Read Jimmy Iovine's USC Commencement Speech (Video)
Inside, I had absolutely no idea what Jon meant. I wanted to scream. I wanted to argue. I wanted to walk. But for reasons I’m still thinking about three decades later, I did the opposite. I didn’t protect my ego. Instead, I paused for just a moment and listened to someone who might actually know better. So I told Jon, “You got it” because I did want to learn and this advice sounded like Aristotle to me. I had no idea who Aristotle was, but I liked the sound of his name. Jon told me, ‘I want you to walk in that room and tell Bruce Springsteen “I am here to support you. I will do whatever you need me to do.”’
So that’s what I did.
Turned out, the other guy from Jersey couldn’t get the drums right either. Somehow we got closer to the sound Bruce wanted and we moved on together. Six weeks later, not only was I still on Bruce’s team, but he also gave me one of the greatest songs he ever wrote called “Because The Night” that I produced for Patti Smith. That was my first hit record as a producer and launched my career. Listening to Jon’s five words — “This Is Not About You” — became the tipping point for every gift that’s followed in my life.
At that moment, I began to learn how to push aside my own personal issues and my desperate need to be right so I could focus on what was truly important — the greater good. Don’t worry, I wasn’t cured — I still battle with these issues of insecurity, ego, pride, and especially fear every day. Too often those issues get in the way of me seeing The Big Picture. But what I have learned is some of these powerful insecurities can be harnessed into life’s greatest motivator, the strongest 5-hour energy drink ever. It’s called a little old fashioned fear.
I know about fear. I was once fired from two jobs within 90 days. I felt as if the sidewalk was collapsing behind me, but that insecure feeling always kept me moving forward. Rather than stop me in my tracks like a headwind, I began to learn how to make those same insecurities the tailwinds to propel me forward.
Okay, now let’s fast-forward a little bit . . . maybe 30 years.
My second pivotal life lesson came in 1999, and now I was feeling like the King Of The World. I had built the hottest record company in the world, Interscope Records, the home of great artists like Dr. Dre, No Doubt, Eminem, The Black Eyed Peas and we had just signed U2. We were on a roll. We felt invincible. Nothing could touch us.
Except . . . Napster.
As a founder of Interscope Records, a company built on people paying for music, I was instantly scared to death. My God-given insecurities kicked in again. See I grew up in Brooklyn, so I knew the difference between going to a store and paying for something, and the opportunity to get it for free. I felt this stealing thing could really catch on.
So I went to see one of founding guys at Intel named Les Valdez. Somehow I thought I could reason with the industry that was about to destroy mine.
Fear, at times, makes us protect and defend what we think we already know. But sometimes in life, you need to learn a new lesson. And between you and me, in my experience, the most intelligent people that I meet are the ones who can best articulate what they don’t know. That’s not what I did with Les that day. I just kept trying to tell him how I thought things should be.
After listening to me for 20 minutes, Les finally spoke. He looked me in the eye, and said, “Wow, Jimmy, what a nice story. But you know what? Not every industry was made to last forever.” That statement was so profound and so true and so insightful and — to me — so devastating, I nearly retired right there and then. I walked into Les’ office thinking I was Elvis, and I was gently reminded Elvis was dead.
The lesson Les taught me is one I believe is increasingly important to learn in the fast-changing world we live in today. Think about this: EVERYTHING YOU KNOW COULD ALREADY BE WRONG.
When I got outside Les’s office and stopped sweating, I called my buddy Doug Morris, the Chairman of Universal Music and my boss at the time. I said, “Doug, we’re screwed.” Okay, I might not have used that exact word — but hey, I was upset. I said, “Doug, these guys don’t want our land. They want our water to take back to their land.”
At that moment, I was scared to death. In fact, at this moment, I am scared to death speaking in front of all you people. But I want you all to get comfortable with your fears because fear is a fact of life that you can use to your advantage. Because when you learn to harness the power of your fears, it can take you places beyond your wildest dreams. Because here’s the good news; fear has a lot of firepower.
I’ve spent my life working with many of my heroes and maybe some of yours too. From John Lennon and Bruce to Bono, Eminem. And let me tell you, I never met a great artist who wasn’t afraid of not living up to people’s expectations. But all of the greats used their fear to inspire them. I think today of the way John Lennon broke ground by speaking of his fears and his belief in change in a song called “Working Class Hero.”
As John sang,
When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be
John was a guy who could really express his fears and conquer them.