Too often, entrepreneurs get so absorbed in their companies that they lose sight of what matters. The opposite happened to brothers Bert and John Jacobs. In the course of building their clothing business, Life Is Good, from a back-of-a-minivan long shot into a $100 million commercial and philanthropic success, the Jacobs learned to apply such qualities as courage, humor, and gratitude to their company and to their lives.
Life Is Good: How to Live With Purpose and Enjoy the Ride (National Geographic, 2015) is the Jacobses’ alternately rambunctious and thoughtful chronicle of entrepreneurship. It is also a book about how to live well. In this adapted excerpt, the authors describe how a touchstone record transformed their understanding of creativity.
The Beatles started out as a cover band (don’t we all?) and went on to become, well, the Beatles. What can we mere mortals possibly learn from the legends of Liverpool? The versatility of men’s haircuts? The joys of strawberries and submarines? The timeless ideals of peace, love, and togetherness? Of course. We can also learn a great deal about creativity.
As the Fab Four evolved from mop-top “Love Me Do” heartthrobs to groundbreaking masters of their craft, they birthed an unprecedented album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Beatlemania had been a wild ride for the four young mates, and in 1966 the boys stopped touring. While the media sniped at their hiatus, the Beatles were raising their collective game to new levels. Sgt. Pepper’s, released in 1967, was a massive critical and commercial success. It has since been credited with elevating rock-and-roll to fine art. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it No. 1 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Our cousins’ basement in Worcester, Massachusetts, was a childhood cave where we created competitive games out of balls, drumsticks, elastics, and ever-morphing, ambiguous rules. That basement was magical because it was a blank canvas—an empty 15-by-15-foot arena rarely visited by adults. There we were free to fumble over mysterious topics (like girls and The Twilight Zone), play games, and explore new ideas. It was also, thanks to our cousins Rick and Pete, the place we first heard Sgt. Pepper’s.
Listening to each song on Sgt. Pepper’s was like visiting a new planet. When we finally got our own copy, we played it over and over until we’d memorized every note--right down to the striking single piano chord that concludes “A Day in the Life.” The Beatles, through their art, were taking us on wild new adventures of the mind.
Fresh Ground Pepper
Curious how the Fab Four created such brilliance, we’ve discovered some crucial ingredients at play. First, their environment. The Beatles got out of their touring tunnel and exposed themselves to new surroundings and experiences. Second, they went for it. They utilized their fresh perspectives and newfound freedom to take bold chances and invent methods of making art. Third, they shared and built upon one other’s ideas to create something far greater than the sum of its parts.
The boys took several months to pursue personal interests before recording Sgt. Pepper’s. That precious time outside the bubble paid off when they reunited. George’s exploration of classical Indian music and culture is perhaps the most famous example. But each Beatle brought back his own unique seasoning to the Pepper stew. Paul mixed in vaudeville and show tunes; John added some avant-garde poetry; Ringo and George perfected a wide range of instrumentation.
The whole album concept—the band would record a performance by its fictional alter ego--was meant to free up the Beatles to experiment with compositions and musical styles. Knowing they wouldn’t have to perform the songs live also helped create an environment ripe for brave exploration. Announce the fictional Billy Shears to kick off the album? Sure. Inject some circus music for atmosphere? Absolutely. Add a chaotic stampede of animal sounds? Done. Forty-piece orchestra crescendos? Check. Use pocket combs wrapped in toilet paper as kazoos? Why not? Something about sharing their fresh perspectives with one another—and the fun and freedom of playing once more as a “new band”—unlocked their imaginations and had the Beatles (along with producer George Martin) in ultimate innovative flow.
Collaboration was a big part of Sgt. Pepper’s genius. Songs fused together into one cohesive package. Similarly, the band members fused their divergent individual interests into one strange, colorful concept album that has inspired millions.
Let It Flow
So how can the example of Sgt. Pepper’s light the way for our own creativity?
We can solve everyday puzzles and pursue our larger dreams in the same way great musicians blow our minds with their art: by feeding our childlike curiosity, daring to explore new ideas, and sharing those ideas collaboratively. Like adventurous and uninhibited children, good musicians let their minds, voices, and fingers go, and let the music flow.
As kids, drawing cards and writing silly poems for friends and family, we saw how art communicates ideas and connects people emotionally. We’d swap sketches and notes with each other and our other siblings to impress, to challenge, or to make one another laugh. These days, we share sketches and notes with a larger team of incredibly talented and diverse artists from both inside and outside Life Is Good. They are continually elevating and evolving the ways we spread good vibes with every new season. Creativity wants out. Let it flow.