My favourite podcast is called Stop Podcasting Yourself and a few months ago its hosts Dave Shumka and Graham Clark talked about Running Down a Dream, the documentary about Tom Petty that you can find on Netflix. I love Tom Petty and I think that Dave and Graham are Canadian heroes, so during my holidays I watched the four hour film, which is great. Here are five lessons in awesomeness from Tom Petty, who is an authentic, soulful and rebellious innovator of music and life.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers kicked off their musical journey as slow-talkin’, fashion-senseless fellahs from Gainesville, Florida in a band called “Mudcrutch” and today they’re one of the best-selling and most iconic rock groups of all time. The members of the band – Mike , Benmont, Ron, Scott, Stan, Howie – have been together for most of the group’s 30-year career. Their genuine dedication to music and how it moves people has earned Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers opportunities for collaboration with musical icons like Bob Dylan and European tours during a time when American rock music wasn’t cool. From weird outfits to leaning into their Southern roots, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have always known what they’re about and how to share their gifts with others.
A song that captures this idea is “Listen to Her Heart”, You’re Gonna Get It! (1978) money, cocaine and other shiny distractions don’t sway people who are in tune with their authentic selves.
Your key takeaway: Be yourself and understand your unique attributes in order to share them with the world in ways that no one else can. This article by Karissa Thacker outlines some great strategies for living as your best authentic self.
Tom Petty is called “a craftsman” throughout the documentary by the likes of rock legends George Harrison, Stevie Nicks and Eddie Vedder. Everyone interviewed emphasizes Petty’s capacity for innovation and perfection – he is even compared to Michael Jackson as a pioneer in music television, as Petty and the Heartbreakers were one of the first acts to apply a film-style narrative to their videos. Reflecting on his experience with The Traveling Wilburys (in my opinion they are the most underrated band of all time), Petty noted the different processes that George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison applied to songwriting. A lifelong learner who is genuinely interested in a variety of styles, Tom Petty picks up ideas from everywhere and applies them to his craft with grace and precision.
A song that captures this idea is “Learning to Fly”, Into the Great Wide Open (1991) because setting big goals, failing at them and then recovering with resilience is essential for becoming a master.
Your key takeaway: Mastery cannot be achieved, but we can strive towards it by focusing on our very specific goals. While hard to take sometimes because of its over-the-top-ness, “The Robin Sharma Mastery Sessions” podcast provides compelling advice for becoming a world class craftsman like Tom Petty.
Know what to say
I was struck by how easily words flowed from Tom Petty during interviews for the doc itself as well as found footage from the 30 years that the film captures. The guy always says the right thing. Whether he was convincing a band-mate’s dad to let his son travel to Los Angeles or getting a buddy out of the Vietnam War, Tom Petty was and is very convincing when he speaks. Producer Rick Rubin lauded Petty’s songwriting as indescribable, pontificating that the lyrics “flowed through him” and noted that Petty often couldn’t explain where his ideas came from or how he turned them into incredible songs in less than 10 minutes. Petty is a relatable guy who can take abstract concepts and make them into music that resonates with people. He is a master of getting quickly and poetically to the point.
A song that captures this idea is “You Wreck Me”, Wildflowers (1994) because no regular human being would ever say “I’ll be the boy in the corduroy pants / you be the girl at the high school dance” to someone else. But we should. Because this is a beautiful lyric and corduroy pants are awesome.
Your key takeaway: Study improv so that you know how it feels to listen to others incredibly and to live in the moment authentically or without fear. Here’s my article about how improv is a game-changer for your career.
Ruthlessness is cool
Sure, Tom Petty is known for leading with love and emphasizing peace and harmony with his approach to music and life. He also poached bassist Howie Epstein from Del Shannon, who Petty was producing, and acknowledged in the doc that Shannon never got over Petty’s power move. And after writing “Stop Dragging my Heart Around” for Stevie Nicks, who claims she would’ve left Fleetwood Mac for the Heartbreakers, Petty kept the song for himself. For all of his kindness Tom Petty brings directness, decisiveness and, perhaps, a killer instinct to his work because he resolutely believes in what he’s doing and how he’s doing it.
A song that captures this idea is “The Last DJ”, The Last DJ (2002) because the Last DJ is a radio pirate who answers only to the people and he doesn’t apologize for it.
Your key takeaway: If you really want something then you have to ask for it (and sometimes take it from another human being). Here’s a short video from HBR about how to ask for what you want.
Don’t back down
“He’s just a badass,” says Dave Grohl (arguably a badass in his own right) of Tom Petty. How many artists – of any kind in any industry – have taken on big corporations and won? I don’t know the answer, but it’s not many. He fought valiantly for creative control of his songs, objected to “superstar pricing” of his albums, and when I saw him at Madison Square Garden in 2002 he shouted down the music industry’s greed and let the audience know that no corporations were subsidizing the tour. Robin Sharma believes that greatness is achieved when we bring monomaniacal focus and passion to two or three things. Tom Petty is dedicated to the business of music like nobody else.
A song that captures this idea is “Won’t Back Down”, Full Moon Fever (1989) for obvious reasons.
Your key takeaway: Original thinkers and respected leaders are rebels. This doesn’t mean that they disagree with people all the time or try to sabotage the status quo, but it does mean that folks like Tom Petty stick to our beliefs and speak up when people aren’t doing the right thing. More than ever our world needs people who won’t compromise their convictions, especially as workplace engagement is trending towards transparency and aligning business outcomes with what’s good for the world.