Jay Jay French joined James Altucher to talk about systems, playing fields, and the best business advice he ever got. I nearly didn’t do a set of notes from this interview but I’m glad I did. If you missed it, go back and listen to it. In this interview there were 5 main lessons.
- Survey the playing field and know the rules.
- Avoid the big risks to your survival
- Use financial validity as a directional test
- Have some ego and delusional thinking
- Build up career capital
I’ve put them in bold, let’s go.
French is on the show to talk about the upcoming We are Twisted Fucking Sister documentary.
It sounds like the interview covered a lot of the same ground as the film and French starts out by noting “we were not a west coast, L.A. hair band.” It’s what they get identified as but they weren’t. Instead, “we learned our craft after years and years in the bars” French tells James. As the interview goes on French tells the story about coming up the bars. “The early days were a struggle, it was constant defeat. Constant rejection.” It wasn’t a lack of money, no that they actually had a bit of – it was getting signed by a record company. Back then, French says, you didn’t go out of your region without a record label. So they tried to get signed only to fail.
French took a look at what they were doing and “surveyed the playing field.” The best example was late in their career when French began to manage the licensing of the song, We’re not Gonna Take It. This helped make the song more universal and French implies that this has prolonged the band’s ability to tour. Rather than selling out with the song, it’s a method in the new economy. The new playing field isn’t about one song, but part of that song everywhere.
Starting out that economy and playing field looked different. French saw that a band could share a house, truck, and rent their lighting rig. If they played five or six nights a week and paid themselves “the bare minimum”, they could make it – and making it until tomorrow was all that matter. Today, he tells James, the economics of that process are totally different.
Another lesson was to avoid the big risks and just survive. Part of the risk in a band is incompatibility of bandmates. French tells James that Twisted Sister is on its eleventh iteration, in part because of the crazy people he worked with early on. One singer pulled a gun on their drummer, and the band broke up. Another time two band members stole French’s truck, and held it ransom, and the band broke up. Not until French met Dee Snider did the group survive. In part because of French’s and Snider’s abstinence of drugs and alcohol. “We became obsessive in our desires to succeed and not have anything stand in our way” French says. In the early iterations he saw the negative effects that things like that could have, and he wanted no part of them.
They also had to survive the nearly-made-its. French says that more than once the band was almost signed when something happened. One time they had signed all the papers only to have everything unravel when their German producer died of a heart attack on the plane ride home. French says you just have to, “mourn the setback, accept it, then you reapply and reinvent.”
Part of their survival was because Twisted Sister was validated. French says “we were validated in what we were doing and who we were by the fan base that we had.” French had financial validity. Even though the band hadn’t been signed, they were making money and had fans coming to see them. About knowing when to quit French says, “we knew we weren’t wrong…but it’s a tough call.” It takes time to get this, Stephen King advises writers, “And if you’re not succeeding, you should know when to quit. When is that? I don’t know. It’s different for each writer. Not after six rejection slips, certainly, not after sixty. But after six hundred? Maybe. After six thousand? My friend, after six thousand pinks, it’s time you tried painting or computer programming.”
Cal Newport writes about this too, noting that checking the financial validity of your ideas is a good way to test the temperature of the water before you jump in. Quoting Derek Sivers, “I have this principle about money that overrides my other life rules, do what people are willing to pay for.”
And you must have an ego and bit of delusional thinking all the while. “I don’t know if I’m brilliant or just stupid” French tells James. Alex Blumberg (episode #70) praises stupid optimism while A.J. Jacobs (episode #94) like delusional optimism. You’re going to need this when you push into unfamiliar places. Peter Thiel (episode #43) told James that “imitation is very endemic to the human condition.” Thiel means that we need a new mindset if we are going to think about things in new ways.
After all the club shows, failed auditions, and setbacks of a rotating cast, Twisted Sister was signed to a record and made this music video:
We were “much more developed as a band than 99% of the bands on MTV” French tells James. Twisted Sister has developed career capital that helped them become a huge band. French compares their skills to an iceberg:
“The surface, the shiny tip you see that sticks above the water is beautifully formed and underneath it is a base that so broad, so large, so heavy and all encompassing and in that base lies our history.”
This story has been told over and over again. Tim Ferriss (episode #22) seems like an overnight success – until you look at his history as an academic researcher, startup employee, entrepreneur, volunteer, and event planner. Tim Ferriss isn’t Tim Ferriss without all this. Austin Kleon (episode #19) told James that overnight success is a good story, nothing more.
Then Twisted Sister made it and everything was good. Or not. French tells James that during their apex as a band they, “couldn’t stand to be in the same room” and soon after disbanded.
French soon found himself going from divorce, to bankruptcy, to divorce again, and working menial jobs. “Did I go through all that just to end up bagging groceries” he asked himself. French says that he opened up Tony Robbin’s (episode #62) book, Awaken the Giant Within. After the first page he tells James that he began to think differently. He began to think in terms of the systems he needed in his life. Systems work. For Kevin Harrington (episode #49) it’s tease, please, seize. For Marcus Lemonis (episode #51) it’s people, product, process.
French tells James that it’s been a long road, but that he wouldn’t change anything. About each thing that happens French echoes this video of a talk Alan Watts gave.
Now French is up to a number of different things. Twisted Sister still tours, and do a surprising range of audience ages. He tells James that in South America, “no one is older than twenty-two,” Europe has the next youngest group of fans, and America has the oldest. French also writes for Inc Magazine and speaks.
Thanks for reading. One final note:
What advice would French give? “I’ll give you advice, but whether that advice applies to you, I don’t know.” This quote sums up my recent thoughts from listening to the podcast, that there are common themes to all of the guests that James has on, and those are the things we can draw on. Some of the ideas the guests share will have little effect on most of us, others share big ideas we all can use. I’m collecting those big ideas for a book and would love to talk to others about the big ideas they’ve taken away. If this is you, let’s connect.