4 Career Lessons from Famous Faces

UPDATED: October 11, 2015
PUBLISHED: May 18, 2015

What is it about celebrities? Why do fans die to know about their relationships (He’s dating who?), vacations (They went where?) and fashion choices (She wore what?)? It’s getting out of hand. In fact, California recently outlawed the paparazzi from using drones to take celebrity photographs. Why do we care?

On most days, I find the story behind how they became a successful actor, producer or entertainer in the world’s most competitive market much more interesting. And then, what did they actually do with their success? Shows like Inside the Actor’s Studio or The Big Interview skip the sensational and get to the real story—the good stuff.

These superstars have mastered success their way. Whether they are your favorites or not, what can we learn from a glimpse into these four celebs’ stories?

Lady Gaga // Talent trumps sizzle.

Lady Gaga built her career on the spectacle—the outrageous and shocking. After all, she arrived inside a human-sized egg to the Grammy Awards and wore a dress made of actual meat to the MTV Video Music Awards. She grabbed the headlines the next day, but how could she keep that up?

Recently Lady Gaga has made some very different career decisions and, as a result, taken some major career risks. She created a successful duet album with mentor Tony Bennett, a classic singer and icon four times her age. And, while not the obvious choice, she completely delivered on the Sound of Music tribute at the last Academy Awards.

Lady Gaga reminded everyone that, above all, she has an incredible voice and is a superb talent. This recent display of competence may even redefine her career, according to Time magazine.

The lesson? Visibly rely on your strengths and talents. How are you continually? Keep talent and competence at the center of your work, as an overabundance of sizzle and distractions can have a short shelf life.

“Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If you’re wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn’t love you anymore.”
Lady Gaga

Pharrell Williams // Find your purpose.

Pharrell is a successful singer-songwriter, rapper, record producer, fashion designer and an 11-time Grammy Award winner.

Watching him on the The Voice is a lesson in how he uses his purpose to affect others. As a coach to his team, Pharrell often relies less on technical coaching and more on encouraging them to believe in themselves, be who they really are and to let their talent be seen. His ego isn’t visible, which appears to create a very collaborative and trusting environment.

Pharrell was interviewed on CBS Sunday Morning at a time when the song “Happy”was everywhere and overplayed. Yet, when asked about the song’s continuing success, his response was, “How could I feel anything but gratitude for this song?”

Stay centered even in chaos when there are so many distractions around you. Be a positive force. Encourage others. Don’t let others define who you are and what really matters. 

It took me a minute to find my purpose. I knew something was missing, and then I realized: OK, you’re able to make music. Now you have to inject purpose. I want to make music with something extra to it—a holistic property…. The distinction between sounding amazing and feeling amazing—that’s the thing. People, I think, are looking for a feeling.”
―Pharrell Williams

Meryl Streep // Do things your way.

Considered by many to be the greatest living actress, Meryl Streep has been nominated for the Academy Award an astounding 19 times, and she has won it three times. After this much recognition, you’d think she would typify a Hollywood superstar and all its trappings.

Yet, Streep shows up to interviews with no publicist and doesn’t rely on a stylist to tell her what to wear. Her face has aged gracefully in an industry that doesn’t age. She isn’t chased by photographers and her personal life is never on the covers of the tabloids. Yet, she is still known as one of the most successful actors of all time.

Her career has been built on her unbelievable talent and not doing what others and an industry expected of her. Above all she says she is an actress studying her craft and that has been her focus.

Streep does have some advice for younger actresses: The key, she says, is remaining an individual. “I think for young women it’s hard [to become a breakout star] because they all think they have to look a certain way,” Streep explains. “That’s a trap.”

Create your own version of success – not one that is designed to please someone else. not that which is temporary or fading.

“All that attention to the perfect lighting, the perfect this, the perfect that, I find terribly annoying.”
―Meryl Streep

Taylor Swift // Use your success for good.

Taylor Swift has not only had astounding success as a singer and songwriter, but she was recently named one of Time’s Most Influential People. Her success has gone much beyond winning Grammys or selling out concerts. She is a music force of nature.

And, she has consistently used her success to lift others up. As an example, Swift was an early supporter of Nicki Manaj’s “Super Bass” and invited her onstage at an L.A. tour stop. Minaj later publicly thanked Swift in her American Music Awards acceptance speech for helping her career.

Swift brought Sam Smith up on stage during one of her concerts and took him under her wing as he moved from the U.K. to the American market. She accelerated Ed Sheeran’s career by inviting him to be her opening act on the RED Tour. Even a tweet from Taylor Swift can create a Swift-bump as just experienced by new artist Borns.

Swift clearly uses her platform and success to mentor and help others.  can elevate an artist to a new level almost overnight.

Taylor Swift is also one of the most charitable celebrities, contributing to over 25 causes that she actively supports. She also surprises her fans individually with a gift or personal call or note. These small acts can be really big for someone else.

You, too, can use your unique success for good. Even small actions from you (advice, an introduction, a new opportunity) may make a real difference for someone just getting started or new to your field. How can you you believe in?

“No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.”
―Taylor Swift

Rather than read the sensational or track the paparazzi photos, look a little deeper and read about how these very successful people built an impossible career in spite of the odds being heavily stacked against it. There might just be an idea or example we can try that actually matters.

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.