Posted By Randy Jones on June 1, 2009
It was Jonathan Nelson, the richest man in Providence, Rhode Island, who gave me the perfect phrase for the second commandment in The Richest Man in Town. We’ve all heard the advice, “Know thyself.” Nelson, like many of the RMITs I interviewed, took that very wise advice to the next level. He learned the importance of the second commandment in school—in a course on Beethoven at Brown University—but this lesson was not on the syllabus.
“I knew very little about classical music when I signed up for the class,” he told me. “I thought it might be fun and easy.” It turned out to be neither for the future CEO of Providence Equity Partners. “On the first day of class, our instructor played a few notes and asked the class who could identify the notes,” he said. “The professor called on someone: ‘C-sharp,’ the student responded. How, the professor asked, did he know that? ‘I have perfect pitch,’ said the student. It turns out that was the only way to know the key. Those students with their hands up all had perfect pitch.” Nelson came up with the answer—not to the question the professor had asked, but to a problem all would-be RMITs have to face.
“I knew two things at that moment,” he told me. “First, 25 percent of the class had a significant advantage over me. They had a talent I could not acquire and it made them better equipped than I to do well in the class. Second, I realized that this class would not be easy for me to ace.” No matter how much he wanted to—and he barely passed the class—he would never have that ear. In true RMIT fashion, however, he got something from the experience. “Even if I knew then where I wanted to be in ten years,” he said, “this class would not have directly helped me get there. But I did learn the lifelong lesson that while perfect pitch is a real talent, so too is recognizing one’s relative skills and abilities.”
Unlike Nelson, Hartley Peavey had a passion for music. He wanted more than anything to be a great rock guitarist, but “the sad fact was that I was probably one of the world’s worst guitar players,” he recalled. So Peavey took the lemons he’d been handed and made the proverbial lemonade: “I had an intervention with myself and said if I can’t be the world’s greatest guitar player, maybe I can build the amplifiers that make the best musicians sound even better.” Today his company is synonymous with music equipment, and he is the richest man in Meridian, Mississippi.
It’s one of those lies parents tell their children that we can do and be whatever we set our minds to. Both Jonathan Nelson and Hartley Peavey recognized that without identifying and exploiting your unique talents—your own “perfect pitch”—you’ll never find your groove.