In 1954, Johnny Cash walked into the audition room at Sun Records.
At the time, he was a nobody. He was selling appliances door-to-door and playing gospel songs at night. He was broke, and his marriage was in ruins.
For his audition, Cash picked a gospel song because it was what he knew best. What’s more, gospel was really popular in 1954. Everyone else was singing it, and as we’re told as fervently as gospel truth, there’s strength in numbers.
The audition, as depicted in the terrific movie Walk the Line, doesn’t go as Cash planned. As Cash begins to sing a slow, dreary gospel song, the record label owner (Sam Phillips) feigns interest for all of thirty seconds before interrupting Cash.
“We’ve already heard that song,” Phillips scoffs. “A hundred times. Just like that. Just like how you sang it.” This song, he continues, is the “same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it.” He asks Cash to sing “something different, something real, something you felt” because that’s the kind of song that truly saves people. “It ain’t got nothing to do with believing in God, Mr. Cash,” Philips concludes, “It has to do with believing in yourself.”
This rant jolts Cash out of his conformist, let-me-sing-you-some-good-old-gospel attitude. He collects himself, starts strumming his guitar, and begins singing “Folsom Prison Blues” in that deep, distinctive voice of his.
In that moment, he stops trying to be a gospel singer. He becomes Johnny Cash.
Most of us don’t dare to do what Cash did in that audition room.
We’d rather be wrong collectively—we’d rather fail singing the same gospel song that everyone else is singing—rather than risk failing individually. We chase trends, adopt the latest fad, and walk the line (as Cash would say).
Corporate executives rarely get blamed for copying the “proven” strategies of their competitors. If the strategy fails, there’s a readymade excuse: We did what everyone else was doing. But the executive who strays from the herd and fails while pursuing a promising untested strategy, well, that executive will get eaten by a pack of wolves called shareholders and board of directors.
Here’s the problem.
This “monkey see, monkey do” approach creates a race to the center. But the center is too crowded with other gospel singers competing for ever-shrinking slices of the pie. Over time, imitation makes the trend obsolete. As Warren Buffett says, “What the wise do in the beginning, the fools do in the end.”
Take it from another musician. In his terrific memoir Born to Run (the audio version is particularly good), Bruce Springsteen admits that his voice wasn’t going to win any prizes. He could play the guitar, but “the world was filled with plenty of good guitar players, many of them my match or better,” he writes.
So he took a page from Cash’s playbook and doubled down on the quality that made him different: His ability to write songs. Springsteen became a sensation for writing songs that capture the blue-collar spirit (“For my 19th birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat”), that show the distance between the American dream and the American reality (“Waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets”), and that allow his audience to find pieces of themselves in his music (“I want to know if love is real.”).
The path that Springsteen and Cash took is scary.
It requires walking left when others are walking right.
It requires singing the “Folsom Prison Blues” when everyone is singing gospel.
It requires embracing your distinctive qualities that the world tries so hard to beat into conformity.
And it requires the courage to stand up and stand out, instead of getting lost in the false security of a faceless crowd.
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