Jimmy Iovine Explains Seeing the Big Picture: It Is Not About You!

Here I am on a Saturday night tucked away in my photography office finally listening to Dr. Dre's new album.  With just two real full length albums, Dre is one of my all time favorite artists, and I always enjoy researching the samples and references he uses in his music.  Tonight by way of Compton, I found record producer Jimmy Iovine's commencement speech he gave to the USC graduating class of 2013.  Jimmy might be talking about producing music but I think his words ring true for photographers as well.  

So many photographers want to be great artists. For many aspiring photographers, it can be easy to fall in love with the idea of being a photographer well before they have paid their dues learning how to be a photographer. Educating yourself on the technical side of photography has never been easier with free content online, comprehensive tutorials, one on one workshops, e-books,  streaming videos, blogs, review sites, and countless professionals willing to share all of their secrets to those eager to learn the craft.  However, no matter how easy it might be to learn the language of photography and memorize the mathematics involved in designing an image, every great photographer still has to pay their dues.  

I love hearing success stories from industry leaders in different fields.  In almost every case, the brilliant minds we have come to respect have always started at the bottom of the mountain.  Even those who have been given preferential treatment or have come to the table with more fortunate circumstances all pay their dues before becoming great.  Very few people have become successful by maintaining a cocky attitude early in their careers.  I have seen pride and inflated egos destroy so many aspiring photographers well before they have even made the transition to a full time photographer.  

As mentioned in Jimmy's commencement speak, being successful Isn't About You. It is about The Big Picture. It is about finding your way through pitfalls, failures, uncertainty, experimentation, collaboration, determination, patience, and above all else love.   Only then will you eventually find your own unique niche of success.  Success in a field like photography also isn't something you can figure out once, relax, and continue to make a comfortable living doing the same thing the rest of your life. You have to evolve. I loved the story Jimmy shared about his determination to beat Napster, and how he had to reevaluate the problem at hand.  Creatives like us are faced with these sorts of challenges every few years, and those who approach photography with the stubborn mindset that does not look for opportunity in times of change will eventually fail.  

Every single week I seem to hear someone in the photography field complain that the field isn't like it used to be.  There are too many photographers, newbies are undercutting the market, photo rates are falling, publications aren't paying for original images like they were, and anyone with a camera can compete in today's market.  I find all of these excuses to be absolutely ridiculous, and it saddens me when I see people who actually believe these words. The truth is anyone with a camera CAN actually compete in today's market which is so inspiring in itself.  Instead of hanging your head down low and feeling like you have failed in your industry, try looking at your goals in a new way and figure out how your talent can help you achieve those goals.  

The commencement speech video above is fairly long, coming in at over 20 mins.  Since I know so many people read these articles at work without the luxury of listening to audio, I've included the entire commencement speech below.  I hope you enjoy this as much as I did and find inspiration in the success of Jimmy and Dr. Dre who both started from the ground and rose to the absolute top. 

Jimmy Iovine's Graduation Speech (from Dr. Dre's song All in a Day's Work)

To all of today’s graduates, I can’t imagine what’s going through your minds right now. I never had the opportunity to go to a great university like this. I didn’t get here today like you did — by studying hard and excelling in school. Yet here I stand before you at this amazing crossroads in your life. So the question of the hour is what can I teach you? How can I help you even in the slightest way to be ready for whatever comes next?

So I asked myself, how did I get here?

After a lot of thought, I realized there have been two life lessons that changed everything about me. These were moments that shook me, scared me and humbled me. In the end, these moments are two big reasons I am here today. And since my education came in the music business, you may recognize some of the names and think, how can this guy’s stories possibly apply to me? Yet I truly believe these two experiences apply to absolutely anyone and anything you want to do in this journey called life.


Let’s start with something I learned when I was 23

— not much older than most of you guys. It’s been the subtext to whatever success I’ve had. I have tried to instill this lesson in everyone who works for me, and the ones who have learned it, are still working for me.


I started my career as a second recording engineer, which sounds fancy but the reality is that I answered phones, I cleaned the floors, and I made tea and coffee. That may not sound impressive, but it allowed me to learn my business from the ground up and it’s the kind of entry-level job that anybody starting a career should be happy to take. And it got me in the same building with John Lennon who, after the 50th cup of tea I served him, felt my enthusiasm and willingness to learn and allowed me to sit in on his sessions.

From there, I got the opportunity to work with Bruce Springsteen to help him record an album called Born to RunBorn to Run became a landmark album. If you don’t know it, ask your parents. But to my mother and father and their friends, Born to Run wasn’t Bruce Springsteen’s album — it was Jimmy Iovine’s album. They thought it was all about me. And before long, I began to believe that fantasy too.

So I was thrilled when Bruce and his manager and producer Jon Landau asked me to engineer the follow-up that eventually became Darkness on the Edge of Town. Back in those days, the first thing you did when making an album was record the drums. The job of getting the right drum sound fell to the recording engineer — and that was me. We spent six weeks working around the clock trying to get the sound that Bruce had in his head. And no matter what we did, it just wasn’t coming.

You cannot imagine everything we tried. We put the drums in the hallway. We put the drums in the elevator. We put the drums in the bathroom. We did everything but put the drums underwater. All I can remember is Bruce constantly saying to me, “Jimmy, I hear the stick hitting the drum.” At a certain point, I looked at him, and said, “Bruce, it is a stick hitting a drum!” But he was “The Boss” and that didn’t satisfy him. We were stuck. The sound I was getting was clunk-clunk-clunk and the sound Bruce wanted was boom-boom-boom.

So eventually, Bruce suggested bringing in some other guy from New Jersey of all places who could help me get this elusive drum sound. And I thought, “Why do I need help? What am I, half as good as I was two years ago?” To me, it sounded like a massive vote of no confidence. After six weeks of putting a microphone everywhere you could possibly imagine, I felt humiliated. I felt embarrassed. To use a word I hear way too often from 20-year-olds who work at my company, I felt disrespected. I felt so disrespected I wanted to suggest one more place Bruce could put that microphone.

I went back to the hotel where we were all staying, and I told Jon Landau, “I quit, I’ve done nothing but support this guy, and now he’s embarrassing me.” Looking back, I was just a beginner in the record-making process, but in the arrogance of my Brooklyn youth, I felt as if I had already arrived — that I knew everything. Boy, was I wrong.

Bruce’s manager looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Hang on, Jimmy, I’m going to tell you something that will go against every instinct you have about how to react in a situation like this: 

"This is not about you"

Then Bruce’s manager said: “I want you to understand something called ‘The Big Picture.’ I’d never heard about this Big Picture. In my mother’s house, I was The Big Picture.”

Bruce’s manager continued: “And at a moment like this, it’s not about how you feel, Jimmy. It’s about Bruce Springsteen and his album. That’s the big picture — not your feelings, or anyone’s feelings.”

Inside, I had absolutely no idea what Jon meant. I wanted to scream. I wanted to argue. I wanted to walk. But for reasons I’m still thinking about three decades later, I did the opposite. I didn’t protect my ego. Instead, I paused for just a moment and listened to someone who might actually know better. So I told Jon, “You got it” because I did want to learn and this advice sounded like Aristotle to me. I had no idea who Aristotle was, but I liked the sound of his name. Jon told me, “I want you to walk in that room and tell Bruce Springsteen, ‘ “I am here to support you. I will do whatever you need me to do.’ ”

So that’s what I did.

Turned out, the other guy from Jersey couldn’t get the drums right either. Somehow we got closer to the sound Bruce wanted and we moved on together. Six weeks later, not only was I still on Bruce’s team, but he also gave me one of the greatest songs he ever wrote called “Because The Night” that I produced for Patti Smith. That was my first hit record as a producer and launched my career. Listening to Jon’s five words — “This is not about you” — became the tipping point for every gift that’s followed in my life.

At that moment, I began to learn how to push aside my own personal issues and my desperate need to be right so I could focus on what was truly important — the greater good. Don’t worry, I wasn’t cured — I still battle with these issues of insecurity, ego, pride and especially fear every day. Too often those issues get in the way of me seeing the “Big Picture.” But what I have learned is some of these powerful insecurities can be harnessed into life’s greatest motivator, the greatest five-hour energy drink ever. It’s called a little old fashioned fear.

I know about fear.

I was once fired from two jobs within 90 days. I felt as if the sidewalk was collapsing behind me, but that insecure feeling always kept moving me forward. Rather than stop me in my tracks like a headwind, I began to learn how to make those same insecurities the tailwinds to propel me forward.


Okay, now let’s fast-forward a little bit … about 25 or 30 years.

My second pivotal life lesson came in 1999, and now I was feeling like the king of the world. I had built the hottest record company in the world, Interscope Records, the home of great artists like Dr. Dre, 2pac, No Doubt, Eminem, The Black Eyed Peas and we had just signed U2. We were on a roll. We felt invincible. Nothing could touch us.

Except … Napster.

As a founder of Interscope Records, a company built on people paying for music, I was instantly scared to death. My God-given insecurities kicked in again. See I grew up in Brooklyn, my dad was a long shoreman, so I knew the difference between going to a store and paying for something, and the opportunity to get it for free. I felt this stealing thing could really catch on.

So I went to see one of founding guys at Intel named Les Valdez. Somehow I thought I could reason with the industry that was about to destroy mine.

Fear, at times, makes us protect and defend what we think we already know. But sometimes in life, you need to learn a new lesson. And between you and me, in my experience, the most intelligent people that I meet are the ones that can best articulate what they don’t know. That’s not what I did with Les that day. I just kept trying to tell him how I thought things should be.

After listening to me for 20 minutes, Les finally spoke. He looked me in the eye, and said, “Wow, Jimmy, what a nice story. But you know what? Not every industry was made to last forever.” That statement was so profound and so true and so insightful to me, so devastating, I nearly retired right there and then. I walked into Les’ office thinking I was Elvis, and I was gently reminded Elvis was dead.

The lesson Les taught me is one I believe is increasingly important to learn in the fast-changing world we live in today. Think about this:

Everything you know could already be wrong

When I got outside Les’ office and stopped sweating, I called my buddy Doug Morris, the chairman of the Universal Music Group and my boss at the time. I said, “Doug, we’re screwed.” Okay, I might not have used that exact word, but hey, I was upset. I said: “Doug, these guys don’t want our land. They want our water to take back to their land.”

At that moment, I was scared to death. In fac t, at this moment, I am scared to death speaking in front of all you people. But I want you all to get comfortable with your fears because fear is a fact of life that you can use to your advantage. Because when you learn to harness the power of your fears, it can take you places beyond your wildest dreams. Because here’s the good news: Fear has a lot of firepower.

I’ve spent my life working with many of my heroes and maybe some of yours too. From John Lennon and Bruce to Bono, 2pac, and  Eminem. And let me tell you, I never met a great artist who wasn’t afraid of not living up to people’s expectations. But all of the greats used their fear to inspire them. I think today of the way John Lennon broke ground by speaking of his fears and his belief in change in a song called “Working Class Hero.”

John sang,

When they’ve tortured and scared you for 20-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be

John was a guy who could really express his fears and conquer them.

In the music business back in 2003, we were standing at a crossroads. We could desperately defend the past and keep digging the same hole, or we could open our eyes to the future. Trust me, it’s a lot harder to change directions at 50 than at 25 — ask your parents. Les inspired me that day to go forward in a music business that was evolving. The old model was changing. So I began to think that maybe there was some way to harness the culture of the old music industry in a whole new way.

Around that time, I was lucky enough to get to know Steve Jobs from Apple. I was representing Universal Music in dealing with iTunes. After three years of hanging around Steve and the team at Apple, I thought I could learn a lot from these guys. They were breaking new ground. They were changing the game. And they were winning.

I noticed how Steve took all the music and videos from around the world and built a beautiful shiny white thing called the iPod to play them on. We loved this shiny little white thing. The only part my friend Dr. Dre and I didn’t like were the shiny white ear buds that came with the shiny white iPod because they sounded terrible, sound wasn’t Apple’s focus. So we thought what if we make a beautiful shiny black thing so you can properly hear what’s on Steve’s ipod? So with my friend Dr. Dre, there we had the beginning of Beats headphones. It wasn’t that simple, but you get the idea.

I learned even at 50, I had to be a beginner again

and that’s as zen a moment as you’ll ever hear from me. So who believed that Dr. Dre and I could sell hardware? No one. But we believed in ourselves. We harnessed our fear into power and turned it into action.


Today each one of you have an excellent reason to believe in yourselves. You’ve earned a degree from USC. You are graduating from one of the greatest universities in the world. Remember when you grew up hearing about people that are privileged? Congratulations you are now privileged. Because you know what privileged means — it means you have an edge. And whatever your background, wherever you come from, you now have the undeniable edge of a first-class education.

But please remember this: Your diploma does not represent the end of your education, but the beginning of your continuing education. Continue to listen and learn, with humility not hubris. Hubris is boring! Because that diploma you hold in your hands today is really just your learner’s permit for the rest of the drive through your life. Remember, you don’t have to be smarter than the next person, all you have to do is be is smart enough and willing to work harder than the next person.

So now, that you’ve heard the stories that have changed my life, it’s time for an announcement we hope will change some lives for the better in the future here at USC. Walking around USC today, it seems everyone’s a doctor. Which is funny because I brought my partner today who also happens to be a doctor. So in the words of Slim Shady, will the real Dr. Dre please stand up and join me onstage?

Dre: USC! Great to be back in my hood — up to some good. Congratulations to the graduating Class of 2013!

Iovine: At Beats, Dre and I have found it really difficult to find kids with an education that encompasses technology, the arts and innovation. So with USC, we’re creating a brand new program right here. It’s called the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy Technology, Art and the Business of Innovation.

The class of 2013 is among the first in history to have grown up in our new world where the distinctions between the arts and technology are disappearing. That's a good thing. So Dre and I are teaming with this great institution to create a new kind of academy to address this reality. We want to do our part to prepare more brilliant students to do great and unexpected things.

What we want are schools — dream factories — that are broad enough to inspire, challenge and satisfy the curiosity of the next wave of game-changers that have a feel for technology and the liberal arts. That’s what we plan to do right here at USC.

In closing, because I believe in people doing the unexpected and being innovative, I would like to try something that’s never been done at a major graduation ceremony. Rather than quote William Shakespeare or Robert Frost, I close with the words of my favorite poet, R. Kelly, who penned my favorite karaoke anthem. So let tonight be the reward for all of your hard work, and the “ignition” to a continuing education of the rest of your lives:

Today is your remix to ignition
You’re hot and fresh out the kitchen
You got the entire student body here
You got every graduate wishin
Parents they might be sippin on coke and rum
And they might even get a little drunk
So what, it’s their graduation baby
And tonight they’re gonna have some fun!

So have a fun weekend and a great life and especially a great night!

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Wayne Du Bruyn's picture

Thank you for sharing this Patrick , very inspiring and really puts things in perspective. Being and aspiring photographer who is trying to carve a career among the horde of talent out there and the image overload on the web it is increasingly difficult to stay positive and on track. Reading this helps embrace that fear and instills a faith that even though there are a million people in this photography race , only a few truly know is a marathon. Thank you again , love what you guys are doing for the community.

Patrick Hall's picture

Glad you found it as energizing as I did! Keep up the good work

Jason Ranalli's picture

I absolutely LOVED this. Thanks for sharing.

The most successful people in any field that have longevity in my opinion have this same or a very similar mindset - it's not all about them and they're constantly humbled and learning. Yes there some things they can slam-dunk once they have enough skill but they keep moving forward.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of reality TV and media out there gives the narrative across a lot of disciplines that:

A) there has to be some sort of winner and hence the experience becomes about the person rather than the collaborative larger goal and/or

B) the path to success is much easier and quicker than it really is and everyone deserves some kind of critical acclaim.

Antonio Carrasco's picture

Great post. Very inspirational

Ralph Hightower's picture

What Patrick found and posted, resonates with me and it occurs in other fields. Okay, I am not taking anything away from any of the pro photographers in fstoppers. My vocation has programming computers since 1975; for me, photography is a creative release from the other creative art of computer programming.

When I bought my first SLR camera in 1980, which I still use, I read books by Ansel Adams, John Hedgecoe, and others. I learned the ISO triangle; back then, it was fixed with film.

Even in my career programming computers, if one isn't continually learning new technologies in this ever changing field, one is losing ground.

Anonymous's picture

Great speech, although I felt uncomfortable every time the camera was at the audience — it seemed they felt it was all about them.

Patrick Hall's picture

Ha yeah I thought the same thing. They should have at least not let the students KNOW they were on camera. Kind of took me out of the speech

Prefers Film's picture

I like the message of not giving up, of changing your mindset. At first, I was upset to live in a market saturated by Rebel-toting moms, who dragged down the local photo market. Then I realized I was only shooting for me, not for the money. This has freed me to pursue whatever projects I want.

Deleted Account's picture

This paragraph deserves to be quoted in full:

"I started my career as a second recording engineer, which sounds fancy but the reality is that I answered phones, I cleaned the floors, and I made tea and coffee. That may not sound impressive, but it allowed me to learn my business from the ground up and it’s the kind of entry-level job that anybody starting a career should be happy to take. And it got me in the same building with John Lennon who, after the 50th cup of tea I served him, felt my enthusiasm and willingness to learn and allowed me to sit in on his sessions."

Why is it quote-worthy? Because it's stupid. NOTHING except maybe the "answering phones" part in there makes sense. That's not a "second recording engineer", that's a janitorial position, and I'm assuming it paid less than that. If you are working somewhere and basically have to rely on *dumb effing luck* to actually do the job that's written on your badge, you're in an abusive, misleading environment and you should get the hell out of there.

Some people manage to get something from it? Good for them, but don't let yourself be suckered into that kind of a scam, unless you actually get paid an "engineer" salary.

Petr Kulda's picture

Thanks for sharing, sometimes it helps hearing big names struggles too :)