How Listening To Heavy Metal Prepared Me For Life

January 6, 2020
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I grew up in the working class, western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia— the first-generation son of Eastern European migrants.

Like suburban kids everywhere, I went through numerous phases growing up. It was the early 90s, so I went from idolising Charles Barkley and aspiring to play for the Phoenix Suns in the NBA, to mimicking my older Public Enemy-listening and Spike Lee joint-watching cousins, and wearing baggy Cross Colours swag.

I eventually found heavy metal, around the age of 13, buoyed on by the 1996 reunion of the band KISS — a band I found irresistible when I first laid my eyes on their larger than life appearance— and my then new brother-in-law‘s collection of audio and VHS cassettes and Hot Metal magazines.

Australia’s biggest metal magazine of the late 80s and early 90s

I raided his extensive loot and discovered the musical stylings of Skid Row, Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica and a VHS copy of Mötley Crüe’s energetic and visually imposing performance at the US Festival in 1983 (watch it below).

I would never be the same again — much to the dismay of my mother.

Motley Crue’s performance at the US Festival in 1983 (it wasn’t so easy to find in 1996!)

Busting Metal Myths

Heavy metal always been, ever since the likes of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper first hit the airwaves in the late 60s and early 70s, unfairly dismissed by the masses — masses who have never truly listened to heavy metal and don’t understand it, and dismiss it based on nothing more than flawed and widely distributed stereotypes or myths.

Before I go any further, please indulge me as I bust four of the widespread myths about heavy metal.

Dumb Fans

Contrary to popular belief, I have found heavy metal fans to be amongst some of the most intelligent people I’ve met and associated with. They tend have a natural inclination towards obscure art, shun the ‘fit for mainstream’ junk food you find on commercial TV and radio, and actually read books.

Go to a heavy metal concert and you will likely find yourself surrounded by academics, scientists, computer programmers, and entrepreneurs. Headbangers were often outcasts growing up who struggled with their seeing the world through a unique lens, and found solace in music and books.

Of course, as with almost any music genre, there are always exceptions to the rule, but if you’re looking to find readers of Nietzsche and Darwin, you could do much worse than attend an Iron Maiden concert.

New York Times bestselling author of Stillness Is The Key, Ryan Holiday

Today, metal’s legions include the likes of best-selling authors Stephen King and Ryan Holiday, influential economist Tyler Cowen, actors Jim Carrey and Mickey Rourke, Jada Pinkett-Smith, who considers herself an ‘old-school metalhead’, and even Prince Harry who enjoys the thrash metal stylings of Municipal Waste!

“It’s Just Screaming”

People who don’t listen to heavy metal might be surprised to learn that there are numerous sub-genres that are in many ways distinct from each other. Wikipedia lists 27 sub-genres, each with their own set of sub-genres.

From classical metal that fuses the stylings of Beethoven with Judas Priest, to glam metal, thrash metal, power metal, progressive metal, death metal, black metal, and Scandinavian folk metal (think the Vikings TV-series meets Metallica), the stylings of metal can vary significantly.

A common grievance I hear from non-headbangers who I disclose my affinity for heavy metal to is that “it’s just screaming”.

Yet, of the 27 sub-genres linked above, only a small handful might feature anything remotely resembling screaming (more often than not, when the vocals are rough, it’s a delicate form of ‘growling’ that takes years to perfect, and deliver in key — try ‘just screaming’ for 5 minutes and see how you fair).

The vast majority of genres and bands feature classically trained singers who oftentimes delve into the realms of falsetto. Just listen to the likes of Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Rob Halford (Judas Priest) or Geoff Tate (ex-Queensryche Operation Mindcrime is a must listen album btw) do their thing and see if you can still keep a straight face when saying “it’s just screaming”.

Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson’s vocal range

“It’s Just Noise”

If it’s not the screaming gripe, it’s the noise gripe. Again, this comes from non-listeners who haven’t bothered to notice the fact that heavy metal musicians are some of the most technically proficient and gifted musicians on the planet.

A quick listen to bands like Dream Theatre, Fates Warning, Ghost, Meshuggah or Gojira should dispel any myths as to the technical abilities of metal musicians whose music is often characterised by time signature changes, complex layering of instruments, melodic vocal harmonies, and virtuoso-level guitar-playing and drumming.

Dream Theatre’s Pull Me Under — definitely not noise.

In fact, on a recent episode of mathematician Eric Weinstein’s The Portal podcast, Weinstein asked decorated economist Tyler Cowen whether heavy metal was underrated or overrated, to which Cowen responded “underrated” because of its technical complexity.

I was later surprised to learn from one of Cowen’s blogs that he is a fan of black metal, hardly the most accessible form of metal!

Dumb Lyrics

While it is easy to find examples of bands with simple and ‘dumb’ lyrics across any genre, many metal bands put almost as much effort into their lyrics as they do their music, often sourcing inspiration from philosophical literature, classic fiction, historical texts and more recent economic and socio-political subjects.

Here are some examples:

Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’:

Generals gathered in their masses,
just like witches at black masses.
Evil minds that plot destruction,
sorcerers of death’s construction.
In the fields the bodies burning,
as the war machine keeps turning.
Death and hatred to mankind,
poisoning their brainwashed minds

Metallica’s ‘And Justice For All’:

Halls of justice painted green
Money talking
Power wolves beset your door
Hear them stalking
Soon you’ll please their appetite
They devour
Hammer of justice crushes you
Overpower

As I Lay Dying’s ‘The Sound of Truth’:

But what wisdom is there within us
To live based on the feeling of our hearts
How many times has instinct let us down
Never to be thought through
Never to be questioned
Say what you really mean
When your ambition calls you
For what use is there in praying
If you will only hear what you want to hear?

Iron Maiden’s ‘Paschendale’:

In a foreign field he lay
Lonely soldier, unknown grave
On his dying words he prays
Tell the world of Paschendale

Relive all that he’s been through
Last communion of his soul
Rust your bullets with his tears
Let me tell you ‘bout his years

Laying low in a blood filled trench
Kill Tim ’til my very own death
On my face I can feel the falling rain
Never see my friends again

Compare this with the kind of lyrics you usually find on the mainstream charts:

My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard
And they’re like, it’s better than yours
Damn right it’s better than yours
I can teach you, but I have to charge

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, it’s time to get into how heavy metal prepared me for life.

How Heavy Metal Prepared Me For Life

As of writing, I figure that I’ve listened to more than15,000 hours or so of heavy metal music (say, 2 hours a day through various devices and in various settings for the past 24 years or so).

But heavy metal has done a lot more for me than provide some aural pleasure, and give me something to bang my head and pound my fist to.

2004: Like most metalheads, I had long hair in my college graduation photo

Emotional Regulation and Empowerment

Contrary to the belief that listening to heavy metal makes you angrier and likely to commit crimes, for me, and so many other metalheads I know, it has always been an outlet to process anger, regulate emotion and derive a sense of power from.

Heavy metal has always been there for me if I had a rough day — whether I was 16 or 36.

And the research backs this up.

A Queensland University of Technology study found that heavy metal “doesn’t make people angrier — it is an emotionally calming, and empowering form of music”.

One can’t help but listen to the following lyrics from American metalcore band, Hatebreed, and feel motivated to get out there and take on the world:

Now is the time for me to rise to my feet
Wipe your spit from my face
Wipe these tears from my eyes

I’ve got to take my life back
One chance to make it right
I’ve gotta have my voice be heard
And bring meaning to this life
Cause I’ve trusted for nothing
I’ve been led astray
I’ve been tried and tested
But I won’t accept defeat

In contrast to the disempowering, navel-gazing rock of the 90s, Pantera’s music and attitude was empowering.

Heavy metal taught me how to look adversity in the eye and punch it in the face.

Questioning the Status Quo

According to professor and author, Clayton Christensen, one of the personality attributes that underpins entrepreneurs, and all great artists in fact, is challenging the status quo.

Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s DNA

If we didn’t challenge the status quo, we’d still be running around with loin cloths on our private bits, and leading hunter-gatherer lives. We wouldn’t innovate.

Heavy metal taught me to question the way things are, to reject the mainstream and the status quo, and to appreciate more obscure but substantive art and science. This is perhaps why I never spent (wasted) any time watching trashy reality television shows.

It’s also one of the reasons why I left a comfortable six-figure salary-paying job at an investment bank in order to pursue entrepreneurship back in 2013 — a decision that, as it turns out, is one of the best I ever made, leaving me much more fulfilled than I ever was with a necktie on.

Differentiating yourself and succeeding in life is often about being somewhat contrarian with how you approach it, especially in today’s highly uncertain, fast-moving and technology-driven world.

Heavy metal gave me the mindset I needed to embrace uncertainty, to push back against convention and to do as Rocky Balboa urged, and keep moving forward.

The Value of Community and Loyalty

Thousands of metalheads from across the globe flock to the Wacken metal festival in Germany each year

Like most teenagers at the time and today, I longed for a sense of belonging and identity. I found that in the very tight-knit heavy metal community, a community I still maintain close ties with today.

It is a low-nonsense and intensely loyal community, kept together by an undying love for an art-form that the rest of the world rejects.

This intensity of loyalty is manifest by the fact that bands like Iron Maiden routinely sell out stadiums and sell millions of records, despite negligible mainstream media exposure.

This is because metal bands aren’t trying to be everything to everyone — they don’t mind alienating the masses if it means devotion from the minority. They have a very specific customer segment that will buy their records, their concert tickets, their merch, and even get band logos and mascots tattooed onto their skin — and that’s all they need.

A pretty serious Iron Maiden tattoo!

Interestingly, this aligns with Wired magazine co-founder, Kevin Kelly’s notion of 1,000 true fans, something author and Iron Maiden fan Ryan Holiday noted in this post.

Spotify echoed these sentiments, finding that heavy metal fans were the most loyal fans by a large margin in a 2015 report.

The Value of Hard-Work and Technical Proficiency

In the metal musician community, there’s little patience for sloppiness. Having played guitar in metal bands during my teens and early twenties, I learned the importance of applying yourself to your craft in order to become exceptional (despite learning this, I never became an exceptional guitarist).

Eddie Van Halen reinvented the guitar, and unlike me, was and is an incredibly exceptional guitarist

I later applied these learnings to business and my writing, which paid off with my scoring a book deal with Wiley in 2018 to write Employee to Entrepreneur (I referenced several heavy metal case studies in this book) and later writing numerous pieces for Harvard Business Review and receiving a subsequent book deal.

The Value of Being Remarkable

In his book, Purple Cow, Seth Godin writes about traveling through the country-side with your family, rolling passed numerous cows dotting the landscape until you come across a purple cow. Naturally, you stop the car, take out your phone, and start taking family selfies with this remarkable cow.

The lesson is, to capture people’s attention in a saturated market, you’ve got to be remarkable — you’ve got to stand out.

Heavy metal taught me this years earlier thanks to the visually distinctive stylings of band imagery, live shows, t-shirts and album artwork.

It wasn’t KISS’ music that first attracted me to the band — it was their make-up, their black leather and studs, their fire-breathing, flying, blood-spitting and rocket-launching.

KISS’ Gene Simmons looking pretty proud of himself

Nowadays, I try to bring some of these elements to my company’s brand, and my own live performances on the keynote circuit, whenever I can. In fact, at one point, smoke machines and AC/DC’s ‘Hell’s Bells’ was a staple part of workshops I’d run for large corporations!

The Value of Persistence

Former US President, Calvin Coolidge, once said the following:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

Nowadays, I know this to be absolutely true. It doesn’t matter how talented or educated you are. What matters most is whether you’re comfortable with adversity, dusting yourself off after a defeat, learning from it and moving forward — this is the essence of what is today known as a growth mindset.

When it comes to doing anything worthwhile, you will inevitably face adversity and difficulty, and the mindset you have is often the difference between reaching your goals and giving up before you’ve reached first base.

Look no further than the following heavy metal case study on overcoming adversity.

Def Leppard’s Rick Allen:

After riding high on the release of three successful albums, Def Leppard drummer, Rick Allen, was celebrating NYE in 1984, when he lost control of his black 1984 Corvette Stingray and hit a brick wall. His seatbelt essentially tore of his left arm in the accident and he was told that he would never play again.

Despite this, his band stuck by him, he began a lengthy recovery program, and re-designed his drum-kit and his playing-style, so that he could play the snare drum with his foot, making a triumphant return to the stage at Castle Donington’s Monsters of Rock festival in August 1986. This is the story of how he got there.

25 years and millions of album sales later, Allen is still going strong.

He is a living embodiment of the maxim that “life isn’t what happens to you, it’s how you respond”.

Def Leppard’s Rick Allen

History and Philosophy

Nowadays, my bookshelf is littered with the likes of Nietzsche, Plato, Taleb, Aristotle, Coelho, Lao Tzu, Rand, Seneca and numerous other philosophers. Reading widely has sharpened my world-view and helped me to better navigate both short-term and longer-term challenges.

I credit bands like Iron Maiden for first exposing me to and opening my mind up to such literature.

Iron Maiden: Great tunes, great artwork

As a teen, I learned about Alexander the Great, William Blake, the Crimean War, William Wallace, Paschendale, the siege at Montségur and numerous other historical battles and figures from listening to and reading the linear notes of Iron Maiden’s and singer Bruce Dickinson’s solo records.

Final Thoughts

Like Vincent Van Gogh, Johann Sebastian Bach, or the American poet, Emily Dickinson, heavy metal has been mostly under-appreciated by the masses, but that’s okay and to be expected.

Being under-appreciated and loved by its metaphorical ‘1,000 true fans’ is what keeps the genre pure.

In the late 80s and early 90s, at the height of its commercial success, heavy metal was overrun by an explosion of copycat bands who lacked musical or philosophical substance, but were merely trying to cash in — they quickly cut their hair and donned ripped jeans and flannels once the Seattle grunge movement took hold.

Nowadays, I listen to all kinds of music. I still enjoy the hip-hop of my childhood, but I’ve expanded my palate to make space for the music from all genres and eras — whether that be listening to The Prodigy, Simon & Garfunkel, The Stone Roses, Johnny Cash, or Steve Aoki.

But still, while I cut my hair a good fifteen years ago, the majority of the time I’m listening to music I’m spinning (or streaming) the metal bands of my youth, as well as the newer legion of bands such as Volbeat, Amon Amarth, Airbourne, Trivium, Ghost and others, because it is still the one form of music I turn to when I need a proverbial pick me up — or just want to go heavy in the gym!

If you’re one of those people who has almost involuntarily dismissed heavy metal music as noise, then maybe it’s time to open your mind, have a legitimate listen (perhaps start with Dream Theatre or Queensryche’s legendary concept album, Operation Mindcrime), and leave a comment below.

Metal Forever! \m/

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