Have you seen the More Cowbell sketch from Saturday Night Live? It’s more than just funny. Believe it or not, it’s a powerful metaphor for a successful work life. And it provides insight into the kind of people you need on your team, and what makes an effective team.
Everyone has at least one cowbell — it’s your unique, profitable talent people pay you for or your company’s unique offering. It’s something people have a fever for. When you discover it and give those people a ton of it, you gain success and happiness for both yourself and others. It’s a win-win.
A cowbell is simultaneously something you love doing and something other people really want as well (although, as we’ll see, you still will have detractors and critics). A cowbell creates joy for you and other people. It makes them yell for more. They can’t get enough.
Cowbells vs. Bagpipes
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
The Cowbell Principle is not “Follow your joy and the money will follow.” Maybe you love painting watercolors but nobody likes your watercolor paintings. That’s not a cowbell.
There may be something you love to do that you hope is your cowbell, but no one else cares about it. Or, worse yet, maybe they actively dislike you doing it. (“Oh man, Dad is playing bass in the basement again?! Is he never going to realize he sucks?”) Many people have followed their joy right into the unemployment line. You have to bring joy to others for it to be a truly cowbellian experience. Additionally, most people who do things in basements are not that great and frequently are, or should be, arrested.
If no one has a fever for it, it’s not a cowbell.
In fact, we’ll call it something else: bagpipes. In real life, a bagpipe is something you love to play but a lot of other people find annoying.
It doesn’t matter if you have a gift or passion, if it’s not valuable to other people. That’s the difference between a cowbell and a bagpipe. Your cowbell is the biggest talent you have that other people have a fever for. Bagpipes are not cowbells.
A note to the Scottish: We think bagpipes are awesome. Brian almost bought some once. He would love to play outlawed tunes on outlawed pipes. But most people aren’t big fans. Except when the bagpipes are part of an AC/DC song. In which case, people agree: THEY EFFING ROCK.
For the most part, people are not going around yelling, “More bagpipes!” They’re not thinking, “Dang, I just don’t have enough bagpipe in my life.” No, they hear bagpipes and they think, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and then within a minute or two they’re wondering, “How can I get away from these bagpipes?” Maybe you’ve noticed that bagpipe players always walk as they play — because everyone else is walking away from them, creating a strange slow-motion Celtic chase scene.
Garrison agrees with Brian: “Sales for bagpipe recordings are, well, nonexistent. Every song ever played on the bagpipes reminds me of why the Scottish are so cranky. Their contributions historically are golf, whiskey, bad music, bad food, and man-skirts — which, as we know, all lead to alcoholism. I am not criticizing the bagpipes or Scotland (okay, I very much just did and I apologize). I’m just making a point. Some things are not in demand even though we enjoy them.”
Sometimes parents screw up their kids by buying them bagpipes. What we mean by that is, they push their kids toward one career path or another. But as Chinese wise guy Chin-Ning Chu said, “A successful life is one that is lived through understanding and pursuing one’s own path, not chasing after the dreams of others.” Don’t think that quote makes us really wise and cultured. We just found it on the Internet.
If you’re doing something that’s not your cowbell, we’re not going to condemn you. It’s okay to have a hobby that’s just for you. But you should know what your cowbell is and do that too. Unfortunately, many people aren’t pursuing or playing their cowbells. We haven’t always either. Bagpipes can easily distract.
You have to be honest with yourself about specific bagpipe activities. Your dreams of professional skateboarding will not take you very far at age 41. You’ll just be that long-haired guy in the airport wearing Vans, board under your arm, in either really long short pants or really short long pants, and using reading glasses to text.
Video games also are fun and take your mind off of stressful things like reality. But Call of Duty is not your calling. It’s a bagpipe.
What both of these activities have in common is they require that your mom consistently pays your rent. And Bruce Dickinson does not want you to live that way.
On a day-to-day basis, we all have to do many things we’re not passionate about. That’s the cake. For example, Brian’s not a big fan of sleep. Of course, no one would consider sleep a cowbell… except maybe Snow White.
Rarity does not a cowbell make. That short, Yoda-style sentence is very important to understand as you move through the chapters of this book. Rare does not always equal valuable, as any viewer of the show Pawn Stars has learned. Sometimes the reason something is the only one in existence is because nobody wanted a second one. A cowbell has to be in demand; it must be wanted; it needs to give people a “fever for more.”
Ultimately, success means getting clearer and clearer about what your cowbell is and trying to outsource your cake. And hey, one person’s cake is another person’s icing. You’ll do even better if you’re outsourcing your cake to someone whose cowbell is your cake. Confused yet? Good.
Here’s a practical example. Brian detests accounting and billing, so he has someone else do that. Garrison does the same. And of course, some people — accountants — love that. They have their own conferences and stuff where their parties look almost as fun as anyone else’s most boring workday. Surrendering those responsibilities means more time to play your cowbell. Brian gives the taxes to tax preparers who are exceptionally good at lowering his tax liabilities — and that’s their cowbell. Garrison turns his taxes over to Courtney, his office manager, who is very good at lowering his stress.
Liability and stress? Cake, cake, cake to Brian and Garrison. Too much cake leaves no room for icing! It’s important to create space in your life for the sweet taste of success.
Apart from bagpipes, there’s another class of things called “killer skills” that are not nearly as awesome as they sound. They’re not killer as in, “killer half pipe, dude!” or “those Wayfarer sunglasses are too killer!” No, it’s not the 1980s version of the term. They’re killer in that they kill your spirit. Ouch!
Killer skills are things you’ve learned to do that make you money, but they’re not a passion; in fact, they’re the opposite of a passion and they are slowly killing you. They’re tough to let go of if they’re earning you money, especially if you’re really afraid of going bankrupt and being homeless. So it’s easy to get trapped in those activities because you think that kind of misery is just “responsible.” Maybe being without a home is a possibility, but most of us would not be out in the street; we’d just be stuck with people we’d rather avoid. Moving in with your parents (no offense to those of you who never left) or moving in with the guy from college you didn’t want to hang out with until he bought a three-bedroom townhouse (and then remembering after a week exactly why he’ll always be looking for a new roommate) — these are all very achievable levels of homelessness. Worrying about these scenarios keeps us in the living death of a killer skill.
“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
— Joseph Campbell
Even if you’re nowhere close to being homeless, it’s possible to think you are. Fear has penned in a whole bunch of us, so we devote a section to that later in the Opposition chapter of The Cowbell Principle.
Wondering if the thing you think is your cowbell might instead be a bagpipe? Not everyone has to like your cowbell. It could be an obscure interest or hobby, like boxing with midgets or collecting art made exclusively from sausage casing. It’s only a bagpipe if almost everybody hates it and you can’t get paid for it. Not everybody likes Night Ranger or Tesla, but they still make a living as musicians. Very few people like croquet as a spectator sport because it lacks a certain…well… everything. And yet, some people really love it — especially for the lawn party held at each match. Sure, those people are often arrested for drunk driving, but they have a fever for being intoxicated and watching people hit balls through hoops. You don’t have to have a big market to have a valuable and loyal market. In fact, smaller markets can be easier to dominate because the competition is often mediocre.
Here’s an example of a cowbell that’s a bagpipe to many people: Brian feels ambivalent about puns but his brain produces a punishing amount of them. When he does stand-up, he constantly tests jokes and listens for the response. Hipsters tell him with their groans that his puns are bagpipes. But at his keynote for Life Technologies, the audience of scientists-turned- marketers loved the custom puns he wrote for them about their niche. They laughed harder at the puns than at anything else. He was so shocked that he committed a big stand-up comedy error: He told them they weren’t supposed to laugh at puns so much. They quieted down, but as he told more, they returned to their crazy levels of laughter. Apparently, smart people like puns. (Some interesting research shows that people who like puns are more psychologically secure, which explains why the hip young folks in downtown Charleston don’t like Brian’s puns; they’re both insecure and dumb! That theory certainly makes him feel better. Don’t tell them he said this.) In this case, Brian’s puns are bagpipes for most people but a cowbell for others!
Garrison, who is mercifully less punny (and thinks that makes him real cool), speaks in Europe sometimes, where he pulls out jokes that poke fun at American culture and stereotypes. The bits don’t work in the U.S. (trust us on that). But, in a ballroom full of Brits and Germans, talking about how Americans need more of the world’s energy resources because our giant SUVs burn lots of petrol as we take our big fat families to Burger King just kills. They laugh and applaud like crazy. The seven Americans in the front row think Garrison’s traitor and have reported him to Homeland Security, but Hans from Munich is the guy who’s paying him. Hans is the Bruce Dickinson who wants more of what separates Garrison from other American business speakers who present overseas. So Garrison gets the gold-plated diapers.
Just because some people don’t enjoy something you love now does not mean you can’t turn it into a cowbell. Brian uses a story from his life to show how, with determination and effort, you can turn a weakness that you have a fondness for into a moneymaker — even though for him the process took about 11 years.
Get Your Free Digital Copy Of The Cowbell Principle
This post is an excerpt adapted by Brian Carter from the forthcoming book The Cowbell Principle: Career Advice On How To Get Your Dream Job And Make More Money, by Brian Carter and Garrison Wynn. Brian and Garrison will be giving away a limited number of digital copies at launch time. To get notified when they’re available, sign up at http://thecowbellprinciple.com/getnotified