Vodka, A Piano, And The Will To Succeed


It was well after midnight by the time I arrived at the recording studio. A small group of random Hollywood celebrities and I shuffled into a tiny soundproof room with no air circulation. It was dark, humid and pushing 90 degrees. All we had were glasses of vodka to cool us down.

In the corner sat a stunning black piano that seemed oblivious to the pain it would soon endure. A hulking figure sauntered up and pulled open the top of the piano, pushed the bench aside, and assumed the stance of a welterweight fighter.

Soon the piano exploded with noises you have never heard before. At one point the player was tucked inside the piano plucking the strings like a harp. Another moment he was doing something that involved a hotel room key. It was at times elegant, violent, inspiring, and mesmerizing. When he finally played the last note, the group had witnessed Coldplay, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Killers, and The Rolling Stones like they never had before. The piano player was dripping in sweat, his fingers nearly bleeding. Everyone was stunned.



I have seen this reaction dozens of times before. It always starts the same way, with people trying to pigeonhole what they are experiencing and putting it in a bucket. It always ends with them in awe.

The musician is my good friend Eric Lewis, one of the rising stars of the music world. He goes by ELEW, and is attempting to force the world to rethink its dated views of piano and jazz.

Watching him play is always magical, for two very different reasons. I truly appreciate the raw talent he brings to the piano, but more importantly, I love watching someone achieve greatness on their own terms.

Most people have the ability to achieve greatness in some area, but their own mental limitations keep them from ever actually getting there. There are two challenges to achieving greatness: sheer will and quantification.

Will is Another Word for Belief
Achieving greatness takes the will to do what others are not.

ELEW is known to practice until his fingers bleed. I invited him to play an event in San Francisco, and by the end, all the piano keys were dented.

In the technology industry, while examples are not as graphic, it's still common for entrepreneurs to work 100-hour weeks in a desperate attempt to win the day. The first few years after I started BlueTie, we had sleeping bags in every office.

When you take some of the smartest minds in the world and put them in competition with one another, it takes more than just intelligence to thrive. It takes a warped world-view for a start-up to believe it can take on the largest companies in the world and win.

Yet, it is exactly this obsession with greatness that drives these entrepreneurs to pull it off.

 It is the razor-thin line between brilliant and crazy where most great ideas live, and it is the stubbornness of a few rare individuals that turns them into reality.

You Cannot Achieve What You Cannot Measure
Will alone won't get you there, though. One of the best lessons I learned early in my career was the importance of quantifying success.

I have interviewed thousands of job candidates over the years, and it always amazes me how few people can articulate their own measure of success. Ask anyone you know to give you the list of goals they want to accomplish in life. In my experience more than half lack a concrete answer, and less than 10% have quantifiable goals. No wonder so few pull it off.

Every year I sit down and stack-rank my life goals, and then quantify them so I can measure my progress. I try to be honest about the hard choices and trade-offs I need to make to achieve my goals. This is consistently one of the most painful exercises I put myself through.

Ironically, it is much more pleasant short-term to be vague on goals so you don't disappoint yourself. It takes a lot of discipline to set expectations that you personally have to live up to.

Everyone Can Create Art
Unfortunately, most of us will never be able to dent piano keys with our bare hands, let alone make beautiful music with them.

Instead, we need to combine sheer will and quantification to achieve greatness in our own way.

We are fortunate to have many great entrepreneurs already carrying the ball forward in online media and advertising, but we are only scratching the surface of what is possible.

When you imagine the future of our industry, how are you going to achieve greatness?

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