Do you like stepping back and just thinking? Do you prefer doing something physical and getting into the action?

Don’t wait to do this self-evaluation. You need to do this soon. Maybe now, maybe even 4 years ago.

So, find a time when you can be alone and just look deep inside and figure out who you are. Shut out all the distractions, all the noise. And just think. Write down what you discover. Keep it private.

Next, Will Smith advises you to think about where you want to be. What kind of job do you want? How will you define success – is it simply earning lots of money? Or is it about getting respect? Having lots of friends? Conquering challenges? Solving problems?

Fill in all the details – Where do you want to live? What car do you want to drive? Will you do it all alone, or with a family?

Finally, think about HOW you connect the dots between where you are right now and where you want to be.

Do you need a college degree? If so, what school would be the best one to attend – MIT? Harvard? Once you choose your school, which classes do you need to enroll in?

To get into your dream college, what grades do you need in High School? What SAT scores do you need? What AP exam scores do you need? What high school courses do you need to take? Do you need recommendations from your teachers? Would it help to be in a sport? Do you need to be a member of student council? Do you need to join the choir or the theatre? Should you take AP World History or AP Chemistry?

So, who are you right now? Who do you want to become in the future? And then how do you get there.

And that is Will Smith’s plan for success. It’s very simple. And it is very powerful. Don’t take my word for it. I am not the only one who has recognized the brilliance of Will Smith.

Here’s a quote about Will Smith’s planning process. It’s from a Marketing Research website called Yes, market research companies follow the advice of Will Smith. That’s how awesome this guy is.

Here’s what the website says about Will’s plan for becoming a movie star:

First, he gathered the right data — information that was current, accurate, relevant and sufficient to make his decision. Second, he analyzed it for patterns or insights. He discovered that the top 10 movies ever made included special effects; nine of the top 10 movies included special effects with creatures; and eight of the 10 included special effects, creatures, and a love story. His first two movies, “Independence Day” and “Men in Black,” followed that model, and grossed $1.3 billion combined.

So, clearly Will Smith is no accident. He planned and then he followed his plan.

And he did it with patience. He knew that success doesn’t happen overnight. Here is another quote. This is Will Smith explaining in his own words how to achieve success with patience:

“If you want to build a wall, don‘t set out to build a wall. You don‘t say ‘I‘m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that‘s ever been built.’ You don‘t start there. You say I‘m gonna get one brick. And I’m going to put this one brick down as perfectly as possible, and you do that every single day. One brick at a time. And soon you have a wall.”

                 *                           *                          *

After I found out about Will Smith’s birthday, I followed his example. I reevaluated myself and my goals. I discovered who I really was and where I really wanted to be. Then, I charted a course that would get me there.

It was not easy. It required me to work during the day and take college courses at night. At one point I had to leave my family for 6 months to finish my teacher certification in a far-away city.

My family and I had to make many financial and other sacrifices. But, I did it.

One of my goals was to become a writer. In 2013 I published two non-fiction books about education. In 2014 I published my first novel.

Now, I am not worth $250 million dollars. But, thanks to Will Smith I am FINALLY on my way to where I wanted to be.

I tell my story so that you don’t make my mistake and float through these critical years of life. My story is not a disaster. But, I wasted many years and then had to go back and fix my mistakes and redirect myself.

I guess my point is – Don’t be a Jason Deehan. Wouldn’t you rather be a Will Smith?

Think. Plan. And then go. And one day you will finally be there, to sit on your throne like the Prince of Bel Air.

5 thoughts on “How the Fresh Prince inspired my Fresh Start

  1. Joe says:

    Very inspiring , I also think about the choices I’ve made in life and how I use to think I’d be a young millionaire .( of course in not) compromise after compromise took that away as well as a lot of self esteem as I watched people much younger than myself become successful . What I have learned is taking care of yourself (body and mind) and forgiving yourself (truly forgiving yourself) is where you begin to find success


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