Originally published in Forbes.
“I don’t know if I have the attention span to sit and read a sentence,” rapper Eminem recently told Rolling Stone, “So I don’t read.” Hip hop is the only thing that the 41-year-old, whose eighth album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, currently tops the Billboard album chart, says he’s good at. “I don’t know how to do anything else. I think they have a word for that – what do they call it? Idiot savant?”
The idea rings true because it’s been the party line among celebrity musicians. “The rock star is some kind of primitive,” said former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, “An idiot savant who can’t really function in the world and would rather get onstage and do something wonderful and entertain people.”
It’s a myth. Eminem has many problems, but a low I.Q. is not one of them. Savants are defined as people with serious mental handicaps who exhibit extraordinary abilities they develop without any training or discipline. But any musician you’ve heard of has honed his or her craft through thousands of hours of hard deliberate training. What’s more, they have figured out and masterfully played the rules of the music industry.
Savantism is an appealing notion for rock or rap stars because it can account for how they become incredibly successful while acting like total idiots. Take Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, who grew up absorbing the fundamentals of classical music lounging under his father’s grand piano. “Like most rock stars,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I suffer from Terminal Adolescence. I’ll never grow up.” The implication is that rock stars are forever untouched by the rules and constraints of society, incapable of growing up even as they pass their forties, fifties, and, in Tyler’s case, sixties. The savant myth allows them to both succeed and grow old because it implies that they achieved their incredible feats through raw talent alone.
Yet even savants work hard at cultivating their talents. The writer Joshua Foer decided to train himself in mnemonic techniques as an exercise in participatory journalism. He went on to win the U.S.A. Memory Championship. Foer became convinced that seemingly impossible feats of memory could be achieved by anyone determined to practice them properly. He then explored the radical notion that savants are in fact self-trained mnemonists. He met with infamous savants such as Daniel Tammet, the subject of the documentary Brainman, and Kim Peek, the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, and watched them do their work. He investigated their past. He asked them cleverly disguised questions meant to test their savant accounts of their own talents, which he did not fully believe. As he wrote in his book, Moonwalking with Einstein, he concluded that their talents lie not in a freakish natural accident, but in their ability to hone a skill.
Eminem was not always a masterful rapper. As a kid, he invented exercises to improve his lyrical abilities. He would write out a string of long words, like “transcendalistic tendencies” and find a rhyme for each syllable, “and bend all mystic sentence trees.” Even if the phrase didn’t make sense, these drills helped him improve his rhyming skills. Still, he lost his first rap battle.
Once he became the best rapper in Detroit he flew to Los Angeles to compete in the Rap Olympics and lost there too. But he was ambitious and worked hard to get better, to rise above all the other aspiring rappers at the time. “There were a few other underground rappers coming up when Eminem did who stood out as innovative lyricists,” said Sway Caloway, co-host of the influential L.A. hip-hop radio show The Wake Up Show. “Eminem stayed on the grind. He just continued to come by our show and drop freestyles. I got so much stuff that he did. He was doing his footwork. And the thing about him I noticed each time I saw him back then—an it’s still going on—is that he keeps getting better and better.”
Stories sell products—in this case albums, of which Eminem has sold more than 100 million worldwide. Good corporate storytellers, such as Steve Jobs, Jack Dorsey, or Jeff Bezos, capture our imagination because of the skill with which they portray themselves as protagonists in their products’ stories. The most effective product narratives are those that conform to our expectations while at the same time offering a novel twist that makes them distinct in the marketplace. Eminem conforms to our expectation that rap stars embody rebellious youthfulness and disdain for anything grown up. His distinctiveness comes from being the underdog from the other side of the tracks. By proclaiming to be a “What do they call it? Idiot savant,” – the implied ignorance subtly reinforcing the message – Eminem is making an identity claim to reinforce his position as forever suspended in dysfunctional youth.
The savant myth is a nice story as long as people don’t buy it at face value. As much as some of us would like to hold up college dropout billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Larry Ellison as proof that you don’t have to grow up to succeed, this is the wrong message to take home from Eminem’s career. For most people in the workforce, it takes years of hard and unglamorous work before they can expect to make a real difference in their organizations. To succeed, they need to consistently produce high-quality work and they need to play by the rules. Behind the scenes, that’s exactly what Eminem has done.