Seeing the light vs. feeling the heat

Sun:bright flash A recent comment grabbed my attention: “People change not when they see the light, but when they feel the heat.”

I thought it amusing—and a tad cynical. But not convincing. Of course people will adjust their behavior when they feel the heat—and do things differently to avoid pain. The proverbial “stick” has worked quite well for quite a few millennia. As one US intelligence officer put it (carefully articulating his philosophy of change): “I’m a fan of 220 volts.”

But is this the whole story? And is this the kind of change we want?

To test theories about anything, I usually look to pop music (perhaps reflecting my emotional maturity). I wondered what a highly productive rock band could teach us about what best motivates change—and especially successful change.

So I turned to The Beatles, the most commercially triumphant and most critically acclaimed pop music team in history. What brought about their biggest career-changing moves—which in the end turned out to be spectacularly successful? Did they have a realization, an epiphany, a perceptual shift that had them see the world differently, which called for a new set of actions? Or were they feeling uncomfortable pressure from someone or something that coerced them to do things differently?

Here’s how I would explain four of the most momentous decisions or “course corrections” that the Fabs made:

    1. They began writing and performing original material for their live performances in 1960-1961. Every other rock band in Liverpool at the time was doing a similar repertoire of American pop/rock standards, so they decided to depart from the formula. Paul McCartney’s realization was ”we weren’t going to get anywhere unless we were different…original.” Performing some of their own songs guaranteed that. And with constant practice the songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney turned into a pop song juggernaut, perhaps the most successful ever. I’d chalk this up to seeing the light.

    2. They decided in late 1960 that they needed to put on an exciting live show. In 1959 they lost a band competition in Manchester to a wildly animated but not so talented skiffle group, as described in a previous post. The lesson stuck in John Lennon’s craw that audiences sometimes prefer an inferior band that prances around on stage to an accomplished band that doesn’t. A year later in Hamburg, when The Beatles were about to be fired—and the club owner was yelling, “Mach schau, Beatles" (“make show”)—they finally let loose, jumping and cavorting around the stage like madmen for the rest of the night. From that day forward they were known for their spirited performances—and they returned to Liverpool as a transformed band. In this case, they had already seen the light, but it took the club owner’s threats before they felt the heat. Chalk this up to both light AND heat.

    3. They embraced a unique image in 1961 featuring an unusual hair style and, later, tailored English suits. This began when art student/ photographer Astrid Kirchherr befriended the band in Hamburg in 1960 and encouraged them to adopt a more artsy, bohemian image. She gave two of them a trendy German haircut (featuring bangs) which eventually turned into the Beatles’ “look.” After Brian Epstein took over management of the group, he encouraged them to dress more upscale, which included Carnaby Street suits. This all came about by recognizing the importance of standing out from the crowd, not from getting pressure to change. Light not heat.

    4. They became the world’s most innovative recording group beginning around 1965, culminating in Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band, the 1967 album that changed the game of rock record production forever and represented—according to Time Magazine—“a historic departure in the progress of music.” The Beatles began to experiment with multiple musical styles, exotic instrumentation, cutting-edge recording techniques, unusual song topics, and even new album packaging—aided and abetted by their experimentation in psychotropic drugs. Because nobody was threatening the Beatles’ hegemonic takeover of the pop charts at the time, there was no necessity for them to do any of this. But they saw an opportunity to break the rules and make musical history. Again, this was seeing the light.

There certainly were instances where The Beatles felt pressure to make specific changes, as when Lennon was forced to publicly apologize for claiming they were “more popular than Jesus,” in order to avert a mass boycott of Beatles’ records. And in their day-to-day life they were notoriously deadline-driven, given their tortuous travel and recording schedules. So they felt plenty of heat from 1963 to 1966. But their most important and long-lasting directional shifts occurred from seeing new possibilities and opportunities—which few others saw.

One could also argue that most of their key decisions arose from John Lennon’s original dream for them to be “bigger than Elvis.” Once that became a "shared vision"—and they collectively saw the light—they took the actions appropriate to that and began separating themselves from the pack.

Now to apply this to the world of work in general, business leaders are often looking to change the ways of their employees to have them be more engaged, industrious, productive, etc. So, should they try to get their employees to see the world differently or should they find ways to crank up the pressure?

Entire forests have been leveled to provide answers to this. For instance, many change theorists believe in creating a “burning platform” (an emergency or crisis) that forces individuals, teams, and organizations to abandon the status quo and try something else.

But to sidestep this debate (for now), let's just say that there’s a time and place for both light and heat.

If you’re looking for people to self-generate a change and embrace it for the long haul, there’s nothing like having them see things in a new light, frame, or context. That way a new set of actions arises spontaneously. If you don’t have the luxury of time and you need immediate compliance, the "stick"—threats, punishments, 220 volts—can also work. But it’s a short term solution that can create a heap of unintended consequences down the road.

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  1. A couple of footnotes are warranted...

    1. By the time the lads were performing on the world stage in 1964 their most passionate performances were behind them (for reasons I can explain later if anyone wants to know). But their animated show was a big part of what got them to the world stage.

    2. Most folks nowadays don’t realize how long (and radical) the Beatles' hair looked in 1964, which single-handedly set off a revolution in hairstyling and eventually fashion as a whole. Most American males at the time had short-cropped hair or "crew cuts." The Beatles' hairdos were so outlandish-looking to Americans that it was always the first topic of conversation when the band hit the US. Their music was secondary.

    3. Astrid Kirchherr cut the hair of Stu Sutcliffe (the Beatles' bassist at the time) and George Harrison in the "pilzen kopf" ("mushroom head") style, so some people credit her for the Beatles' image. She downplayed her role, saying it was a very typical haircut of German art students. Later Lennon and McCartney received similar haircuts by one of Kircherr's friends in Paris. It was at that point that the band adopted the "mop-top" look.

  2. Nice theory -- that seeing the light produces deeper and longer lasting change than feeling the heat -- but it might not apply to large populations. The world economy of the last 6-7 years has pressured large groups of humanity -- especially the unemployed and underemployed -- into different lifestyle habits, which then become ingrained over a lifetime.

    1. Interesting point. I usually apply these ideas to workplace habits rather than macroeconomic behavior. It’s certainly valid to point out that the financial crisis has caused a massive behavioral shift that won’t suddenly be undone. We could say that this large unemployed swath of humanity is continuing to feel the pressure—daily, weekly—which is continually coercing them to do certain things that aren’t ideal for them or the economy (focusing on short-term survival needs, not saving for the future, skimping on healthcare, etc.). But it’s not their choice to behave this way and they’ve certainly not bought into it heart and soul. And if someday they’re no longer feeling the heat of unemployment and they have money to spend, we would expect most of them to adjust their behavior accordingly.

      We could say that one problem with achieving “change by heat” is that you have to keep applying the heat. “Change by light” doesn’t require that. Once the Beatles saw that being original and differentiating themselves from the competition was their ticket to freedom, their actions continually followed from that. No sticks needed (aside from Ringo's).

      1. The key word in that last paragraph is "competition". The Beatles were competitive with each other, and with other music groups, so they remained true to their twin goals of being financially successful and creatively expressive. Perhaps that's just a personality trait, but the moral of the story is; "Feeling the heat pushes you toward the light."

        1. Yes, I completely forgot about the internal competition piece. Lennon and McCartney were fiercely competitive with each other, which drove them to push the creative boundaries. I suppose that's a form of feeling the heat, though it's not the coercive pressure of a "burning platform." Gotta noodle on that one.

    2. World of difference between what causes masses to react more fervently (almost always, it's the heat) and which is the better tool to lead with.

      I, for instance, cannot be pushed by heat. Put my feet to the fire and I will curse you as they burn. Show me the light, give me reason enough to believe what you believe, and I need no further motivation.

  3. Much of this is related to knowledge. When the Beatles' were pushed to mach schau I have a feeling (from Jude's book) that it may have begun, for a moment, out of fear of losing the gig, but that they instantly learned the benefits of the new actions.

    If we assume followers are dumb, we assume only a cattle prod will move them.

    If we assume followers are as smart as we are, we assume that showing them the light will result in the desired outcome.

    The greatest disconnects I've seen in business have always resulted from managers who think they're smarter than others. The more wrong they are, the worse it gets.

    1. Yes, and our beliefs about employees, "subordinates," workers, etc. are of course self-fulfilling. When I worked in mining operations especially, the managers who assumed workers were dumb or, worse, dishonest created the kind of workers they most feared. The managers who assumed workers were bright and trustworthy grew the future leaders of the operation.

      1. Beautiful to see real live evidence that it works that way. I make it a practice to assume the best, extend trust, all that stuff. The entire commercial system we live under keeps undermining my confidence in these things, so a little positive feedback now and then is a mighty thing.

        Enjoying, erm, other conversations in the comments here. Enjoying. Yes, that's the word. (I, too, subscribe to the concept "read before replying" but, as you say, not everyone shares our bizarre proclivities.)

  4. Sorry but your premise is totally wrong

    1. Although the Beatles wrote original songs They rarely performed their original songs live. Their uniqueness was their unusual cover songs they performed which were eclectic compared to other bands at the time .
    It was their manager Brian Epstein who saw that writing their own songs was different than other bands and pushed original songs on their first audition demo which caught the ear of EMI publishing and lead to their signing to Parlaphone.

    2. The Beatles created their compelling stage act because they went to Hamburg Germany and were almost fired because they were considered boring by the owner of the club . The club owner constantly told them to "Mach schau " or make a show. They started to go wild on stage to appease the owner (which lead them to becoming the top rock act on the Reeperbahn

    3. John and Paul got their famous Beatles hair cut in Oct 1961 in Paris by their German friend Jurgen Vollmer.

    4. The Beatles music evolution was not in a vaccum . Dylan and other UK groups suchs as Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks were pushing the boundaries of recorded music. The Beatles were both participating AND reacting to the zeitgeist of the times

    1. Fascinating comments, though a tad perplexing.

      I know it’s not standard practice on the blogosphere, but I highly recommend reading a blog post—and the comments that follow a post—before responding to it. ☺

      Let’s take your points one by one.

      #1. The lads actually did perform originals in their pre-Parlophone Cavern Club days. More as time went on. It was they who recognized this was their competitive advantage, before Brian Epstein came along. McCartney has talked a lot about their live performance of original songs even before they started recording and there are old Cavern fans who remember. Of course The Beatles did more non-original rock (and pop) tunes than originals, but they would sprinkle in “Love Me Do” (written by McCartney back when he was in school), “Like Dreamers Do,” “Love of the Loved” (which even the Quarry Men performed), “Ask Me Why,” “PS I Love You,” “One After 909” (written in 1959), “I Call Your Name,” “Hello Little Girl,” etc. which truly set them apart from the local competition. Every band tried to find new and different American tunes to add to the standard repertoire, but the Fabs were the first to do several of their own. (They also stood out from many of the bands because of their leather attire, before Epstein cleaned them up.)

      #2. I already pointed out in my post that they were pressured to “mach schau” in Hamburg. So “feeling the heat” definitely played a part in their deciding to go wild that night, and continue it to some extent for the next three years. But Lennon had already seen the light about the importance of putting on a show, because he had been humiliated twice by Nicky Cuff’s skiffle group back in England when it had “outperformed” his own more talented band. (Perhaps Lennon had been unable to convince his band mates to raise hell with him?) Anyway, at the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg it all came together, and as a group they FINALLY turned on the switch.

      #3. I explained in the first comment on this thread that in Paris Jurgen Vollmer cut the hair of John & Paul (giving them the “mushroom head” look), which really solidified the new Beatles’ image. A year earlier in Hamburg Astrid Kirchherr cut the hair of Stu Sutcliffe and George Harrison in the style of what the German art students wore. John and Paul asked Vollmer (who was Astrid’s friend) to do a similar cut for them the following year. So the credit goes to Kirchherr, though she modestly deflects it by saying she was just copying the German artsy look.

      #4. Of course the Beatles didn’t evolve in a vacuum. Every artist reacts to the zeitgeist of the times. But The Beatles were consistently on the cutting edge of change. Three of the major career decisions they made—(1) writing and performing original material, (2) developing a compelling live show, and (3) developing a unique rock & roll image—occurred well BEFORE the Stones, Kinks, or Who even existed (and before Dylan cut his first album).

      But don't despair, smartone. Reading this site regularly would be an excellent remedial program for you to boost your pop music acumen.

  5. Maybe the "internal competition" wasn't Lennon / McCartney but each man's own ambition. Two fiercely driven men, each setting a higher and higher standard as they got better and better.

    1. Possibly, but they were fiercely competitive with each other. Lennon, for instance, always wanted to write the song that would get chosen as the Beatles' next single. And McCartney from the beginning wanted HIS name mentioned first in the partnership: McCartney-Lennon not Lennon-McCartney. Lennon of course won out on that one.

      Fortunately they shared equally in the songwriting profits, given their decision at the beginning to have any song written by either of them be credited to the songwriting partnership of Lennon-McCartney. That was a brilliant move because if their competition had financial implications it could have torn them apart earlier than it eventually did.

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