Lenard Larry McKelvey was fresh out of a stay in county jail. He was attending night classes when he found out about an internship at a local radio station. He got the gig, and even though he couldn’t imagine it at the time, it would launch him on a path towards heading one of the most popular morning shows in America.
McKelvey today is better known by his nickname, Charlamagne tha God. He’s been called “the Howard Stern of Hip Hop,” authored two best-selling books, and has created a podcasting and YouTube empire. His core message revolves around building on the strengths of who we are to find our own path to our own form of success. No matter what stage of our career we’re at, we all have a next level we are looking towards (vertically or horizontally!). Charlamagne reminds us the next level will be ours, not someone else’s. Our journey starts and ends internally as much as externally.
Bob Pittman captured his ethos perfectly (on the Math and Magic Podcast) when he asked what advice he had for people who wanted to be the next Charlamagne tha God. He replied,
That’s where you fail. You fail by trying to be the next anything. You should truly just be yourself. Now, it’s great to be inspired, like I was inspired by a lot of radio personalities, but I would have failed tremendously trying to be any of them. The beauty of life is that we are all blessed to be our own, individual, unique personalities.
As a child, his mother always told him to “read and listen to things that don’t pertain to you.” From his South Carolina upbringing, he was well studied in all sorts of literature and music. He could talk Johnny Cash as easily as Jay-Z, and he even took his name straight out of European history. Today, the quality of his diverse inputs still guides the quality of his diverse outputs. By being interested in and learning from “things that don’t pertain you,” he’s always had a different perspective to say or add, a key strength for an on-air personality.
As he advanced his career, he had others he admired but recognized he couldn’t and wouldn’t “be.” Just like he hadn’t had all of their experiences to form their strengths, they didn’t have his. The same logic applies to us. It’s great to look ahead at what others have done, but it’s a mistake to think the same path exists. We are always blazing our own trail. We are always using our own inputs to derive our own outputs. The next success or failure may rhyme with what someone else has done, but it will be uniquely dependent on what we personally do.
When he says, “you fail by trying to be the next anything,” he means the next anything except the next version of ourselves. We can borrow (and steal) liberally from those we admire, but we have to put our own spin on it if we want to carve our own paths. We all have strengths, we all have diverse inputs, and we are all capable of driving our own diverse outputs. We fail when we fail to realize that we, not our products and services, are the differentiator. We succeed when we’re the next, improved iteration of ourselves.