You may have big ambitions. But have you ever dreamed of playing 100 concerts at Madison Square Garden over four years--and filling every seat each time?

That impossible-to-imagine dream just came true for the legendary Billy Joel, who played his 100th monthly Madison Square Garden concert last week as part of a residency the venue came up with for him. Every one of those concerts has been sold out--a total of 2 million tickets sold since his residency began in 2014. Many have featured special guests, ranging from Tony Bennett to Sting. For the 100th concert, Bruce Springsteen showed up.

For most of us, Billy Joel songs from "Just the Way You Are" to "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" and of course "Piano Man" are part of the soundtracks of our lives. But--after 40 years as a rock star--Joel has a lot to teach about handling the spotlight, doing your best work, and living a successful life. Here are just a few of the lessons he still has to teach us:

1. If you make a mistake, you're doing something right.

In a wide-ranging interview with Rolling Stone last year, Joel was asked what advice he gives to younger musicians. "Don't be afraid of mistakes, because the only original thing we ever do is make mistakes," he said. "You can be taught how to do something perfectly right, but only you can screw it up in your own inimitable way." In fact, he said, he and his recording engineers sometimes deliberately left an error in a recording because it was innovative. They were thinking "Wow, nobody would have thought of that!" Joel said.

2. When something stops working, know when to move on.

For most people, success breeds repetition. If you do something that results in a runaway success, it's natural to try to do more of that same thing. But truly successful and creative people know when it's time to leave something behind, even if that something had fantastic results in the past. 

This is why Joel abruptly stopped writing or recording new songs in 1993, even though he'd had 33 Top-40 hits. "I couldn't be as good as I wanted to be," he explained in an interview with CBS News. "It was driving me crazy. And it was wrecking my personal life too, just not being able to be satisfied." That frustration led to a bout of drinking, he added.

And so he stopped writing songs, although he continued giving talks and workshops on songwriting. But when Rolling Stone asked him whether he still gets ideas for music, Joel explained that he still writes music all the time. Every morning when he wakes up, he has new music in his head, but often it's symphonic music. "I dream symphonies sometimes," he said. "I never stopped writing music. I just stopped writing songs."

Not everyone could walk away from a decades-long career where they had been as successful as Joel was as a songwriter. Most artists in his situation would have gone to therapy, tried hypnosis, and done any number of other things to try to recapture past success. It's a rare person who knows when to say "I'm done," especially when they're on top of the world. That knowledge is a huge asset.

3. You are more than your job.

You might think being a music star and playing concerts on a regular basis would be pretty all-consuming, but Joel says he likes to focus on his family. "There's more to life than your job," he told Rolling Stone. "Life is more than being a success. Life is more than acquiring things. A lot of it is about family, relationships and friends, the things that are really substantive in life. All of that crap."

For Joel these days, a lot of life is about being a father to his three-year-old daughter--he says hanging out with her is his favorite way to relax. "My favorite thing about my whole life is probably being a father," he said.

4. Forgive yourself for not meeting your own high expectations.

One reason Joel stopped writing songs is how hard he was on himself when they didn't come out the way he wanted. "If I don't writing something as good as I want it to be, I really whomp on myself," he said. 

He once read a quote from Neil Diamond in which Diamond said he had "forgiven himself for not being Beethoven." And, Joel said, "I realized my issue was that I haven't forgiven myself for not being Beethoven."

If you set high goals for yourself--and most entrepreneurs and ambitious people do--you will often fail to achieve those goals. What will you say to yourself when those failures happen? Will you whomp on yourself, as Billy Joel used to do? Or will you simply shrug and plan to do better next time? The choice is yours.

Published on: Jul 23, 2018
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