What we can learn about peak performance from Bruce Springsteen

On 29th January 2014, I saw the best live rock concert of my life, and ever since I’ve been somewhat obsessed with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

As a music lover, I’m fascinated by his visceral poetry, and his willingness to explore original styles, rather than stick to the same well-worn path. And, as I was on that night two years ago, I’m in awe of the energy, authenticity, and stamina of his performance – not just his live performance, but how he has managed to achieve peak performance over his nearly 50-year career.

Now, it’s this last point that fascinates me as a learning practitioner. Because I’ve spent my career figuring out how to create lasting improvements in performance. And staying The Boss – and truly owning the moniker – over all those years, is worthy of study.

How has he stayed as good as he is for as long as he has? Sure, songwriters can have long careers, but how many of them can also make a realistic claim to being among the best performers on the planet for five decades? What’s his secret?

Here are three things I discovered about his incredible longevity and success while reading Springsteen’s recent autobiography, the gloriously poetic Born to Run.

  1. If you want to achieve mastery, there is no substitute for hard work.
  2. If you want to achieve lasting success, you need to work on yourself.
  3. Play to your strengths.

Hard work

In the world of L&D, we are continually pressured into producing shorter learning experiences and demanding less of our learners. While a well-orchestrated 70:20:10 framework is probably exactly what Springsteen’s life looked like, that kind of blend doesn’t always work out as we hope in large organizations. And in the charge towards shorter and less demanding, I have to wonder what we’re doing to engender this kind of report on what it felt like to learn, because in my experience, this is how you get really good at something that’s really hard:

“I tuned my guitar as best I could and realized immediately I’d have to start from scratch… It was a beginning. A real beginning… Five months later, I’d beaten my Western Auto special half to death. My fingers were strong and callused. My fingertips were hard as an armadillo’s shell.”

Our people are working hard. Of course they are. But are they applying that kind of passion and commitment when it comes to their learning?

What are you doing to encourage your people to work as hard on their learning as they do on their KPIs?

Work on yourself

So working hard pays off. But how does it pay off sustainably? For decades! Well, much of Born to Run is an artifact of Springsteen’s belief that personal development is at the core of his staying power.

“The heart of rock will always remain a primal world of action… Integrating the world of thought and reflection with the world of primitive action is not a necessary skill for making great rock ’n’ roll… But… if you want to burn bright, hard, and long, you will need to develop some craft and a creative intelligence that will lead you farther when things get dicey… After first contact knocks you on your ass, you’d better have a plan, for some preparedness and personal development will be required if you expect to hang around any longer than your fifteen minutes.”

Many of our learners view the whole notion of personal development as ‘soft’. Until it’s too late.

What are you doing to encourage your learners to work on themselves with the long haul in sight?

Play to your strengths

There were better guitarists in New Jersey, but could they perform like Bruce? Not a chance. He became a good guitarist, but he played to his strength of performing and became an astonishing performer. There were better singers, but could other guys sing with his passion, even if they had a better range? No way, so he did what he could with the few vocal tricks he had, and played to his songwriting strength instead. The result is a canon of rock anthems that are recognizable across the globe and loved by generations.

What are you doing to encourage your learners to play to their strengths?

It was tough to pick just three takeaways from a lifetime of learnings. But if you’re serious about driving peak performance in your learners, I would highly recommend Born to Run as a great source of stories to motivate learners of any age. And if it inspires you to pump up the volume on a few tracks and do some air guitaring in your lounge, that won’t hurt either.