What Sir Paul McCartney Can Teach Us About Motivation

Sir Paul is far more than the most successful performer in music history.

Posted Apr 20, 2018

HIRES ©Mary McCartney used with permission
Source: HIRES ©Mary McCartney used with permission

Sir Paul McCartney, co-founder of the Beatles and famous for his domination of the recording industry, is a subtle motivation icon—and not only for people in the music business. During his career with the Beatles and subsequent group efforts he has been nominated for 78 Grammy Awards, winning 18. McCartney and company have produced 22 #1 albums over the years with sales of 600 million albums worldwide. Sir Paul has 60 gold albums and 32 songs that have hit #1 on the Billboard charts. He is arguably the most successful performer in history.

McCartney is not publicly recognized for his ability to motivate others. But when we examine his on and off-stage behavior, a consistent pattern emerges. We see someone who inspires others through his beliefs and actions. In many ways Paul is the pillar of adaptive motivation acting as an informal role model to generations of fans. On my recent trip to Liverpool, England I contemplated exactly how Paul has influenced my perceptions of success, despite his focus on entertainment and my lack of musical talent! A closer look shows why and how McCartney inspires others to accelerate their own achievement and performance.

There is no such thing as “retirement

Imagine that your net worth is approximately $1.05 billion. Would you still go to work almost every day? At age 75, McCartney is a tireless performer who in 2017 completed a world tour that included 78 shows in 16 countries playing for an estimated 2 million fans. According to his official website, Paul is currently putting the finishing touches on a new album, 61 years after his first collaboration with fellow Beatle John Lennon who he met at a church gathering on July 6, 1957. Considering the longevity of his career it would be impossible to calculate how many hours McCartney has devoted his craft, but surely enough to bask in his prior glory. When recently asked why he hasn’t retired McCartney responded “Why would I retire? Sit at home and watch TV? No thanks, I’d rather be out playing.” Paul’s motivational message here is clear: if you enjoy what you do don’t stop merely because the date on the calendar has changed.

Revere the work of others while creating your personal brand

Bobby Hoffman
Source: Bobby Hoffman

Many people don’t realize that the Beatles started as a cover band routinely playing the work of others. Their first recorded song was the eternal classic “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” written in the 1800’s! The Beatles early song repertoire was based on who they admired and their own musical preferences, but also focused on playing the music that Liverpool club audiences wanted to hear. While imitation is the highest form of flattery, the Beatles were not regarded as regurgitators. Paul and his mates interpreted and changed the work of others making changes that were sometimes perceived as radical and outlandish. Just listen to McCartney’s rendition of the Fats Domino classic “Ain’t That a Shame,” or his interpretation of Elvis Presley’s “That’s Alright” to hear some examples.

What distinguished the Beatles from the other bands emerging as part of the early 1960’s Mersey Beat sound and the subsequent “British Invasion” of American music was their willingness to take risks, act unorthodox, and ultimately set the tone for rock and roll music for the next 50 years. Many people don’t realize that McCartney was a student of classical music. The popular song “Blackbird,” which Paul wrote to bring attention to racial inequality, was based on the music of the 17th century composer Johann Sebastian Bach. McCartney explained in an interview at Rollins College how for years he spent up to three hours daily strumming and revising classical music chords to achieve the precise updated sound he sought. So what’s the motivational message here? Rely on the work of others as a foundation of knowledge, but never relinquish your personal style and individualism.

Stay true to your beliefs with action

If you peruse McCartney’s website you will find that Sir Paul has resolute beliefs and devotes significant time to many social and environmental causes. He is a vegetarian and staunch supporter of animal rights, advocating “Meat Free Monday,” a campaign designed to reduce greenhouse gases emitted by animals. He is also a strong advocate for an unified Israeli/Palestinian state and peace negotiations, the “Save the Artic” campaign, the Anti-Heroin Project, and the Teenage Cancer Trust. During March 2018 he participated in the “March for Our Lives” protest rally in New York City raising awareness about gun violence, partially in tribute to his friend and former Beatle member John Lennon, who was assassinated on the streets of NYC on December 8, 1980.

Paul leverages his music popularity as a powerful tool to facilitate philanthropy, but also makes many unpaid personal appearances to causes such as the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA), where McCartney lectures annually in the same auditorium where he spent his formative high-school years. During 2014 he spent over an hour discussing creativity and innovation with college students in Winter Park, FL. He regularly performs benefit concerts without pay including headlining the legendary “Live Aid” concert that heightened awareness of the Ethiopian famine crisis, raising over $200 million.

Don’t forget your roots and help others

While advocacy for social causes is an admirable trait, helping others be successful is also a prime motivation for Paul. In psychological terms, Paul consistency demonstrates altruism by assisting others for no apparent tangible benefit. He has collaborated with dozens of performers including Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Kayne West, and George Michael. Perhaps Paul’s greatest show of unabashed altruism occurred when Foo Fighter drummer Dave Grohl fell and broke his leg while on tour during 2015. Not only did Paul fill in on drums for Dave for a studio track, but McCartney also arranged Grohl’s medical care to get him back on stage with minimal tour disruption.

Bobby Hoffman
Source: Bobby Hoffman

If you read McCartney’s biography by Philip Norman, you likely know that Paul and John Lennon had a contentious and highly competitive rivalry. While generally considered the most successful and prolific song writing duo ever, there were many times when McCartney deliberately suppressed his drive and ambition to create a harmonious relationship with Lennon. Early on, the pair made an agreement that every song written by the team would be considered a team effort and regardless of individual contributions, all compositions would be credited to Lennon and McCartney—even those songs where one individual had minimal involvement. “Penny Lane,” was composed almost entirely by McCartney, inspired by his boyhood observations while getting a haircut and waiting for the bus on his way to school. (The barbershop referenced in the song is still operational and open for a shave and a haircut.)

Take risks to be innovative

Musically, Sir Paul and his bandmates have a stellar reputation for the quality and innovation of their style, delivery, and songwriting, but unless you were alive in the early 1960’s you may not realize the innovations that McCartney and the Beatles brought to the recording and concert industry. The Beatles were the first performers to appear in a stadium setting back in 1964, when their first tour of American took them to major league ball parks in New York and San Francisco among others. They were also the first band to create a concept album when they released the album "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" during the summer of love in 1967. Perhaps their most innovative move was to disband in 1969 at the height of their popularity, choosing instead to take the risk of becoming solo performers.

The music and recording industry also changed as the result of McCartney’s willingness to experiment with previously unknown instrumentation and musical effects. The Beatles were the first to deliberately use feedback in a recording, as well as responsible for inventing a long list of technical innovations including: stereo effects, double-track recording, audio looping, backwards guitar solos, overdubbing, distortion, and including song lyrics with a recorded album. While these feats may seem meaningless unless you are a music aficionado, when introduced the innovations meant taking a huge musical risk, one that could have led to the demise of the group if their experimentation failed. Instead, Paul and the Beatles changed the course of music history and spawned countless other bands hoping to imitate and capture their unique musical style.

What’s your motivation?

You might ponder the motivation for writing this post. Conventional motives might include idol worship, self-promotion, or for my own personal satisfaction, but these reasons are inaccurate. The purpose of writing this article is based on two fundamental principles of motivation science. First, people seek role models to justify their behavior. Paul’s interest in vegetarianism and gun control likely have resonated with many individuals who otherwise might sit on the sidelines merely pondering their beliefs but failing to act. Second, becoming successful takes effort and passion. McCartney is one of the richest humans on the planet yet devotes his discretionary time to his craft. There hasn’t been a moment in the last 60 years when he wasn’t actively pursuing his goal to be a performer. Is your motivation at the same level of intensity as Paul? Probably not, but now you know at least five “McCartneyisms” that may spark your drive, ambition, and achievement. Thank you, Sir Paul!

Bobby Hoffman is a Beatles fan, professor, and author of Hack Your Motivation: Over 50 Science-based Strategies to Improve Performance. Follow him on Twitter @ifoundmo