Singer-songwriter and 2016 ISPA Alex Szekely Humanitarian Award recipient John Ondrasik closed 2016’s General Session with one thought-provoking question: “What kind of world do you want?”
The Grammy-nominated artist came in to fame when his song “Superman” became a global hit. “I think the reason why the song resonated with so many people is because it talks about how we can’t be everything to everyone. In the song, Superman doesn’t want to be Superman. He wants to be human, to be able to bleed, not be a superhero.”
Here, Ondrasik shares his personal journey as a creative artist, how he inspires through his music and the lessons he learned about living in the moment.
1. In business and in life, little things matter.
When Ondrasik wrote his first hit song “Superman” 15 years ago, he wrote it in 45 minutes. “It was a gift,” he says. “The song ‘Superman’ has taught me that, sometimes, little things become big things.”
Before he wrote the hit song, Ondrasik said he first fancied himself as a rocker. “So when I ended up writing this ballad, my first thought was: ‘This isn’t for me.’ I almost didn’t put it in my record, but I wouldn’t be standing here had I not put it in. Certainly, little things matter—the extra hour of brainstorming with your team, the highfive to a client or a smile to an employee.”
This idea of giving a little bit more is most crucial in creative endeavors, where innovation is needed. “Writing the song ‘Superman’ has taught me the power of work ethic and the value of a concept,” he says. “While it seems romantic to say I wrote the song in 45 minutes, what many don’t know is that I had to write a thousand songs before I got there. It’s simply part of the process of creation.”
2. There’s a great song in every room—if you just learn to listen.
According to Ondrasik, listening is often a skill that’s overlooked when it comes to innovation. He says many executives are good at listening to themselves, but not to others. “The best executives are those who listen well to their team. There’s a reason why the Beatles are the Beatles. Collaboration raises the dynamics,” he says.
So how does he cut through the noise? “Change your environment,” he advises. Everything starts with a blank slate, but to get that flicker of inspiration, environment matters. “Sometimes I go on trips or lock myself in a cabin to write a song,” he says. “A lot of my ideas come when I’m not actually doing the craft, like when I’m doing physical activities like hiking. I also think it’s important to value the subconscious, which is why I tend to play the piano immediately after waking up in the morning because I believe the subconscious is hard at work at that time.”
3. If you can’t win the game because the rules have changed, change the field of play.
Given the tremendous success of his first hit song, Ondrasik eventually faced a dilemma: How do you follow something as big as ‘Superman’? It took him several years to produce another hit through his song “100 Years.” The reason why the song resonated to his audience, he thinks, is because it offered a simple sentiment: To live in the moment.
“How do I get better and remain current but stay true to who I am?” he asks. His advice is to tell your story but stay authentic to your brand. Storytelling, he said, is becoming a huge strategy in the world of business. “You could be the ‘Beatles’ of spas but if nobody knows your story, nobody will hear you.”
With the world of business changing fast, he says evolution is crucial. Ondrasik himself had to reinvent after he realized that radio stations would no longer play his songs. “Radio was deserting me. Radio stations no longer want to play songs from 50-something music artists. Many other artists struggle with this,” he says.
Instead of fighting the new rule, he had an epiphany: “If you can’t win the game because the rules have changed, change the field of play.” To do this, Ondrasik started writing musicals, creating a TV show in which he could use his songs, hitting speaking circuits to share his story and even doing symphony shows. “I started to feel young and found my new energy,” he says.
4. Take swings even at the prospect of failing.
If there’s a major failure in Ondrasik’s career, it must be the branding failure of his name “Five for Fighting.” Despite his success, only a few know that Five for Fighting is a oneman band named John Ondrasik. “Five for Fighting is a colossal marketing failure,” he says. “But sometimes, within these failures lie the opportunities.”
As a sports fan, he brought up the idea with his record label to pitch Five for Fighting to sporting events, which turned out to be a smart move. “John Ondrasisk doesn’t play in those gigs, Five for Fighting does,” he says. The biggest opportunity, he thought came when producers of a little independent film approached him to include his song entitled “Chances” among its soundtrack. There was a slight problem, the song was supposed to already be included in another big production holiday movie. “But something in my gut tells me this song was made for this movie, so I pulled it from the other film. That small independent film that many thought nobody was going to see was ‘Blindside’ which turned out to be one of the biggest sports movies of all time,” he says. This experience taught him to trust in one’s instincts. “It’s about taking swings or risks. When you go against your gut, that’s what keeps you up at night.”