Graft at your craft like Ed Sheeran

Whilst walking the dog this morning I listened to a fascinating edition of Desert Island Discs*, with Ed Sheeran. I love this show, as you get to learn about a famous person’s life through their choice of music. In Ed Sheeran’s case, I took out lots of life lessons that I share below, in particular the power of being authentic and the need for struggle to achieve success.

* NOTE: For non-UK readers, this Radio 4 show features a different guest each week who chooses the eight records they’d take with them to a desert island

1. Graft at your craft
At first sight Ed Sheeran looks like an oversight success. In 2015, age 24, he played three nights at Wembley Stadium to a total of 255,000 people, a mere four years after being signed to a record label. However, this success was built on years and years of hard work and persistence. He’d not had an easy childhood, being a ginger, bespectacled young boy with a stammer and few friends. He was “a weird kid who didn’t fit in anywhere,” in his own words. Age 9 he learnt every rap on Eminem’s Marshall Mathers album, a process that helped him lose his stammer. He got his first guitar at age 11, inspired by watching Eric Clapton perform the song Layla at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebration. He started playing music writing songs with a school friend. By 13 he had recorded his first album in his bedroom and was playing live. And at 16 he left home to go to London and pursue a music career and “learn his craft“, playing two to three gigs a day.

A related point here is that hard work and practice can be more important than natural talent. “When people say artists are born with talent, you’re not,” Ed said on The Jonathan Ross Show“You have to really learn and really practice.” To prove this point he shared a video of himself singing badly at age 14, that you can watch here on YouTube (at 1 minute 14 in the video).

The business lesson in this story is the power of persistence. Look at cases of successful businesses, and most of them had to go through years of hard graft and tough times before sales started to take off.

2. Create multiple options and pick the best

An interesting learning on creativity came from how Ed writes songs. He writes lots and lots and lots, up to 100 songs. He then selects the best and ditches the rest. We use a similar approach on projects, encouraging teams to create multiple options in the ideation phase, without editing them. And then moving on to evaluate and select the lead options in a second phase.

3. Stay true to who you are

After a couple of years playing gig after gig in London Ed was “stuck“. He’d been turned down by every record label. In desperation he tried to change his musical style, based on their negative feedback that “No one wants to see a ginger white guy rapping.” However, after a couple of gigs he decided the new style was not the way forward. He didn’t enjoy it and it wasn’t authentic. He decided to be true to himself and keep working to find success.

This lesson applies to people and to brands, I suggest. The most successful brands are built on an authentic ‘truth’ that they stick to over time, refreshing it rather than walking away from it.

4. Make and take your breaks

Having failed to get his break in London, Ed headed to Los Angeles with a poet friend who ran poetry nights there. Through a contact of his friend, Ed managed to play a series of small gigs, one of which was at a club owned by movie star Jamie Foxx (below). This led to an appearance on Foxx’s radio show, and the Hollywood actor was so impressed with Ed’s music that he offered him a chance to record in his studio and even let him stay at his house. This in turn helped him make a connection that ended up with a record deal in 2011, aged 19.

The business lesson here is that you have to work to make a break in life. And then you have to take it and perform. In my own case, when starting up the Added Value’s Paris office months of effort got me half an hour with my old boss who was now Marketing VP at Eurodisney. The pitch worked and I won a first project that led eventually to five years of work on multiple projects for Disney.

5. Refresh and rejuvenate yourself

By 2016 Ed had released two successful albums and achieved considerable success. However, the musician felt he was getting a bit stale and needed fresh inspiration. He took a year off to travel the world, visiting Ghana, Japan, Iceland and Australia. This process him rejuvenate himself and get fresh ideas for his third album. And what an album. ‘÷‘ (pronounced ‘Divided’) broke the record for first-day album streams on Spotify with 56.7 million listens in 24 hours. At one point nine of the top 10 UK songs were from this one album!

The need for constant rejuvenation applies to people, as Ed has shown. It also applies to brands and marketing. On projects we look at multiple sources of insight to get fresh inspiration, including parallel industries, cultural decoding and ‘treasure hunts’ for interesting products and brands from around the world.

In conclusion, Ed Sheeran’s story is a wonderful reminder that success comes from building on an authentic truth and then putting in hard graft at your craft. This can be forgotten in an age of reality TV, that mistakenly makes people believe they can become an overnight sensation.