LL Cool J: Here's Why I’m Not Competing with Anyone Else

James Todd Smith shares startup tips and lessons learned as an actor, musician, and entrepreneur.

Last Updated: March 11, 2021

Published: February 24, 2021


One of LL Cool J’s hits starts, “Don’t call it a comeback. I been here for years.” That was in 1991. James Todd Smith’s debut album had only come out five years earlier, but some said his music career was over. 

The two-time Grammy winner has since gone on to star in movies and “NCIS: Los Angeles,” write a children’s book, and be recognized as a Kennedy Center Honoree. Oh, and launch companies like Rock the Bells.

Learn more about the lessons learned by the actor, musician, and entrepreneur in the weight room and the boardroom:

How did physical fitness become a big part of your life?

I had a grandmother who would tell me, “If a task is once begun, never leave it till it’s done. Be thy labor great or small, do it well or not at all.” And I had a mother that would tell me, you can do anything you put your mind to. So when you combine those two things those mantras with that desire to be physically fit it just made me really think about becoming a really holistic person. So it was like my body and soul was always being exercised.

Is there a connection between positivity, wellness, and productivity?

Well, you know, there's a saying when there's no vision, the people perish. And so you gotta envision good things. You’ve got to see good things happening in your life, and you’ve got to constantly work toward those good things. 

So it is a matter of belief, self-belief, belief in a higher power. But for me, it's belief in God, belief that inside of me I have the godly nature to create.

No matter what your personal beliefs are, you have to have that personal belief that there's that spirit inside of you that has power. And then it's making sure that you have your soul aligned with everything. Because your soul is your mind. It's your consciousness, your will, your desire. It's your creativity that's your soul. So you want to make sure that your soul is aligned with your spirit, and then you just go get it.

Can setting goals lead to success?

Yes. I have to set goals because if you're going to have a company, if you're gonna make an album, if you're gonna, you know, do a TV show, if you're going to have a product, you’ve got to set goals because there are goals associated with different things that you're doing. But me as a human being, the ultimate goal is just to maximize my potential.

What I've learned is that you want to improve your mental and physical health. It's constant and never ending improvement. In other words, I want to be better today than I was yesterday. So that means reading and research. Whether it's documentaries, whether it's audio books, whatever. Reading, learning, and growing and improving your mind is an everyday event, an everyday habit. Not a day goes by that I don't read. Not a day goes by that I don't try to get better.

Humility is a superpower. It’s about being the best me that I can be at maximizing my potential. I’m not competing with anyone else.

What else should entrepreneurs keep in mind when starting a new business?

I just saw [this meme] today, and I thought it was very interesting. It says the importance of small steps, and you see the person with the small spaces between the ladder, they can get up there. But when you space it out too big, you can't make it to that next level.

Take small steps, and allow yourself to have momentum in life. For a lot of people, it's not that you can't grow, but you have to be ready for that next step.

The projects that I’m involved in (today) that maybe 10 years or so ago, I wouldn't have necessarily been ready to do. I just wasn't ready yet. It doesn't mean that I wasn't working toward it, but you have to be ready to play in the Super Bowl.

What are the ingredients of a good team?

You will have those outliers out there in the world who can be successful while stabbing, conniving, and cutting everything in sight. But ultimately that's a self destructive way of going to the next level. 

If you want to have sustainability actually understanding that teamwork makes the dream work bring in people who have the right frame of mind, the right energy, that positive vibe that really connects with you. 

I follow my intuition.

I also look for excellence.

I look for skill.

I look for people who are really, really good, especially good at things that I'm not good at because that's really important. Because part of a partnership and a great collaborative partnership is having people who are good at different things. It’s those combinations that are really important.
And having the humility to ask for help. I think that you can definitely get better when you're not afraid to be vulnerable and say, “Hey, I need help with this.”

What can a startup founder do to help make the world a more equitable, inclusive place?

I would say that when you're looking at your board of directors, when you're looking at your senior management team, when you're looking at your junior staff, just be mindful of the mindset, how these people look, and who they are.

Because a lot of times, the fact that everybody looks the same it's not always done on purpose Sometimes you just can unknowingly have a bunch of people who are the same just because that's what you're familiar with. And it's like a comfort zone. 

So I would tell you: Be mindful. Did you go out of your way to find a woman who is really, really capable? Did you really go hard and look for a black guy who could do that role? Are there enough women? Are there enough millennials and Gen Xers?

I would just encourage people to just be mindful of that when you're making your hiring decisions, when you're making those choices about who's going to do what, when you look for who's going to set that operational strategy or set that tone in the meeting just think about everybody. Because sometimes we can exclude people. It's not done intentionally. We can unintentionally reinforce things that we don't want to reinforce just out of old habits. 

Get more perspectives on the business and principles of wellness from Arianna Huffington, Suze Orman, Adam Grant, and other prominent leaders at M13’s Future Perfect virtual event.

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