How to Light a Fire: The Keith Richards Method

keith-richards-pirates-18-10-10-kcPassion is the nuclear reaction at the core of every talent. It’s the glowing, inexhaustible energy source. It’s also pretty darn mysterious.

Where does intense passion come from? How does it start, and how is it sustained?  How does someone fall wildly in love with math or music, stock trading or figure skating?

Most of us intuitively think of passion as uncontrollable — you have it or you don’t, period. In this way of thinking, passion is like a lightning strike, or a winning lottery ticket. It happens to the few, and the rest of us are out of luck.

But is that true?  Or are there smart ways to increase the odds?

We get some insight into that question from none other than Keith Richards, whose book Life just came out. My favorite part of the book (and that’s saying something) is the part where Keith tells how he fell in love with music, and specifically with the guitar. The process went like this:

Step one: Keith’s Grandpa Gus, who was a former musician and a bit of a rebel, noticed that Keith liked singing.

Step two: whenever young Keith would come over, Gus placed a guitar on on top of the the family piano. Keith noticed. Gus told him, when he was taller, he could give it a try.

Step three: one momentous and unforgettable day, Gus took the guitar down from the piano, and handed it to Keith. From that moment, Richards was hooked (his first addiction). He took the guitar everywhere he went.

As Richards writes:

“The guitar was totally out of reach. It was something you looked at, thought about, but never got your hands on. I’ll never forget the guitar on top of his upright piano every time I’d go and visit, starting maybe from the age of five. I thought that was where the thing lived. I thought it was always there. And I just kept looking at it, and he didn’t say anything, and a few years later I was still looking at it. “Hey, when you get tall enough, you can have a go at it,” he said. I didn’t find out until after he was dead that he only brought that out and put it up there when he knew I was coming to visit. So I was being teased in a way.”

Reading it, I couldn’t help but think that most parents and teachers — me included — do precisely the opposite. We don’t put things out of reach — in fact we put them within reach. We go fast, not slow. We try to identify passion, not to grow it. We don’t take the time to make the nuclear reaction happen on its own.

For me, the lessons are these:

  • Don’t treat passion like lightning. Treat it like a virus, one that’s transmitted on contact with people who already have it. Grandpa Gus loved music. He noticed Keith liked singing.
  • Create a space for private contact with a vast, magical world. The guitar was totally out of reach. It was something you looked at, thought about, but never got your hands on.
  • Give time for the ideas to grow. And I just kept looking at it, and he didn’t say anything, and a few years later I was still looking at it.
  • Know that it’s never about today, but rather about creating a vision of the future self. “When you get tall enough you can have a go at it.”

For parents and teachers, Gus provides a useful model. Because Gus didn’t hover. He didn’t push. He didn’t even try to teach, beyond some rudimentary chords. But he did something far more intelligent and powerful. He understood what makes kids care. He carefully put the elements in place, sent a few pointed signals at the right time, and let the forces of nature take their course.

Smart man, that Gus.

And I can’t help but wonder: are there other Gus stories out there that might be instructive? How do we take the Gus Method and apply it to schools, or sports, or math?

PS — Thanks to all you readers who requested Spanish editions — they’re being mailed today. Venga!

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