The Ricky Gervais Guide to a Successful Career

After Ricky Gervais insulted most of the Hollywood elite at the 2011 Golden Globes, a friend of mine declared: “His career is over. He’ll never work in America again.”

I understood where he was coming from. After all, Gervais had called Bruce Willis “Ashton Kutcher’s dad,” claimed that the President of the Hollywood Foreign Press needed help to use the bathroom, and joked about Robert Downey Jr.’s drug problems.

But I also knew my friend was wrong. I knew it because I’ve followed Gervais’s career for a while now and I know just how smart he is. In watching him, I’ve learned some valuable career (and life) lessons and I think you can too.

Being true to yourself is the only way to do truly great work.

Ricky never tones down what he’s doing to avoid offending some people. Nor does he conduct focus groups to find out what his audience wants. He believes in what he’s doing, he pours himself 100% into his work, and then he lets the reaction be whatever it is going to be. As a result, lots of us show up each time he puts out something new. We don’t know if it will be the best thing he’s ever done, but we know it will be interesting and original.

The same is true on a smaller scale with careers blogger Penelope Trunk who gives advice that is sometimes brilliant and sometimes a little scary but always completely honest, always unique. As a result, she has a loyal cadre of readers who show up week in and week out.

You can\’t please everyone, but you can please the right people.

In Ricky’s case, the “right people” are the ones who appreciate his humor and share his worldview. They’re never offended by his jokes because they understand the intention. They love his work and evangelize it to others. It doesn’t matter that some people hate his shows as long as some people love them.

The same applies to any kind of creative career – the marketer can’t make everyone love his product. The designer can’t appeal to everyone with his websites. The resume writer can’t attract the attention of every hiring manager. But if you know your target audience and create work they’ll appreciate, you\’ll always be OK.

The safe road is never the most interesting – and ultimately isn’t the most lucrative.

Ricky’s first big hit was the original UK version of “The Office.” It ran for only 14 episodes. The safe move would have been to keep going but instead, he called a halt after just two short seasons, and moved on to a new project.

Crazy? Not at all. “The Office” was so original, interesting and appealing that the rights sold in more than 80 countries, generating huge income for Gervais. The same recently happened with his new show “Derek” which is coming to the US via Netflix on September 12th. (If you have Netflix, give it a shot – it’s genuinely brilliant).

If Ricky stuck with safe projects, this global success wouldn’t happen. It comes because he constantly takes creative risks.

Be generous with your success.

We all know the employee who is afraid of being outshone. But Gervais knows that’s a sure route to mediocrity. Instead he surrounds himself with brilliant people and allows them to step into the limelight. Take Karl Pilkington, who went from being an unknown radio producer to having his own wildly popular TV show simply because Ricky saw his genius and shared it with everyone else.

He’s also generous in using his success to help others. One British celebrity, who once suffered a nationally televised nervous breakdown, has credited his career revival to roles in two of Ricky’s shows.

Worrying about how you are perceived doesn’t get you anywhere. Worrying about how much value you add does.

I can’t imagine that Ricky Gervais spends much time worrying about his “personal brand.” But I do think he takes great care to do the best work he can possibly do. And as a result, he has a reputation so powerful that when I last checked he had over four and half million followers on Twitter.

The same applies to you. Instead of worrying about whether you have a strong “personal brand,” worry about whether you’re making a difference. Ask if you’re doing work that anyone else cares about. The web designer who creates eye-catching, beautifully constructed sites builds a good reputation (or a “personal brand”) without ever having to think about it.

It’s simple but not easy …

None of this is rocket science, but it’s also hard advice to follow. It’s scary to take creative risks. It’s hard sometimes to remember that you can’t (and shouldn’t) try to please everyone. And it’s a challenge to always give your very best, even on those days when maybe you don’t feel like it.

But if I look back over my own career, I can see that my best days were those on which I used one of more of these strategies. And my worst times were those where maybe I skated by a little bit. I bet you’d say the same thing.

As for Ricky, his career didn’t end after the Golden Globes. In fact the opposite happened. His fame increased, he became much more visible in the US, and he was even invited back to present the awards the following year.

It’s amazing what can happen to your career when you truly believe in your work, forget about pleasing everyone, take some risks, share your limelight, and always do the best you possibly can. Maybe we should all try it?

Photo by Matt Hobbs via a Creative Commons license

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