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Six ways jazz piano helped me become a CEO

It turns out that jazz piano playing and entrepreneurship have a lot more in common than meets the eye.

How do you define entrepreneurial spirit? Where does it come from?

For me, its early buds sprouted in the third grade when I began building websites for businesses. It grew roots in high school when I founded a music production not-for-profit, and it eventually blossomed with Atly, the company I started and now run.

These growth milestones attest to that entrepreneurial spirit, and each one has left me with tools that I still rely on today. But the best business innovators draw from a well far deeper than entrepreneurship itself, bringing the secret sauce of their personal interests and passions into harmony with the takeaways of their practical professional experiences.

For me, that ‘X factor’ comes from my love of playing jazz piano, which I’ve come to recognize as the common thread that has most consistently and impactfully honed the skills that led me to become CEO of a successful startup.

Through a lifetime of diligent piano playing, I’ve learned that the lessons and disciplines of music are strikingly similar to the tools most essential for creating and running a business.

Learn the rules to break them

People joke that there are no “wrong notes” in jazz. So, shouldn’t everyone be able to play it then?

In reality, breaking the rules doesn’t really work until you know the rules well enough to realize how you broke them in the first place. Every musician’s journey begins with the basics. The best players have the fundamentals of classical music theory and technique ingrained in the fibers of their minds and muscles.

Breaking the rules doesn’t really work until you know the rules well enough to realize how you broke them in the first place.

Once the fundamentals are perfected, room for creativity – for bending the rules into satisfying new configurations on the fly – becomes boundless. Inviting its practitioners to improvise, manipulate tone and tempo, create and resolve tension and weave musical ideas together in unexpected ways, jazz is, in my opinion, music at its most expressive, complex and innovative.

So, too, is a successful company caught in tension between the time-tested rules of good business practices and the perpetual need for ideas that are new, unexpected and disruptive.

In entrepreneurship, like jazz, an ingrained knowledge of historic best practices and traditional methods for success serves a dual purpose. On one hand, it becomes easier to tackle complicated scenarios and challenges that arise, thanks to the solid foundation of all the trailblazers that came before you. And on the other, you know exactly which rules are ripe to be broken on the road to the next big innovation.

Constructive deconstruction

When learning a new piece of music, I break it down one section at a time. By zooming in on the individual components of a song before piecing it all together, it becomes clear that music is greater than the sum of its parts. The time spent fine-tuning any given phrase or section, no matter how small, is critical to the overall perfection of the piece.

Similarly, the whole of a business would be nothing without the care and dedication given to every one of its subcomponents. Time devoted to product development is as critical as the effort invested in marketing and the hours poring over spreadsheets in the finance department, and so on.

Tackling a large, complex, seemingly unsolvable problem is done by breaking it down into a series of small, solvable ones.

It may seem counterintuitive to forego the big picture in exchange for perfecting one piece of the puzzle. But tackling a large, complex, seemingly unsolvable problem is done by breaking it down into a series of small, solvable ones. In the long run, great music and great companies can be made no other way.

Uriel Maslansky

Be prepared to talk the talk

Career musicians must always be ready for the next opportunity to play, even at a moment’s notice. Once again, the fundamentals are essential – the greater your instinctual fluency in the language of music, the easier it becomes to converse with other ‘music speakers‘, anytime, anywhere, for anyone.

In the same way, entrepreneurs and CEOs must always be prepared to pitch themselves or their companies at a moment’s notice.

And to do so, they must be able to speak the language of business to different people, changing tone and approach to match the specific audience. This requires a certain level of improvisational skill as well as the confidence to overcome stage fright, whether in front of an audience of one or thousands.

Listen and react to your band

The magic of jazz music lies in its unique conversational quality. And the best players don’t actually have to talk to create that conversation; glances and good listening alone can do the trick.

Let’s say you’re a drummer, and you syncopate a rhythm in the middle of a saxophone solo. In a good jazz band with players who know how to listen and react to one another, the pianist would catch wind of the staggered rhythm and might mimic it with the left hand, while his right hand sends a melodic hint to the saxophonist, who plays a variation on the idea, and so on.

It’s not just about giving everyone a chance to talk. It’s when everyone also listens and trusts the instincts of their bandmates that the musical conversation flows naturally and seamlessly.

It’s all about delegation, balance and harmony.

As a CEO, you have to fill your roster with music makers who are experts in their fields and whom you trust enough to take center stage when operations call for it. The most successful companies are those run by teams of individuals who are confident enough to share their own ideas, while also being selfless and attentive to the ideas of their collaborators.

It’s all about delegation, balance and harmony – sometimes that means being a front person, and sometimes taking a back seat to create room for new melodies, without muddying the mix.

Uriel Maslansky

Play on repeat

Discipline and consistency are essential for achieving any goal or skill.

There is no replacement for the sheer number of hours needed to master an instrument, or to learn how to start and run a business. Whether or not you feel like practicing – or reading over expense reports and product development plans – there is simply no alternative to buckling down and putting in thousands of hours.

Discipline is also key to overcoming hurdles. When a section of music is tricky, the disciplined repetition is what will burn those notes into your muscle memory.

If every entrepreneur gave up after a few tries at fixing a problem, no companies would get off the ground.

It’s the same when business challenges arise. If every entrepreneur gave up after a few tries at fixing a problem, no companies would get off the ground. You have to persevere through every hurdle, and the experience drilled in by disciplined practice will make them easier to overcome.

The show must go on

No musician is flawless, and mistakes are bound to happen, especially in jazz, where improvisation pushes musicians to take risks and experiment in real time.

A slip up can send even the most seasoned musician into doubt and hesitation. But a mistake is only a failure if you let it become one. Being able to mess up in front of an audience or at an audition and then continue playing as if nothing happened is a difficult skill.

When running a company, there are sometimes even more mistakes than successes, especially at first. And so, as a CEO, I have to be a voice of reason, strength and confidence even when things aren’t functioning smoothly. In those situations, I think back to my musical training – take a deep breath, continue to put my best self forward, acknowledge the mistakes, learn from them and get it right next time.

The show must go on, so, don’t stop playing.

Uriel Maslansky showed a propensity for both music and entrepreneurship at a young age, learning to play the piano at age five and beginning to build websites for businesses in the third grade. He went on to become the CEO of a successful startup in the ninth grade and founded a music production not-for-profit, donating its proceeds to charity. After serving for more than six years as a developer, team lead and project manager in the prestigious IDF unit 81, Maslansky, along with his partners Aviad Coppenhagen (CTO) and Joshua Kaufman (Product), created Atly to fill in because they recognized the massive gap in how people discover new destinations and activities.

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