Slowhand’s Success Secret

“Clapton is God,” said the graffiti back in the ’60s. To some, he still is. To others… well, if you think Washington deficit debates are harsh, engage in a “greatest guitarist of all time” smackdown with a die-hard music fan. Eric Clapton’s name will come up quite a bit (inevitably with some yahoo swearing he’s overrated). Let’s not kid around, folks. Slowhand is one of the greatest of all time.

An odd thing about musicians, though: No one takes a look at them to see why the successful ones are so successful. We assume it’s just about talent and practice, since creating music—let alone writing an enduring song—seems more like alchemy than a product of hard work.

Well, it ain’t alchemy. Talent? Hard work? Sure. But you know what? A lot of talented people work hard. You work hard. But as crucial as they are, hard work and talent alone don’t guarantee great results.

There’s a habit among musicians, especially the great ones, that is overlooked: collaboration. And this brings us back to Slowhand. Clapton is one of the great collaborators. Here’s a quick rundown of his co-workers over the years: B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, J.J. Cale, Wynton Marsalis, Steve Winwood, Duane Allman, Jeff Beck, George Harrison, Leon Russell, Stephen Stills, Roger Waters, Tina Turner, Frank Zappa, Elton John and Sheryl Crow.

You get the idea. Collaboration is an unsung secret in the business of creativity. It seems to go against the talented person’s prime directive to achieve star status, top billing.

But go back to that list of collaborators. None of them are anonymous; they all draw attention away from Clapton. But has his penchant for making music (a.k.a. product) with them in any way hindered his continued star status? No.

Collaboration is an incredible asset. For one, it ratchets up your productivity. This is true whether you’re writing novels or computer code. When collaborators are depending on one another, it forces them to hit deadlines. It encourages maximum effort because no one wants to be the person who made the final product suck. And the more material you produce, the more you earn.

Both hip-hop and country musicians have learned this secret—just look at all the hit singles out there by artists that include the word featuring in the credits.

Creativity is generally considered a solo gig, and our instincts tell us to hoard talent for our own benefit. Instead, seek out more and more collaborations. This works in any office, in any business. Start with willingness, enthusiasm and an open mind. Talk to co-workers who complement your talent. Kick around ideas. Encourage excellence. Share top billing.

You may produce something indelible—and become the person everyone wants to work with.


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