I was in the middle of a riot.
People were throwing chairs at each other. The police were trying to bash doors down to get in.
One guy ran up to me, “It’s whites versus blacks. Come on!”
The riot was in 1996. It was in Madison Square Garden. Google the fight: Riddick Bowe vs Andrew Golata.
I hate boxing. But my girlfriend then was a huge fan. And I have a tendency to do what everyone else wants me to do else I’m afraid they won’t like me.
Golata was destroying Bowe. Unfortunately Golata kept also hitting him below the belt. Bad Golata!
So Bowe’s team went up into the ring and started beating on Golata.
And then the riot started. “Whites versus blacks! Come on!” I knew a path out. So we escaped.
I never went to a fight again.
Before the fight, as Riddick Bowe came out of his dressing room and was walking toward the ring, his favorite song came blasting through the speakers of Madison Square Garden.
“What is this song?”
I asked everyone. Nobody knew. What is this song! I had been into rap and hip hop for over a decade. I had never heard it.
The words in the refrain, “I play my enemies like a game of chess.”
One woman singing beautiful vocals and rapping (I never heard that combination before). The deep voice of one rapper. The reggae-hip hop voice of the other.
The jazz-like effects. The hip hop. The reggae. The dance beat. What is this? What. The. F. Is. This??
It was “The Score” by The Fugees. My brain exploded.
I was simple then. I wanted to fall in love. I wanted to do good at my job.
I wanted so badly for the future but I was lost in the present.
Never sacrifice the present moment for an unknown, only-possibly happy future.
How many days was I ashamed: as a parent, a partner, a friend. Because I put the future in front of the present.
And where are my two little babies now? Where will I be when they next cry in sadness?
How many days did I put on that song? Again and again. It was so confident. I couldn’t believe that I had once been so confident.
It was confident enough for a world champion to walk out into the ring, 20,000 people staring, 10 million people watching on TV. It was a powerful enough song to be the theme song of a riot.
I don’t want to waste my future. Maybe six summers left with kids. Maybe 20 summers left to be a healthy adult. Maybe more if I’m lucky.
How does someone get that confidence? How does someone become the best at what they love?
The Fugees grew up in slums. They felt like outcasts. “Fugees” is short for “refugees”.
People on the outside, pressed up at the glass window looking in at all the people pretending to be normal.
The album was rejected everywhere. Nobody would take a chance on them. They were nothing. Nobody wanted them.
So they decided to just let loose. Let their authentic voices shine.
When nobody wants you, when nobody cares, it’s the time to let that authentic voice shine through. Who are you? What do you want?
Figure it out. Because, guess what… nobody wants you. Nobody ever cared.
They are too busy wearing their masks. So I wanted desperately to take my mask off. So I could breathe again.
The album sold tens of millions of copies.
I’m listening to it right now. I can breathe. Again.
Wyclef Jean, the main rapper for the Fugees, is sitting right in front of me.
A few years ago he ran for President of Haiti (because… why not?). Now he’s starting a program to mentor musicians from all over the country.
He learned how to play 15 different musical instruments by the time he was in high school.
He grew up in the slums of Haiti, then Brooklyn, then East Orange. He was an outcast and a permanent refugee.
Are ever an outcast? From friends? Loves? An outcast from the talent and creativity you know is inside of you?
Wyclef Jean was in front of me and I had some questions.
Here’s what I learned from him:
1) DO YOU HAVE A VACUUM NETWORK?
Wyclef had to take every job he could find to support his family while he pursued learning music.
Nobody pays you to get your 10,000 hours of mastery. You have to live it, breathe it, die for it, take any job for it.
One authentic word from you is the password to eternity.
One of his jobs was as a vacuum salesman. And for every door he knocked on, he gave away one of his albums while he tried to sell a vacuum.
No matter who you have to deal with it, let them know your passion, let them know the fruits of your passion.
2) IDEA SEX
Wyclef and the Fugees were the MASTERS of Idea Sex and used it to make massive hits.
“Stayin’ Alive” made by the BeeGees in 1997 was the biggest disco success ever.
Millions of people loved it. So Wyclef knew a song based on that would work. It had to!
But just doing a cover would be boring. Why listen to a cover when you can listen to the real thing?
Take a hit + Merge it with your Authentic Voice = MEGA-HIT.
He combined the Fugees unique sound, hip hop style, reggae style, jazz style, with “Stayin Alive” to create “We Are Trying to Stay Alive”, a message that would resonate with their fans who identified themselves as fellow “reFugees”, to create an enormous hit.
Another example: “The Bhavagad Gita” + “Golf” = “The Legend of Bagger Vance”i, a bestselling masterpiece, and movie, by Steven Pressfield.
Another example: “Killing me Softly” + The Fugees = “Killing Me Softly”, ANOTHER huge hit.
Exercise: Write down every book you love. Write down every song you love. Combine them. How? Who knows?
3) FAIL FIRST, FAIL FAST, FAIL WITH FURY
Their first album was considered a failure.
No label would touch their second album. So they let loose. Let the hell loose. Let out the demons, the pain, the fear, the reality. They shook the ground.
When they released their second album I was sitting at a boxing match doing something I didn’t want to do.
They ruled the world.
4) PASSION BEATS EDUCATION
You can learn something from a book. You can memorize facts, dates, even techniques.
But you’ll never beat out the person who learns from passion. Who breathes, sleeps, drinks in his or her dreams.
Wyclef didn’t get a degree in music.
He learned every nuance, learned every instrument, learned the history, learned the competitors, came up with the unique voice.
Spoke the authentic word.
The word that destroys the gatekeepers.
Nothing I learned in college I use in real life now. Today I will work all day. But nothing in college will help me.
I always ask people who “majored” in European Studies: when was Charlemagne, the most important king in European history, born?
Nobody gets it right within 300 years. No matter how hard they studied. I’m being nice. Nobody gets it within 500 years.
I majored in Computer Science. I was good. I went to graduate school for it. I was good. I had papers published in the biggest conference in AI. I was good.
I got a job in the real world. I was bad.
After six years of study I had to go to remedial school to get the basic skills. Only then did I fall in love with it.
When I’m in love I spend 24 hours a day trying to get better. Get better or die.
How do you find your passion? Try lots of things.
The universe was made by all the atoms in your body exploring. Don’t fight the universal urge to explore until your brain lights on fire.
– List what you loved at age 13. How have they aged?
– Read books, watch videos, read biographies.
– Explore. Try. Fail. Try more.
– Who do you admire? Who do you want to emulate?
This is it! I can’t believe it. I found it!
5) THEORY, HISTORY, BREADTH, DEPTH
Kurt Vonnegut said, “Before you start writing experimental fiction, learn grammar.”
Bobby Fischer, before he went on his maniac rise to the World Chess Championship, spent the age of 13 learning every game played in the 1800s.
He made an improvement to each game. Then he learned Russian so he could be the one American studying the games of the Russians.
He came back from hiding, a 15 year old everyone laughed at. A refugee.
He won the US Championship and became the youngest Grandmaster of chess in history. Then the World Championship.
Wyclef learned to play 15 instruments.
Then he studied the theory, the chord structures, the musical styles of every form of music. Then he learned the history. He studied the jazz and blues greats from the 20s and 30s and 40s. He studies rock and roll. He studied disco. He studied reggae. Hip hop. He studied “Wyclef”.
Who is going to win? Wyclef or the guy who feels entitied to be great? Wyclef or the machine? Wyclef or the one who wants an outcome (fame) versus process (study and work)?
Who who who who who… ?
6) DON’T TRY TO BE FAMOUS. TRY TO BE GOOD.
A friend of mine wants to be famous.
Wants that novel written. Wants that show done. Wants to be an actor. Wants people to recognize him.
Doesn’t write the novel. Doesn’t write down ideas. Doesn’t audition. Doesn’t write down 300 words, then rereads and rewrites. Then rewrites more. Then rewrites more.
Nobody will ever know who he is.
Get 1% better every day. Just 1%.
Everyone will know who you are.
7) DON’T LET THINGS HAPPEN TO YOU, LET THINGS HAPPEN FOR YOU
Things were happening TO Wyclef. His friends were dying. Others were failing. Others were giving up because the labels wouldn’t give them a chance.
Don’t let the outside world choose your success.
When he had to do his second album, he created the music right FOR HIM.
He chose what he wanted to do. Not the critics. Or the fans. Or the labels. Or the agents. Or (in today’s world) the Twitter mob.
If you are waiting for others to choose you, many trains are going to come and go. Those trains don’t come back.
8) KEEP SLICING
There’s no such thing as “music skill”.
Divide it into all of the skills you need to master.
Instruments, chord theory, each genre, writing lyrics, song structure, performance, business dealings, history of every style before you, mastering your authentic voice.
Learn THOSE skills. Then you have music skill.
Or investing. There’s no such thing as “investing skill”.
Learn position sizing, learn value investing, arbitrage, debt investing, trend forecasting, accounting, the history of investing, of bubbles, of the great investors, of the economic histories of once great nations, learn private equity investing, learn what money is.
Maybe then you have some investment skill. Then you have to go on stage. You have to do it. You have to perform. With an instrument, with your money, with who you are – naked for everyone to see – scared and fearless at the same time.
The only way to be authentic is to be afraid. And then you see: everything everything EVERYTHING is either a growth decision or a fear decision.
I make so many decisions out of fear. But sometimes, out of growth. Please god, give me the power to make decisions out of growth instead of fear.
Only then my life changes.
9) THE EINSTEIN TECHNIQUE
I quoted Einstein but I have no idea if he said it. Who cares? I call it “The Einstein Technique”.
Every day, be the student. I’m in London right now. Every ca I take is like a mini-podcast.
The cab drivers taught me the history of London. The problems they have with Uber. The problems they have with feeding their families despite the years they spent learning every single road and stop in London.
One cab driver refused to take my money but I threw it through the slot anyway.
Wyclef is every day still learning: more reggae, more hip hop, more ways to be charitable, more ways to combine chords from different styles.
He’s a student for life.
When you “graduate” you die.
10) RIDE THE DONKEY
When Wyclef was a kid, he told me, he and his friends had a game they called “Ride the Donkey”.
He’d get on a donkey and ride around and ask everyone what they would do if they got to America.
“Get a car!” Get rich!’ The kids shouted out.
I asked Wyclef, “Why are you the one in the middle, always? Riding the donkey?”
He thought about it. He didn’t know.
But he was the one who got on the donkey. He was the one who chose himself to be in the center.
To lead the questions. To get everyone to laugh. To sing. To dance.
Have the charisma and the confidence to be in the middle. Be the one everyone wants to be friends with.
That’s the star in the room.
Like with all my podcast guests, I had this secret fantasy.
Now… not so secret:
“Hey, I can be friends with Wyclef!”
I only have on a podcast anyone who has been a hero of mine, but deep down, I secretly just want to be friends with him.
I want Wyclef, Richard Branson, Tony Hawk, Tyra Banks and on and on, to call me and say, “Hey James, how’s it going today? Want to stop by for a coffee and just hang out?”
I want Henry Winkler to teach me to be as cool as The Fonz. I want Jewel to call me with her problems. I want I want I want. Friendship.
It’s never happened. They are busy dominating the world.
I challenged Wyclef to a rap battle. We videotaped it. He destroyed me.
Only later, as I was falling asleep, I thought of what I could’ve rapped back at him. It was too late.
But isn’t that always the case?