John Lennon is dead. Are you the next John?

John never worked in market research, yet he did have a pretty darn big creative impact on the world. John had a tricky childhood (as did Steve and David discussed previously), struggled at school, started a band, went solo, and was shot dead by a mad man (not of the advertising ilk) at the age of just 40. Everyone dies, even Steve and David died (at 56 and 88 respectively), yet often it all seems too short.

Fortunately John Lennon packed a tonne of accomplishment into his short time. At Lennon’s death he had played a pretty massive role in music’s evolution and amassed a personal fortune of $800M (which was a lot of money in 1980). The Beatles’ last album was released in 1970 ‘Let it Be’ and they still remain the top selling musicians ever with 600M+ sales.

In September 1971, just following the Beatle’s somewhat bitter split, John Lennon and his quirky wife Yoko Ono (aka ‘the women who broke up the Beatles’) shared a bit of banter and randomness with talk show host Dick Cavett (1hr:07min). At the time of the interview Lennon was 31.

Highlights of the interview included quite avant-garde short films and artistic pursuits including ‘fly walking over women’s body,’ time lapse of a building growing (called Erection), Yoko’s new DIY art book ‘Grapefruit,’ an exhibition, audience members in black bags, Yoko’s singing and stethoscope listening to random body parts. Conversation also surrounded feminism, smoking and a range of other random topics. There’s also a few subtle sales plugs from John, largely of Yoko’s work. Perhaps saying selling is critical, even for artistic persuits.

The interview is a nice insight into the swagger of a creative genius. As Lennon notes throughout the hour, he goes through his life “always laughing.” Clearly, he and Ono were relaxed and didn’t take life in general too seriously. Although many topics ignite their serious side.

My key take-out from watching the candid discussion is that people who make a difference make their own opportunity. They are clever such as Lennon, but don’t wait until they have the suitable experience under their belt or for a safe opportunity to arise. They create their own opportunity. And, while an ounce of genius is important, many of those who make a difference aren’t genius by any traditionally measurable standard.

Lennon took great pride in sticking his middle finger up to most of his ex-teachers. While he was strong in subjects that were of interest to him – art, literature etcetera – he struggled with many of the mainstream subjects such as math and science, and with this and I’m sure a bit of attitude, he was branded a future drop-kick by teachers.

“You’ll never make it! That’s what they told me. One math master wrote … ‘you’re on the road to failure, if he carries on this way…’ Most of them didn’t like me, except for one or two, so I’m always glad to remind them of their incredible awareness they had”

“There was always one teacher in each school, usually an art teacher, or an English language or literature kind of thing, if it’s anything to do with writing or art, I was okay at it. If there was anything to do with science or math, I just couldn’t get it in. But, most subjects were science and math, because supposedlythey don’t want artists. Even at art school they tried to turn me into a teacher to try to discourage you from painting. ‘Why not be a teacher? Because then you can paint on Sunday.’ I decided against it.”

With some disappointment, Lennon discussed the lack of respect from many at home of his value as an artist. He lamented the attitude of those back in England, viewing his success as more like a lucky guy who won the lotto than a talented and hard working artist achieving worldwide success from humble beginnings. As something of a perplexing counter balance, Lennon was pleased that he had received more respect from America.

“People think of us, especially in England not so much here, we get a bit more respect in America as artists, but back home, I think it’s the case for all artists, it’s a bit like ‘I’m the man that won the Pools, and lucky guy, what a shop of luck, and married a Hawaiian actress,’ which isn’t true really.”

Lennon emphasised the hard work that had gone into creating the Beatles. It was no easy route. The success came from bloody hard work and sacrifice.

“It wasn’t that carefree ever. It was a lot more pressure. The pressure was far heavier.”

Discussion also surrounded the importance of timing and that when the Beatles split in 1970, the successful band had run its course. Even the biggest successes, partnerships and teams have a timing when it’s right, and wrong.

“She (Yoko Ono) didn’t split the Beatles, because how could one girl split the Beatles, or one women? The Beatles were drifting apart on their own. … Everything is fun, off and on, so it could have gone being fun off and on, or it could have gotten worse. I don’t know. When you grow up, we don’t want to be the crazy guy, or the Marx Brothers, being dragged on stage playing she loves you. When you’ve got asthma and tuberculosis when we’re 50 ‘yesterday, all my troubles …’ So, a long time ago, I said, I don’t want to be singing ‘she loves you’ at 30. I said that when I was about 25 or something, which in aroundabout way meant in a roundabout kind of way I wouldn’t be doing what I was doing then, at 30. Well, I was 30 last October, and that’s about when my life changed really.”

In 1983 Mike Jagger was quoted similarly in a People Magazine article ‘Mick Jagger Turns 40’ – “I don’t want to be singing Satisfaction when I’m 40.” Jagger had been increasing the years, over many years as to when he’d call it a day. Now 71 and still cranking it out (and feedback from the recent Adelaide concert, like he always has), I guess the rules changed, and good on him. As Jagger later said, he was “a towheaded lad.”

Lennon also discussed people trying to find hidden meaning in the Beatles lyrics. Much has been written and postulated about the hidden meaning from Beatles songs, particularly references to hard drug use and other criptic messages.

One such highly analysed Beatles song is Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds from their 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Lennon tries to emphasise that there is no hidden, drug related meaning …

“This is the truth. My son came home with a drawing, and showed me a strange looking women flying around, I say ‘what is it’ and he said ‘it’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and I thought ‘that’s beautiful’ and I immediately wrote a song about it. The song had gone out, and the whole album had been published, and somebody noticed, the letters spelt out L.S.D. And, I had no idea about it. And, of course after that I was checking all the songs, to see what all the letters spelt out. They didn’t spell out anything. And, it wasn’t about that at all. … But, nobody believes me.”

One of my personal favourite lyrics is from The Beatles ‘I am the Walrus’ on the 1967 album Magical Tour…

“I am he as you are he as you are me, and we are all together. See how they run like pigs from a gun. See how they fly, I’m crying. Sitting on a cornflake. Waiting for the van to come. Corporation t-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday. Man you’ve been a naughty boy. You let your face grow long. I am the eggman. They are the eggmen. I am the walrus. Goo goo g’ joob.”

Lennon is reported that he wrote the lyrics to confuse those who tried to interpret his songs. However, analysis of the song by others has contended many hidden meanings. Perhaps there is a hidden meaning, perhaps not.

Related to this, Lennon in his 1971 interview with Cavett spoke of the frustration of being quoted by reporters. He points out that opinions change, or are said with jest or when a particular mood or situation influenced a view.

“Half the time you don’t know what you’re talking about when you’re talking to reporters. … If everyone’s words were recorded as they were saying them, there are lots of things that either turn out to be silly, or you didn’t mean it, or they’re spur of the moment, or you had foresight or didn’t. It varies, but when people bring it back, I’ve forgotten all about it. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

As the interview comes to an end Dick Cavett asked about what could be done to stop people dying of drug overdoses. He referred to singer-songwriter Janis Joplin recently dying of a drug overdose aged 27. Lennon expressed his view of the importance of not just focusing on the simplistic issue, but the root of the problem and why it exists.

“The basic thing nobody asks, is why do people take drugs of any sort, from alcohol to aspros, to hard drugs, and that question has to be resolved first before you think ‘what can we do for the poor drug addict? Why do we and you, and anybody, have to have these accessories to normal living, to live. Is there something wrong with society that is making us so pressurised that we can’t live within it, without guarding ourselves against it. It’s that basic, the problem. I think if people are able to be a bit more free and express themselves, they wouldn’t have to inhibit themselves by taking drugs to not be hurt. People take drugs and drink so as they don’t feel what’s going on around them.”

So, what can we learn from John?

My first on reflection is making a difference isn’t easy. It takes bloody hard work and a degree of blind faith and resilience. While Lennon had many supporters, he also had those who disliked him (some agressively so), and those who believed his success was more so luck than hard work or ability. Lennon illustrated a level of tenacity and resilience to step beyond negative people from teachers to those in his home of England, and beyond.

  • Lesson for business 1: Business and government too often take the easy route, or get pulled back by isolated negativity. In my experience in market research for controversial and not so controversial issues, too many organisations over estimate the negative attitude and underestimate the demand from consumers for business and government stepping above and beyond the easy route.

And, it is critical that those making a difference create their own opportunities, rather than waiting for them to come. Those making a difference, by definition, did something different, away from the status quo. They often didn’t wait for permission or when they had more experience, or after they could see others moving in a similar direction. Those making a difference lead, not follow. They don’t use youth, bad luck or geographic location as an excuse.

  • Lesson for business 2. Most business and government are followers, or move very slowly. They rarely think significantly beyond how their own organisation has previously done what they do. They even more rarely think beyond their own category. The vast majority of banks are fundamentally like every other bank. The vast majority of retail is fundamentally the same, etcetera, etcetera. With the increased global interconnectedness, arguably brands have become more vanilla than distinctive. Innovation is all the rage, but the risk of leading not following, makes ‘innovation’ a fad more than an action.

People like Lennon had a serious and not so serious side. He clearly loved a laugh, but also valued hard work and had an opinion about world issues. While his opinion may differ from others, he had an opinion and didn’t mind standing up for, even fighting for, his perspective. Lennon and Ono clearly emphasised their opinions and uniqueness. They didn’t want to be like everyone else.

  • Lesson for business 3. It is okay to have a laugh in business and government, and not take it all too seriously. Perhaps a sense of humour promotes creative thinking and inventiveness? Yet, the end game is making a difference, and having a perspective on how this will be achieved. Too many organisations are fearful of holding a clear differentiation and opinion, or standing out from the crowd. This ultimately holds back progress and growth.

Some things in life don’t have a reason, and some things do. It is important to not read things into situations or conversations that do not exist. Also, what people think, may change depending on time, the situation or other variables. We are not static in opinion, and often what we say loses its meaning very quickly. Lennon also noted that issues such as drugs (be it prescription, alcohol or hard drugs) are systematic of a bigger problem. We too often look for a simple answer to a much bigger issue, and hence do not have any true impact.

  • Lesson for business 4. Not everything in life and business has a reason. For business and government, this has two extremes : i) the solution is believed to be found at a surface and superficial level that ultimately does not achieve a measurable outcome (although can waste a great deal of money in trying); or ii) the incorrect meaning is found in something that ultimately has little if any true meaning or consequence. Does everything have a meaning? And, how do you find the correct reason to a problem, issue or opportunity?

A further lesson I’m taking from Lennon is that life is finite. We are unlikely to all be as lucky as David Ogilvy reaching the ripe old age of 88. My own previously ever healthy father died only a few years ago at 61 following a 12 month brain tumour struggle, questioning my anticipated ‘used-by date’ of 80+. Time is finite, both in life and business, and the right time for an opportunity is limited. Even with death aside, there are times when opportunities are right and others when they are not – The Beatles had their time, and then it ended. Again, it is not about waiting for the timing to be right, or risk to be at a minimum, or when youth is gone, it is about embracing opportunity.

  • Lesson for business 5. Too often business and government move way too slow. They wait for the opportunity to arise without risk. They see that the time will be as right in the future as it is now. Or, they don’t kill an idea, product or strategy soon enough, when it is unlikely to work effectively moving forward. Even worse, they copy an idea from a competitor or resuscitate an old idea that should have been left buried. Now, more than ever, times change, people change, and with this so do opportunities. Agility is critical. Define a strategic imperative and opportunity, implement fast and adjust.

We all need the support of people we love and who reciprocate, even if they are are as crazy and eccentric as Yoko Ono. It takes all sorts to make up the world.

  • Lesson for business 6. As the cliché goes – there is no ‘i’ in ‘team.’ It is as important in life as it is in business to surround yourself with people you love and can trust. It is hard to make a difference alone. Also critical is that all work and no play makes John or any other name quite dull.

Points 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and even 6 are business and government priorities that market research companies help clients with. Thinking beyond the status quo to find opportunities. Understanding the level of support, or more importantly the low level of opposition and how to best deal with this. Digging deeper to find the true answer and broader context of a problem. Providing a clear pathway to guide the brand and culture moving forward. How can business and government break free from the safety zone, to be unique, to make the world better? Critically, this is not about being different for the sake of it, but different with a purpose and realisation that to remain static is a path to failure.

Few would argue that times are tricky. The economy is sluggish globally, media landscape is constantly changing and consumers are expecting more, and more. Yet, there is a bounty of opportunities for those knowing where to look and willing work hard to make them a reality.

You may not be the next John Lennon, but you may be able to take some lessons from what he achieved and how he did so. Good luck!

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