Justin Timberlake should not be as successful as he is. Looking at it from the outside, little of how his career has progressed seems to make sense.
JT’s not someone you come across in headlines a whole lot, yet he sits on over 160 awards, a 200-million-dollar fortune, and one of the most respected reputations in the history of entertainment. At 36 years old, he’s had a globally successful band, four platinum solo albums, starred in smash hit movies, and is considered a fashion icon.
But that’s not what common sense tells us, is it? Though some caveats have been added to the famous 10,000 hour rule, the message remains the same: you need lots of deliberate practice and years of time to get good at one thing.
So how can someone like Timberlake switch music styles, industries, even to a completely different skill set, like acting, time and time again, yet still succeed?
What part of the picture are we missing?
Learning to Unlearn
Every lesson in life comes at the expense of unlearning another.
When you learn to be confident, you unlearn to be shy. If you react with humility, you have forgotten your ego. When you’re comfortable taking risk, you ignore other’s opinions, and so on.
In Chinese philosophy, the idea of yin and yang suggests that life consists entirely of dualities. It is only through the completeness of these dualities that we achieve unity. So no matter how contradictory two sides seem, they’re ultimately connected.
For each new piece of knowledge you acquire, you have to let go of an old one. Foggy clouds of ideas make way for facts, which make way for better facts, only to be replaced by new clouds, and so the cycle continues.
What most of us do when we try to improve is resist this cycle. We want every next answer to be the answer to everything. A different diet, a new sleep schedule, a tweak to your marketing — if only we stick to it, it may last us forever. Of course, nothing ever does.
That’s because the underlying skill of acquiring and abandoning knowledge, the unity, lies in change itself. What you’re really learning is how to unlearn.
Justin Timberlake is a master at it.
The Unimportance of Being Right
There is a famous line in a Walt Whitman poem called Song of Myself:
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.”
The next time someone accuses you of being inconsistent, say this line. It’ll instantly take the wind out of their sails, because you can’t argue with someone who accepts being wrong. Especially without making an attempt to defend themselves.
Most people stumble over this idea, because one of our biggest innate desires is to be consistent. Add to that our tendency to spend more time on what we’ve already sunken energy into, and you get a high level of resistance to unlearning.
People like Justin Timberlake, however, practice something cryptocurrency expert Nick Szabo calls quantum thought:
“In law school, they teach a very different way of thinking in that you need to take both the defendants and the plaintiffs side of the issue and run down the arguments as if each one of them is true. They contradict each other, of course, or at least the conclusions, and so I compare this to Schrodinger’s cat — maybe it’s alive, maybe it’s dead. Maybe the defendant’s guilty, maybe they’re not, and you have to keep both of these in your mind at once.”
When Justin went from child actor to boyband singer, from solo artist to actor, from show host to comedian, from R&B to Soul, and from commercial star to voice actor, he was in no way convinced he’d be good at all of those things.
He just managed to hold the possibility of two different truths in his head at the same time. Thanks to this skill, Timberlake is never afraid to be wrong, since he is always free to unlearn one thing for another. He has a frictionless mind.
It’s a mental model he likely acquired at The Mickey Mouse Club.
A Child With a Grown Man’s Work Ethic
Even someone as talented as Justin Timberlake isn’t always right. He bought a golf course for $16 million, only to sell it for $500,000 seven years later, and some of his films were really bad. He works incredibly hard too, which we can’t neglect.
However, all that pales compared to the genius of a child that resides in him, which we often lack. Neil deGrasse Tyson explains:
“There’s a spelling bee and you have to spell the word ‘CAT.’ One student spells it ‘C-A-T.’ The person got it right. The next person spells it ‘K-A-T.’ That’s wrong.
The third person spells it ‘X-Q-W.’ You realize that is marked equally as wrong as the ‘K-A-T,’ when you could argue that ‘K-A-T’ is a better spelling for ‘CAT’ than ‘C-A-T.’ Dictionaries know this, because that’s how they spell it phonetically!
And so we’ve built a system for ourselves where there is an answer and everything else is not the answer, even when some answers are better than others. So our brains are absent the wiring capable of coming up with an original thought.”
As adults, we spend all of our time in this system, so it’s almost impossible not to fall prey to the same thinking. But when we do, when we resist the process of constantly updating our view of the world, we block our own path.
Children aren’t burdened with this problem yet, because they’re still unfamiliar with the idea that “this is how we do things around here.” As Sir Ken Robinson recalls about the time his son was in the nativity play:
“The three boys came in, four-year-olds with tea towels on their heads, and they put these boxes down, and the first boy said, “I bring you gold.” And the second boy said, “I bring you myrrh.” And the third boy said, “Frank sent this.”
What these things have in common is that kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.
And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.”
What we really see when we look at someone of Justin Timberlake’s caliber, is a child with a grown man’s work ethic. Having traversed the long road of unlearning, he reaps the rewards of unencumbered thought: Originality, adaptability, and the courage to exercise both at a second’s notice.
If nobody told you what you can and can’t achieve in a 20-year career, how much would you dare to try?
Chances are you’d act with an open mind and, like Justin Timberlake, embrace the next line in Whitman’s poem:
“I am large, I contain multitudes.”