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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14 Responses to “How to Light a Fire: The Keith Richards Method”

  1. Ingridktw says:

    Thanks for this great post! I think it is spot on since I definitely experienced the opposite effect from being a bit over-enthusiastic about some things with my kids.

    I suspect that this approach to nurturimg passion may happen on a smaller scale in both Montessori and Suzuki environments. In a Montessori classroom, younger children watch older children receive lessons and do “works” that they are not yet able/allowed to do. In this way, the next level in math (and all subjects) becomes enticing and is mysterious. My son was so thrilled once he got a lesson on the Change Game (decimals) and did it over and over. He sees kids working on the next work in the curriculum and can’t wait to try it. Similarly, the music and mixed level group classes in Suzuki get kids excited about the next piece or level. New worlds literally open up as you progress – tours, new ensemble and performance opportunities… In both settings, I think all of your bullet points apply.

  2. Peter says:

    I just heard a review on NPR last night for the album “Hands” by jazz legend Dave Holland. Quoting the article,

    “Holland says he wasn’t out to create a fusion of jazz and flamenco on Hands. Instead, he wanted to use the breadth of his knowledge to play flamenco from the inside. He says he doubts he could have done this 10 years ago: He might have had the experience, knowledge and technique required, but not the willingness to venture into flamenco’s turbulent emotional terrain.

    In the end, that’s what greatness comes down to in flamenco, as well as in jazz — the courage to tap into deep emotions. Holland and Habichuela accomplish that here, and that’s what makes them masters.”

    Love it – and can’t wait to read Life. Great work, Dan!

    The article and a link to the audio are here:

  3. parklane says:

    Nice one. Think it’s just our excessive drive to make kids what we think and not what they ought to be that makes us speed things up.Taking a class from this for future use.

  4. Karen Blake says:

    Whoa! This ones cool. Lighting up the fire in life. 🙂

  5. wally says:

    there is a similar story about Bach. He lived with his older brother. He was not allowed to look at his brothers collection of written music. He had to sneak to look at it.

  6. TraderAngelT3 says:


    I went through similar journey on my road to finally receiving an offer to trade at a Hedge fund. For a period of two years, I was rejected at most of the major firms in NYC. However, during that period I never quit a deep passion / desire had developed within me. I continued to press forward and apply to other major firms, until I was finally admitted to my preferred choice. Today, I’m an excellent trader, and I’m outperforming. I feel that this period of rejection, helped make me stronger. Kind of like a pressure cooker, by keeping the lid on it, the pressure increases, until point you pop the lid and all of that energy/passion/ desire gushes out… that’s when a star is born.

  7. IngridHTW,

    Your thoughts on Montessori schools are ones that jumped into my head upon reading this as well. I feel as though Montessori schools do a phenomenal job in many ways as far as their methods and how they encourage/gently nudge the neural changes required in learning and development.

    Carson Boddicker

  8. Samuel Cartwright says:


  9. Greg says:

    Great post. I recently saw this interview on MSN with Katy Perry that reminded me of this post. She talks about watching and hearing her older sister take voice lessons, and it made her want to do it. She talks about how singing on stage gave her a place where everyone would stop what they were doing to listen, and how picking up a guitar at 13 was her “ammo” for her passion, adding the ability to play music to add to her voice.


    Keep up the fascinating work.

    Greg Sumpter

  10. djcoyle says:

    Very cool, Greg — thanks for sharing that. Maybe we should start a list of younger children who share this pattern. We could add Yo-Yo Ma and Mozart, both of whom had older sibs. Who else?

  11. Greg says:

    Michael Phelps and Michael Jackson come to mind.

  12. djcoyle says:

    Good ones — thanks!

  13. Rob says:

    Just reading the Keif Richards book now – in addition to the explaining the “ignition” he also touches on the deep practice that Keith, Mick & Brian Jones experienced. Living together in a monk-like existence, two mattresses and a record player, poring over Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed records and relentlessly dissecting them. Then, once they started getting gigs, working like the Beatles did in Germany — sometimes 2-3 gigs a day.

    The book itself is a great read — I’ve learned there’s a lot more to Keith than the myth/pop culture stereotype!

  14. Geetanjali says:

    One thing no one has mentioned is the effect on reading. Most kids today don’t like to read, and its a statistic mentioned over and over, but how many parents are themselves demonstrating a love of reading?

    My mom got me hooked on reading as a child, and one of the main reasons was because I grew up in homes where there were books everywhere, and yet no one ever asked me to read. I just knew that I had to improve my skill level fast if I wanted to be able to read all those books. And of course, the love of books permeated the atmosphere, so I picked it up.

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