Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t as big of a household name as he should be.
You may recognize his face from movies like Gangs of New York and Lincoln if you’re someone who watches a lot of films, but he’s not exactly a man who turns up in celebrity gossip magazines or on every other talk show.
His quiet personal reputation, however, stands in opposition to the acclaim that he has received in the broader Hollywood community.
He has been awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor on three different occasions. That’s more than any other male actor in history.
It isn’t just a stroke of luck, either. Day-Lewis is widely considered to be one of the most talented actors of his generation, if not one of the all-time greats. In 2014, he was given a knighthood at the Buckingham Palace for his services to the art of Drama by the Royal Family of England.
Interestingly, there are a lot of visible differences between his approach to his art compared to that of the majority of other people who act.
For one, he is known as a method actor. He fully commits to every role he plays by literally living it out in his own life. There have been times when he has remained in character throughout the whole shooting schedule of a film, even to the point of hurting his health.
He also rarely engages the world in his personal life, and there are very few interviews and public appearances of him beyond the promotion of his films.
The most curious thing about him, however, is that he has only starred in 6 different films since 1998, with occasional gaps of 5 years between projects.
While most successful people are prolific, Lewis has made a career out of being unprolific. Something doesn’t add up.
You’re Never Just Choosing
There is this pithy quote by the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery that, when translated into English, goes something like the following:
“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
You’ll often find that designers, in particular, appreciate this line of thinking.
The reason being that most visual art is as much inspired by what isn’t directly there as it is by what is. The blank space around an object paints as much of the picture as does whatever the central focus is.
Most of us have an intuitive bias when we think about choice. It’s the opposite of the above method of thought. We often look at choice as a matter of selection. We see different avenues and options, and we directly try to choose the one that seemingly appeals to us the most.
This way of deciding isn’t just abstract, but it also overlooks that most of the time the act of selection is as much about saying “no” as it is about saying “yes.” In fact, the habit of saying “no” is often more important.
When the bias towards choosing is looked at as a process of saying “yes,” we also get in our own way, because if that’s the default answer, then you are likely to say “yes” to far more things than you should, and that’s generally one of the biggest ways to misallocate your focus.
More often than not, your life isn’t determined by what you select, but it’s influenced more heavily by what you eliminate. It’s inspired by reducing distractions, not by adding commitments.
This reversal of thinking gives us a little more insight into how Daniel Day-Lewis manages to successfully do what he does.
The Power of a Selection Filter
The average big movie star comes out with a new film every year or so.
If we imagine a career spanning the length of time in which Day-Lewis only released 6 new movies, then we can guess that most actors or actresses of similar acclaim would have put out something in the range of 15 to 20 films.
That’s three times the output. What could he be doing with that time?
Well, for Gangs of New York, he hired his own butcher to apprentice with so he could perfect one small part of his role. While filming, he maintained a New York accent throughout, and he refused to wear a warmer so that he could stay in his role even when he was sick with pneumonia.
In preparation for Lincoln, he is said to have asked the director Steven Spielberg for a full year to just prepare for the role. In that time, he read over 100 books and worked with make-up artists to sculpt his body like Lincoln’s.
While this is fairly extreme, it explains how he does what he does. He has a tight selection filter for projects that protects him from doing anything other than what he really needs to focus on to be at his best. In fact, he even rejected the role of Abraham Lincoln when he first received it.
The fact that he says “no” to so many other projects allows him to fully say “yes” to the ones that truly matter in a way that few others do.
Granted, most stars don’t put as much into each project as Day-Lewis, but it’s apparent among the successful ones that they, too, have their own selection filters. If they’re working on a new movie every year, and they do it well, then they tend to limit outside projects even if the opportunity is there.
Selection filters protect you from wasting your time on anything but the important stuff. That focus is what ultimately makes the difference.
Can You Really Have Anything?
It would be naive to suggest that anyone can do absolutely anything they want. There are far too many variables that come into play.
That said, it’s also not too far away from the truth. Most of the things that hold people back from getting what they want are imagined. Excuses like lacking talent or time can be real, of course, but they’re often not.
The real problem is generally a lack of focus, long-term dedication, and an unwillingness to sacrifice something good for something great.
You can’t quite have everything that you want, and that’s a given.
You can’t have every movie you make be considered a masterpiece while also making a new one every year or so. You can’t decide that you want to be someone who is open to every new project, while still hoping that you can make exponential progress in the one area that really matters.
The trade-offs always exist. Yet, if you have strong selection filters, and if you can get comfortable with the idea of committing to just one or two things for an extended period of time, then there is practically nothing you can’t do.
It’s almost impossible not to make a breakthrough in something that becomes a singular commitment. Most people just aren’t comfortable with that idea.
Another way to put it is like this — the chances are that you can have anything you want, but that also means you can’t have everything you want.
Your life is shaped by what you say “no” to. Reject wisely.
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