Look carefully, and you’ll notice that many of the most successful people in all walks of life — including Woody Allen, Alan Greenspan, and Condoleezza Rice — are musicians or former musicians.

Why are there so many musicians present at the top of so many industries? Is it just a coincidence?

As a musician myself, here’s what I think:

1. Musicians aren’t afraid to suck.

Success has been linked with a high tolerance for stepping out of one’s comfort zone and being unafraid to make mistakes while taking a big learning curve. There are few things quite as painful as listening to a beginning musician. However, both musicians and entrepreneurs know that they don’t remain beginners forever.

2. Musicians stick with their instrument long enough to get good at it.

Success has also been linked with hanging in there and seeing a venture through thick and thin to its completion. Mastering a musical instrument doesn’t happen overnight. Depending on the instrument, it can take up to a year just to get a good, consistent sound, and another five to ten to build speed, master basic scales and arpeggios, learn to count, and either read music or play by ear accurately.

Interesting how similar this time table is to the growth of a startup, isn’t it?

3. Musicians are disciplined and able to take the long view.

Successful people do what they have to do, even when they don’t particularly like what they’re doing at the moment. Learning a musical instrument requires regular practice time with etude books, the metronome, and scales – even on the days they’d rather have a tooth pulled without anesthesia than pick up that damned horn – because they know that in the long run, all of that hard work will pay off.

4. Musicians have a keen sense of when to speak up … and when to shut up.

One of the hallmarks of the most successful people is their sense of timing: knowing when it’s time to press an issue and when it’s time to back off, or knowing when to risk a business expansion and when it’s time to contract or fold. Musicians know that if they start playing too soon, too late, too loudly, or too softly, they run the risk of either losing their own place in the music, playing an accidental solo (!) or, at worst, throwing the whole ensemble off.

5. Musicians learn to let go of past mistakes and keep on playing.

Successful people make mistakes, but they use these mistakes as opportunities to learn, and then they move on. They don’t dwell on their mistakes. If a musician makes a mistake in a live performance, they can’t stop and redo it; the music must go on, no matter what. This means letting go in the moment, and then reviewing what happened afterwards so that the same thing doesn’t happen again.

6. Musicians know how to focus both on their own part and on the sound of the whole group.

The most successful are able to focus on the task at hand and keep the big picture in view at the same time. Good ensemble musicians don’t just get swallowed up in their own part; they simultaneously listen to themselves and the other players, monitor the flow of the music, watch the director or the other band members, and sense the engagement of the audience.

7. Musicians know that they are much more powerful as part of a team than alone.

The most successful people in the world didn’t build their empires by themselves. There is no single person alive who can create a product, market it, and manage the money equally well. A single singer with a guitar is fine, but adding a bass, drums, and perhaps a horn or a keyboard has the potential to turn “nice” into “magical” or even “earth-moving.” There is no single player on the planet who can play all of those instruments at once.

A Final Word:

Whether musicians actually make a living playing their music or not, they have all learned some powerful life lessons in the process of learning to play, both by themselves and with others. I suspect this is why we see so many musicians among the most successful people in so many industries.

And now…time to go practice.

Featured photo credit: Practice / Nosha via flickr.com

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