What do Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, Lorne Michaels, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, Bill Cosby and Tina Fey all have in common?
FIRST: Each of these individuals was presented with the inaugural Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
In 1998, The Kennedy Center organized this “Celebration of Humor” and established the Mark Twain Prize to recognize those who create humor from their uniquely American experiences.
SECOND: Each of the individuals who won this award was nominated because they were considered to be “among world’s greatest exponents of humor.”
The Kennedy Center, as the nation’s center for the performing arts, recognizes and presents all disciplines of the performing arts including opera, jazz, theater, ballet and dance, as well as symphony and all kinds of smaller musical ensembles performing every imaginable kind of music.
LESSON LEARNED: Don’t be a product of your industry – be the exponent of it.
1. An exponent is someone who expounds. Explaining is for tour guides. Your goal is to reveal all the gory details. To interpret. To democratize.
Which means you can’t just be smart – you need to be an intellectual. A mental omnivore. And it is incumbent upon you to generate your own Personal Philosophy, Theory of the Universe and School of Thought.
Otherwise you’re nothing but a ditto of the professionals who have come before you – and a measly asterisk of the professionals who come after you. How do you break it down for people?
2. An exponent is someone who advocates. Whatever industry, arena or field you represent, champion it to the world. Like it was your own child.
Infect people with your enthusiasm. Gush the way you would after coming home from your first date. Passionately and publicly profess that what you and your contemporaries do, matters.
And remind people that the purpose you serve is necessary to the world. As Sir William Martin Conway explained in his 1915 book, The Crowd in Peace and War, “Exponents are those who instinctively voice the collective cry of the crowd.” What are you an evangelist for?
3. An exponent is someone who raises the bar. Expect better results. Demand an upgrade in quality. Wage a war again mediocrity. Speak your mind in ways other shrink from.
And, hold yourself and your colleagues accountable for work that matters, work that evokes, work that invites criticism and work that challenges the status quo. Are you willing to lead the campaign to reject all that is average, boring and unremarkable?
4. An exponent is someone who transforms. Find out what isn’t working anymore – then burn it. Find out what doesn’t matter anymore – then delete it. Find out who isn’t contributing anymore – then sever them. And find out what rules don’t apply anymore – then change them.
Now, if you think this sounds simplistic, you’re right: It is. But that doesn’t make it easy. Truth is: Exponential transforming is so change-oriented; you’re going to have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Otherwise, no upgrades will be made. What are you no longer being governed by?
5. An exponent is someone who makes history. With every idea you have, ask yourself, “Has this ever been done before?” Odds are, it has.
Which means your challenge is to ask another question: “What slight modification, combination, juxtaposition or unique spin could I put on this to make it the first of its kind?”
Another approach is to think, “What current successful ideas could I combine to create an entirely new animal that nobody’s ever seen before?” Do this, and you won’t just make money – you’ll make history. Are you going for the sales books or the record books?
6. An exponent is someone who embodies the consummate example. Create a profile of what you believe to be – and what the industry, as a whole believes to be – the characteristics of an ideal professional.
Now, this is not to suggest a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter formula into which we all evolve. Rather, it’s a collection of unshakable character components we might all aspire to embody. For whom are you a role model?
ULTIMATELY: It boils down to the legacy you want to leave behind.
Take George Carlin, for example. He won the Mark Twain Award one year after his death on June 22, 2008. History records him as one of the heroes of American stand-up comedy. More importantly, his official obituary writes the following:
“Taking his place in a lineage that includes Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks, Carlin was an outspoken exponent of explosive material.”
What about you? How will you be remembered?
The choice is yours.
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