How To Be a Rock Star
In the technical world people are always talking about rock star employees. Usually this is a reference to having the best skills. But this is completely backwards. Less than 10% of being a rock star is about talent. As Cal Newport’s book demonstrates, the most skilled musicians and the rock stars are two completely separate groups.
So what is a rock star? It’s someone who is larger than life, has a large following, gets plenty of attention (and controversy), and can pull off just about anything they want to do and demand anything they want. Obviously this isn’t limited to rock music. There are rap stars who are just as outrageous. Many top bloggers follow the same model. It’s practically a requirement for having a “reality TV career” (ugh).
Some of the things that come with being a real rock star aren’t so attractive, like the complete lack of a private life. But if you’re looking at something smaller like being a rock star in your industry or just in your company, there are many advantages and less negatives. Your career can go a lot further if you’re leading instead of following. Do you want to be the one who gets people talking about what you said and plays the tune that everyone follows?
Here are some of the tricks to being a rock star that have nothing to do with talent:
Promote yourself everywhere. Quick, what’s Gene Simmons known for these days? Apart from a reality TV show, he gets a lot of attention as a marketing guru. A speaker in a marketing workshop I attended recently was around when KISS got started, unlike me. According to him they weren’t all that talented at the start but due to their marketing and entertainment they managed to build a fan base. When people constantly see your name and have something to associate it to, that eventually gives you a lot of power.
Say what people are thinking but not saying. Music defines a generation because musicians will say things that help explain what’s going on and pull people together, often when others are too scared to put it out there. It can be risky, but a leader is someone who does what everyone else wants to do before they figure out that they can do it. Once a few people start agreeing with what you say you become the leader because everyone can see that you’re ahead of what’s happening now.
Grab attention purposefully. This may be the single thing that defines a rock star. Everything they do instantly makes them the center of attention. Sometimes it’s a cheap gimmick, but if you can get a bit of attention you can use that to do something more important. Of course it has to be something that doesn’t discredit you completely. Showing up to a banking conference naked will get you attention, but not credibility. Showing up with a blue mohawk, and chains might just convince them that you can help traditional institutions connect with young people. Either way you would not be ignored and unknown.
Embrace risk. Because all of these things are so far outside what normal people do, sometimes they don’t work out well. This happens to all rock stars, but they learn from the reaction and move on to try something different. For a time in the 60s the Rolling Stones actually tried to be “good boys” like the Beatles and dress conservatively. It didn’t work out as well as they expected (because it was fitting in, not standing out) so they went the other way and ran with the phrase “would you let your daughter marry one of these?”. There is no formula to guarantee that everything will work out so it’s best to take it as a learning experience.
Entertain your fans. Picture a rock concert: the lighting is low but steady, the musicians are all dressed in black with short hair, they stay as still as possible, and the audience is silent because everyone is focused on the musical skills being demonstrated. Wait, that’s not a rock concert, it’s classical music! They are opposites for a reason. Classical music performances are focused on showing talent. Rock concerts are all about entertaining people, maximizing the emotions they experience, and giving them a memory they will never forget. Rock stars don’t just play fast and intricate melodies (in fact the music is usually pretty simple), they play as loud as they can and drive it home with flashing lights and explosions. Everyone likes to be entertained and they will follow you if you entertain them.
Live a story that others aspire to. As Keith Richards writes in his autobiography, “everyone liked the Rolling Stones because everyone wanted to be the Rolling Stones but they couldn’t give up their ordinary life”. This is a key reason that rock stars get so much attention. If you do what everyone wants to do but can’t, and take it to the extreme, you will get attention and followers. There are reasons most people won’t give up the safety of doing everything the ordinary way. But some of those are imaginary fears, and if you are willing to give them up and stand out you can write your own story.
Being a rock star isn’t for everyone. It’s certainly easier to fit in and follow the standard plan. But if that’s not enough for you, consider going as far as you can in the opposite direction. When you break all the rules, do things that people can’t ignore, and live the live that everyone secretly wants, you can be in control and make a more exciting life for yourself. Some people will hate you for it, but many others will follow you and listen to what you say. When you do this well you can make any crazy demands you want, like insisting that you need a bowl with 782 red M&Ms at lunch or you’ll walk out.