Matt Damon wasn’t always Matt Damon, Academy Award-winning actor.

For years he was Matt Damon, grinder: acting in student plays at Harvard, delivering one line in Mystic Pizza, winning a small role in School Ties, even leaving college for a role in Geronimo: An American Legend

As Damon says of that time:

My one skill is that I’ll outwork anybody. I’ll work harder. Especially at that age…. Ben [Affleck] and I would go to auditions where kids would be there with their parents, like their mom was making them go because their mom had some unrealized fantasy about doing it and was trying to live it through the kid.

I’m going to beat that guy. [Laughs.] I want it way more than him.

Hard work is often the “secret” to success. The extra mile is largely unpopulated because few people actually go there.

But sometimes hard work alone isn’t enough.

Damon and Affleck both auditioned for Dead Poets Society and made enough of an impression to get called back. (Think of a call-back as a second interview.) Each was in the running for a role but ultimately were not hired.

As luck would (not) have it, later, both were working a summer job at a movie theater where the only movie playing was Dead Poets Society. 

Which meant Damon went from “the possibility of being in the movie to the guy tearing the ticket watching people come out crying because they’re so moved…and watching Ethan Hawke get nominated for an Academy Award. That’s the range of possibility if you go into that business.”

But he was at least encouraged by getting a call-back; the business was telling him he was doing “some things right.” So he kept chugging. Kept grinding. Kept learning and training and auditioning and playing the game.

Until the casting process for the movie Primal Fear

Seemingly every male actor in his 20s coveted the role of the stuttering altar boy with multiple personalities who goes on trial for killing a Catholic Archbishop. As Damon says, “It was clear that whoever got that role was going to blow up.”

Damon did everything he could think of to get the part, including scraping together money to hire a dialect coach. 

But Edward Norton won the role (and was later nominated for an Academy Award).

That was really one of the things that was really the impetus behind Ben and I writing Good Will Hunting and focusing on it. When Edward Norton got Primal Fear, we [said], “There’s not going to be another one of those that is going to come around. We’ve got to do our own thing.”

What are the odds that a movie with that good a role is going to make it all the way through the ranks of known actors, and then get thrown to the wolves, and all of us are going to fight for that scrap, and one of us will get it?

[We looked at the numbers and thought,] “This ain’t going to work.” 

It wasn’t self-doubt. It was frustration with the system.

Because the system is not built for you to succeed: You have to break through it.

In effect, Damon and Affleck stopped hoping, dreaming, and waiting for that one breakthrough role.

They created their own breakthrough roles by writing their own movie (for which they later won an Oscar for Best Screenplay). 

No matter what you hope to achieve, on the surface it can appear you need to wait to be accepted. To be promoted. To be chosen. To somehow be “discovered” by whatever system you hope to enter.

But that’s only true if you allow it to be true.

With a little effort, you can connect with nearly anyone. (Except, apparently, Dave Grohl.) You can start your own business. Create your own products. Attract your own funding.  

You can do almost anything you want–without waiting for someone to discover you.

You are the only thing that holds you back from achieving what you want to achieve.

As long as you’re willing to work hard.

And, sometimes, forge your own path.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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