Derek Sivers

6 things I wish I knew the day I started Berklee


This is a talk I gave to incoming first-year students at Berklee College of Music today: September 5, 2008.

#1 : Focus. Disconnect. Do not be distracted.

My favorite part of the movies is the training sequence, where a young Bruce Wayne, Neo, or Kung-Fu Panda goes to a remote location to be trained relentlessly, nonstop, past all breaking points, until they emerge as a master.

The next few years can be your training sequence, if you focus.

Unfortunately you’re not in Siberia. You’re surrounded by distractions.

You’re surrounded by cool tempting people, hanging out casually, telling you to relax.

But the casual ones end up having casual talent and merely casual lives.

Looking back, my only Berklee classmates that got successful were the ones who were fiercely focused, determined, and undistractable.

While you’re here, presidents will change, the world will change, and the media will try to convince you how important it all is.

But it’s not. None of it matters to you now.

You are being tested.

Your enemy is distraction.

Stay offline. Shut off your computer. Stay in the shed.

When you emerge in a few years, you can ask someone what you missed, and you’ll find it can be summed up in a few minutes.

The rest was noise you’ll be proud you avoided.

Focus. Disconnect. Do not be distracted.

This is your #1 most important challenge. If you master focus, you will be in control of your world. If you don’t, it will control you.

#2 : Do not accept their speed limit.

You don’t get extreme results without extreme actions.

Berklee classes set a pace the average student can keep.

If you want to be above average, you must push yourself to do more than required.

There’s a martial arts saying, “When you are not practicing, someone else is. When you meet him, he will win.”

If you are a writer, you should not only write a song a week, but spend twice as long improving it as you do writing it.

Inspiration is a good start, but it’s the diligence to make every note and every word perfect, that will really set you apart.

Luckily, when I was 17, a few months before starting Berklee, I met a man named Kimo Williams who used to teach at Berklee and convinced me that the standard pace is for chumps.

In just three intensive lessons, he taught me three semesters of Berklee harmony, so on opening day I started in “Harmony 4”.

In one intensive lesson, he taught me the whole semester of “Arranging 1”.

Then I learned I could buy the book for a course I wasn’t enrolled in, and do all the examples myself, without even needing to attend the class. I could approach the department head and take the final exam for full credit. I did this for all the other requirements like Arranging 2, and traditional counterpoint classes.

I graduated Berklee in 2-and-a-half years.

Do not accept their speed limit.

Blow away expectations.

#3 : Nobody will teach you anything. You have to teach yourself.

When I first arrived at Berklee, I was disappointed. My teachers weren’t teaching me. I almost dropped out.

I went home to Chicago and got accepted to Northwestern University. Then I realized their music program was more about memorizing the name of Bach’s many children.

So I came back to Berklee with gusto. I decided to squeeze every bit of knowledge out of this place. Nobody was going to do it for me.

Do not expect the teachers to teach you.

They will present some information to you, but it is entirely 100% up to you to either make the most of it, or waste your time here, and go home and get a normal dumb job.

Berklee is like a library.

Everything you need to know is here for the taking.

It’s the best possible environment for you to master your music.

But nobody will teach you anything. You have to teach yourself.

#4 : Learn from your heroes, not only theirs.

When I was here, I wanted to be a great songwriter, among other things.

Berklee’s songwriting courses are amazing! I learned so much about song crafting that made me look at all of my favorite music with a whole new insight, and forever improved my own writing.

But I remember a lyric writing teacher saying a good lyric needs to use all five senses. He’d say, “Don’t just mention your grandmother. Describe the veins on the back of her hands. Don’t just mention a bedroom. Describe the smell of the dust on the curtains and the sound of the creaky stairs.”

So for years I thought every lyric I wrote was crap unless it described all five senses.

Then finally I noticed that my favorite lyrics by Nirvana or Talking Heads were abstract collages of evocative nonsense.

My favorite glitchy electronic music by Björk is nothing they’d ever teach in a “Rock Arranging For Live Performance 1” class.

So I finally realized the one important point I missed while here, that I hope you don’t forget.

The teachers are taking their favorite music and using it to teach you techniques.

Learn and appreciate those techniques. They’re great.

But if you only learn the techniques they teach you, you’re only learning their favorite music.

Never think their heroes are better than yours.

You’ll hear a lot about the greats, but whatever you love is great, too.

The same way they will break apart a Shania Twain hit song or a classic Charlie Parker solo to teach you the craft inside, you must learn how to break apart your favorite music and analyze it.

I finally analyzed my favorite Nirvana and Talking Heads lyrics. Finally analyzed the glitches and growls in Björk’s music.

Distilled their ingredients for my own re-use.

Learn from your heroes, not only theirs.

#5 : Don’t get stuck in the past.

While at Berklee, I felt I had to learn Donna Lee, the old bebop jazz standard, to be a good musician.

Got a great gig going to Japan for a month with Victor Bailey on bass.

Here’s one of the best bassists ever, who’s played with Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Sonny Rollins, Sting, and more.

He heard me playing Donna Lee a bit, and said, “Man — jazz was all about inventing something new. For a musician 50 years later to be stuck in the 1950s would be like a 1950s musician being stuck in the 1900s. There’s nothing cool about that.”

A couple weeks later I was at the piano quietly working on one of my own songs, and for the first time he said, “Hey — wow — what is that? That’s great, man. Can you show me?”

Innovation is needed more than imitation.

Don’t get stuck in the past.

#6 : When done, be valuable.

While you’re here, stay locked in the shed.

Enjoy this wonderful isolation, with no responsibility but to improve yourself.

But when you leave here, head to the business aisle of the bookstore and start reading a book a week about entrepreneurial things like marketing.

Never underestimate the importance of making money making music.

Let go of any weird taboos you have about it.

Money is nothing more than neutral proof that you’re adding value to people’s lives.

Making sure you’re making money is just a way of making sure you’re doing something of value to others.

Remember that this usually comes from doing the things that most people don’t do.

For example: How much does the world pay people to play video games? Nothing, because everyone does it.

How much does the world pay people to make video games? A ton, because very few can do it, and lots of people want it.

Be one of the few that is clever enough to make money making music instead of pretending it doesn’t matter.

Be one of the few that has the guts to do something shocking.

Be one of the few that takes your lessons here as a starting point, and pushes yourself to do more with what you learn.

Be one of the few that knows how to help yourself, instead of expecting for others to do it for you.

Be one of the few that does much more than is required.

And most importantly, be one of the few that stays in the shed to practice, while everyone else is surfing the net, flirting on Facebook, and watching TV.

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