Do you want to know what it takes to be great? Having spent twenty years in the music biz working with many of the best artists of our age, followed by another twenty years as a psychotherapist, I have researched, analyzed, and defined the personality characteristics necessary to achieve greatness. As the great Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” What follows is the surprising, and perhaps somewhat disturbing, list of the 10 things you’ll need to do to become world-class.
- Be a Jerk – It’s Never Close Enough for Rock n’ Roll
As we used to say in the music biz, in trying to decide if a recorded performance was good enough, “it’s close enough for rock n’ roll.” But when we said that, we were being ironic. For the great, close enough is never acceptable. Being great is not the same as being good. In order to create something amazing, you have to be a jerk. You have to ask people to work longer and harder than they should, demand unreasonable obedience, and expect the impossible. Folks like Steve Jobs, and the guy I worked with, Paul Simon, were not nice. They drove people nuts. They didn’t care if their minions were sick, dying, or if their wife was going to divorce them. Nothing got in the way of their pursuit of the extraordinary.
- Be a Narcissist – Boredom is the Only Sin
In order to be great, you’ve got to have an oversized ego. You need to know with arrogant certainty that you are smarter and more talented than anyone else. You need to believe without question that you are entitled to get absolutely everything you want. It is helpful to be cold, so that it is easy to put work ahead of love. You should be the biggest and loudest presence in the room. Domination motivates you. You have to listen only to yourself. As you will hurt many people’s feelings, you can’t have much of a conscience. You’re only morality has to be the greatness of your work. As my mentor, Bob Fosse, said, “Boredom is the only sin.”
- Be Impossible – You’re Not Doing Your Job Unless you Go Over Time and Over Budget
Being great is not the same as being efficient. The great person hires other people to be efficient for them. The genius artist has no problem dawdling, procrastinating, and wasting time. They feel no compunction about changing their minds endless times. They could care less about efficiency. They don’t give a rat’s ass about being competent. Anyone can be competent. Very few are great. Great people push the gear past the point of tolerance. As the philosopher Nietzsche said, “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” They make everything break. Great people are never satisfied with anything – they just have to let it go at some point, usually when someone else makes them. They never stop working. Budgets and deadlines are other people’s concerns. They don’t care how long it takes, or how much it costs. As the renowned sax player, Paul Winter, put it to me, “You’re not doing your job unless you go overtime and over budget.”
- Break the Rules – Amateurs Plagiarize, Artists Steal
Great people are not obedient. They are unscrupulous. They’ll break any law if it gets them a hit record. As artists from Picasso to John Lennon said, “amateurs plagiarize, artists steal.” They’d run over a nun if that led to the creation of something great. Great people verge on sociopathy. Rules are for normal people. The great invent their own rules. It helps to be delusional. Drugs and a lack of sleep can bring you to a state of near psychosis that can really help in the creative process. Great people are willing to kill themselves for greatness.
- Be Very Lucky – 90% Success is Showing Up
It’s not only talent that makes you great. Some of it is about being in the right place at the right time. But great people know how to cultivate luck. If you work hard enough, and you get yourself crazy enough, you can get magic to start happening. You can pull miracles out of thin air. If you are always searching for greatness, eventually you’ll stumble upon it. Remember the old TV show, The Addams Family? The dopey theme song featured two finger snaps. Before writing that theme, the composer had written thousands of songs over many years. None were that successful. When asked what it was like to be the composer of the Addams song, he snapped his fingers twice and said, “That’s a million dollars.” As Woody Allen said, “90% of success is showing up.”
- Screw up Really Badly – To Be on the Wire is Life
Being great doesn’t mean being perfect. Actually, it means pushing the limits so hard that sometimes you make huge, tragic, irreparable mistakes. In order to be great you have to risk everything and be willing to fail big. As the high wire walker, Phillipe Petit, said, “To be on the wire is life – the rest is waiting.” During the first two years of the Civil War, Lincoln lost most of the battles and more people died than in any American war before or since. Now, we consider him our best president. Michael Jordan missed 9000 shots in his career. He’s the best basketball player, ever. Sometimes, failing at the beginning is the best thing that can happen. The guy I started with at the bottom of the ladder in the recording studio where I worked got fired from that first job. I didn’t. His name is Jimmy Iovine. He just sold Beats Electronics to Apple. He is now a billionaire. I’m not.
- Be an Oddball and an Angel – There’s a Crack in Everything
Great people are different. They’re strange. They can be incredibly sensitive, extreme, emotional, or dramatic. They are easily wounded by slights. They often have phobias. They can be suspicious, paranoid. They believe kooky things. They might have peculiar sexual appetites. They dress oddly. They act in ridiculous ways. They often have unusual physical problems. They might die young. They can be drug addicts. They are never ordinary. As Robert Frost said, “I took the road less traveled, and that made all the difference.” If you are a weirdo, take heart. It might mean you are a genius. Oddballs are often angels. They’re fragility connects them more directly to the source. As Leonard Cohen said, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
- Suffer – There is No Satisfaction Whatsoever, At Any Time
There is no way around it, great people suffer a lot of pain, and are willing to do so. As Mark Twain said, “Be great, and you will be lonely.” Great people drive themselves harder than anyone, and never realize their vision, and so suffer the pain of despair and exhaustion. As Martha Graham, the groundbreaking modern dancer, said, “There is no satisfaction, whatsoever, at any time.” As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” People fear and resent the great, and so at some point they will face the rejection of the audience. The great care more than anybody else. This makes failure terrifying. Yet, great people are willing to feel very afraid, risking everything for greatness. If you are trying to achieve something astounding, don’t complain when it hurts. A tolerance for pain is a hallmark of the great.
- Be the Best – Are We Gonna Make History Today?
When I worked with the great soul artist, Don Covay, who wrote a hit song for Aretha Franklin called, Chain of Fools, he would come into the studio and say, “Are we going to make history today?” In order to be great, that’s the way you need to face the day. Sure, talent and brilliance don’t hurt. But the great make it through vision, diligence, and thoroughness. You’ve got to envision yourself as the best. You need to never stop practicing your craft, in order to be the best at what you do. Beethoven never stopped doing his counterpoint exercises. You need to be ruthlessly competitive. You need to want to win. You need to be ok to be better than anyone else. You need to win.
- Be Bigger Than a Star – Be a Galaxy
Great people are comfortable being stars. It doesn’t hurt to be very good looking, rich, charming, interesting, smart, and charismatic, but more than that, you should be a show-off. You need to be big, own the stage, and dress wildly. After all, as John Lennon said, “It’s all show biz.” But even being a star isn’t big enough for the great. As Freddie Mercury, the late visionary of the band Queen said, “I won’t be a rock star. I will be a legend.” As Twyla Tharp said, “I had always seen myself as a star; I wanted to be a galaxy.”
Now that you’ve read the list, here’s the real secret. If you are great, you don’t need to read this. This is really for the rest of you who are having trouble reaching the pinnacle you seek. You probably feel the opposite of the above. Do you feel unworthy, weak, lazy, unentitled, conventional, shy? If you do, what can you do? You may never be great, but if you want to be more successful than you currently are, you need to find your inner Lady Gaga. If you can give yourself permission to have 20% of what the great possess, you can make it. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a total jerk. You can still basically be a good person, but you need to be just a little cold, cruel, self-absorbed, demanding, rebellious, arrogant, reckless, weird, brave, ambitious, and ballsy to make it in this world. As Vince Lombardi, the great football coach, said, “nice guys finish last.”
Come to the Creativity and Madness convention, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the week of July 27 -31, to see me present “Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz – Portrait of the Artist as Madman.” CLICK HERE TO REGISTER.