Whether you're a movie star, a motivational coach, or the publisher of a wildly popular website--or an entrepreneur--asking one question makes the difference between failure and success. Or between success and phenomenal success. That's according to three phenomenally successful people: the actor Jim Carrey, the world-renowned coach Tony Robbins, and Dao Nguyen, publisher of BuzzFeed.
Each of them expressed it differently in speeches or interviews, but the question amounts to this: How can I help my audience or customers do what they need or want to do?
Asking this takes the focus off yourself and your own desires, as well as the question of how well you're doing. It puts the focus on them, the people you're trying to persuade, or sell, or teach, or entertain. And when you put the focus there, powerfully good things can happen.
Here's how it works for each of them:
1. Tony Robbins: How to command a room
In a video interview with Eric Schurenberg, CEO and editor in chief of Inc., Robbins was asked how he walks in and controls a room. "You have to first understand the needs of the people in that room," he answered. "If you're thinking about yourself--am I doing well or not?--then all of a sudden you're disconnected from the audience."
"Motive does matter," he added. "If your motive is to control the room, then you're going to feel like a manipulator and you're not going to control or shape that room." But if your primary motive is to help give people what they need to get where they want to go--even if you yourself also benefit--powerful insights will come to you and people will be inspired. "I believe life supports what supports more of life," he said.
2. Jim Carrey: What do people want?
What do people really want? In interviews and speeches, Carrey has explained how, as a 28-year-old comedian, this question often haunted him. And then, he sat up in bed in the middle of the night with the answer: They wanted to be free from concern. This made sense to Carrey, who had begun joking and clowning around as a child to distract his father from financial and career woes.
With that insight, he began adjusting his performances to project a persona who was himself completely free from concern over anything or anyone. He would ask an audience how they were doing and continue, "Well, alrighty then," without pausing for an answer. People guffawed, and Carrey's fame and success grew exponentially.
During his famous commencement speech at Maharishi University, Carrey challenged the graduates to find a talent or skill of their own that could fulfill people's needs. "The effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is," he said.
3. Dao Nguyen: Help them do a job
Nguyen is the brilliant publisher of BuzzFeed. In a 10-minute TED talk that has been viewed more than one million times, she answers one of the most frequently asked questions for every web publisher: What makes something go viral?
It's a question Nguyen has studied extensively, and though it's in a very different domain from the public speaking and life advice Robbins and Carrey offer, the answer is surprisingly similar. Things go viral, she explains when they answer the question: "How is it helping our users do a real job in their lives?"
These jobs can include making people laugh (hence the popularity of animals sliding on ice), helping them express their identities, helping them learn something, or, most powerfully, helping them connect with others. The post "32 Memes You Should Send Your Sister Immediately" got three million views because it did several jobs, Nguyen says. It made people laugh, helped them express their identities, and enabled sisters to connect when they sent the post to each other.
Most companies like BuzzFeed think of data as "mine," Nguyen said--my page views, my fans, my followers. "But that misses the point of data," she said, "which is that it's yours."
Instead, BuzzFeed uses data to figure out what really matters to its users, and that helps the site post content that really reaches them. BuzzFeed wins because its posts often get many millions of page views. But users win as well. That's what phenomenal success always looks like.