Added On: Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Break


Search all you want, there is no magic formula for fame and fortune.

The truth is, big breaks don't just happen; people make them happen--through hard work, networking, courage, passion and even pain. And as much as modern culture has glorified the notion of the "big break" ( American Idol, anyone?), lasting success has less to do with singular, transcendent moments than it does with incremental progress and unflagging grit.

"We romanticize the idea of a big break, but they aren't always this wonderful, positive thing," says David Dotlich, senior partner at Portland, Ore.-based Delta Executive Learning Center. "Sometimes it's [about] a big loss."

In Pictures: How To Get Your Big Break

Barbara Corcoran knows about spinning loss into opportunity. The founder of The Corcoran Group, New York City's largest residential real estate agency, owes her rise to a painful event: breaking up with her boyfriend . Back in 1973, he lent her $1,000 to start a real estate agency , and took a 51% stake. Seven years later, he ran off with the company's secretary , ultimately giving her full control of the company.

"Thank God, or I never would have been in business on my own and learn I could stand on my own two feet," says Corcoran, who sold her business in 2001 for $71 million, and will soon host her own real-estate talk show on CNBC.

Big breaks can also sneak up on you, even as the rest of the world seems to crumble. "A lot of times, people get their big break and they don't know they're having it," says Dotlich.

Take legendary talk show host David Letterman. The late-night funnyman broke into the business with a flop. After a string of guest appearances on second-tier sitcoms and game shows, Letterman landed a hosting gig for a comedy pilot called The Riddlers. The series was a bust, but Letterman got noticed by the higher-ups at The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He soon became a regular guest, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Rather than wait for his big break, real estate mogul Larry Silverstein built his empire brick by brick. He began his career in the 1950s by converting a Manhattan industrial shack into an office building. "I didn't have a clue what I was doing in the beginning," he says. Indeed, it took myriad deals over five decades to get where Silverstein, 76, is today. "You have to stick with it," he says. He'll need every bit of that conviction to pull off his finale--rebuilding the World Trade Center site, into which he sunk $800 million the summer before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Talent and tenacity notwithstanding, having the right friends helps, too--as pop star Mariah Carey can attest. While working as a backup singer for Puerto Rican performer Brenda Starr in 1988, Carey met Columbia Records executive Tommy Mottola at a party. As a favor, Starr gave Carey's demo tape to Mattola. After a listen, he bolted back to the party to track Carey down and sign her on. Good move for everyone: Carey's first five singles hit the Billboard Hot 100.

No matter what, when lady luck comes knocking, you'd better be ready to pounce. Just ask rising actor Michael C. Hall. It took three years after graduating from New York University's Tisch School, but Hall got his break when he met director Sam Mendes at a musical workshop. At the time, Mendes was directing Cabaret on Broadway . When the actor playing the "emcee" stepped down, Mendes called Hall to try out for the role.

By that evening, Hall was practicing with the choreographer, and within days he was on Broadway. Hall has since landed cherry gigs on Dexter, airing on Showtime, and HBO's Six Feet Under. "With that job [in Cabaret], I felt like I crossed some sort of threshold," he says. "Everything that happened beyond that was in this realm I never considered."

Clearly, some industries are tougher to crack in a big way than others. In the entertainment industry, getting any job--no matter how small--is considered a break. "There are myths in our business about the actor who is discovered at the lunch counter," says Michael Taylor, chair of the vaunted film and television division at the University of Southern California. "What's more likely is a combination of luck, timing and who you know."

Unless you're Rosario Dawson, that is. The oldest daughter of East Village squatters got her big acting break by sitting on the stoop of her building. Director Larry Clark and casting agent Harmony Korine were scouting scenes for the 1995 film Kids when they noticed Dawson, who later landed a role in the movie. She has since appeared in 35 films, including the 2006 remake of the Broadway smash Rent.

No, life isn't fair. But with a little effort, you can boost your odds.

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