Ambition first, talent later: the U2 story

I thought this would be a good time to reprise an earlier post and make a point about the relationship between vision/dream/ambition and talent.

There's only one answer to the question, "Who's the top rock act of the last 30 years?"

This band has grossed more at the box office in the last decade than any other musical act except the Rolling Stones. They've sold over 170 million records, the most of any alt rock group. And they've won more Grammys (22) than anyone—ever.

So it might come as a surprise to learn that when U2 first started out in 1976, they were all talk and no talent. At the time they could have qualified for the lowest talent-to-ambition ratio in rock history. In fact, they could barely tune their guitars or sing on key.

But they did have an ambitious dream. (See my earlier post on "big hairy audacious goal.") They aimed to be the best band on the planet.

They also had a dogged determination and work ethic (true for all the great rock groups but especially for U2) that kept them on the road, continually sharpening their skills. That paid off artistically and commercially in 1987 with their highly acclaimed Joshua Tree album (one of the best-selling LPs of all time) and string of hit singles—and it's still paying off.

But in the beginning it was just aspiration and a large dollop of chutzpah. Lead singer Bono said it was his father's attempt to suppress his audacity that fired him up.

By telling me never to have big dreams or else, that to dream is to be disappointed, he made me have big dreams. By telling me that the band would only last five minutes or ten minutes—we're still here!

So here's a rather obvious business lesson: before talent develops there needs to be a vision, a dream—and an outsized belief in yourself. Then the work begins.

As Edge, the band's guitarist, explains:

[We had] a belief that we could go all the way. Before we could play, before we could write songs, before we could perform, we believed in ourselves as a band.

Such is the power of rock: that mix of bold dream and brazen attitude. (Not a bad launching point for any team or organization.) As Bono once asked us: "What is rock 'n' roll if it doesn't dare to have big ideas?"

U2's ambition for things just outside their reach—a perpetually asymptotic quest—is perfectly expressed in "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."

The comment thread that follows the original post is worth checking out.

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  1. only one answer to the question of who's the top rock act of last 30 yrs?? seriously?? what about green day, white stripes, foo fighters, or even nirvana? don't forget there are good 70s acts who have never stopped recording great rock 'n roll and are still out there playing it,, like springsteen and ac/dc.

    1. All the artists you mention, plus a few others, could be contenders, but when I say "top" rock act I mean the one that has crushed it in record sales, box office sales, and critical acceptance over the last 30 years. In other words: commercial AND artistic dominance. Their 22 Grammy Awards speak for themselves. Rolling Stone has called them the "Biggest Band in the World."

      Btw, though I have great respect for the band, they're not in the top 10 of my personal likes, so I'm not playing favorites here.

  2. "Asymptotic." Wow! I looked it up and I'm still not sure I know what it means.

    John: your challenge for the weekend is to write a song with "perpetually asymptotic quest" in the lyrics.

    I rather like U2 (aside the early albums, which I find pretty much unlistenable) but I suspect they also hold some kind of record for the biggest commercial success / critical disdain ratio ever.

    I've been listening to a lot of Roxy Music recently. Now there's a band that history has unfairly ovrlooked and under-valued.

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