Playing for Others

The difference between good and great pianists

Good pianists focus on telling stories. Great pianists focus on how their audience hears their stories. Good pianists play for themselves. Great pianists play for others.

Before I sit down to play a piece of music, I think about what story I want to tell. I craft out where I need to build up suspense, which breaths I want to take, how to sprinkle elements of surprise here and there. I listen to myself play very, very carefully and adjust how I craft the piece.

Then I record myself. Everything changes. Notes sound different. Chords have different colors. The phrasing plateaus too much. The story that I’ve heard all too well is suddenly foreign to me.

I think great pianists are familiar with this chasm between how they hear themselves and how others hear them. When amateurs like me perform, one common critique is that we sound bland. I think the root of this is not that we aren’t interpreting the music or trying to tell a story, but that we don’t think enough about how the audience hears our story. We hear dramatic fanfares while the audience hears cacophonous chords. We hear suspenseful terror while the audience hears schizophrenic rhythms. We hear music while the audience hears notes.

Designing products follows the same principles. Just like how great pianists play for others, great product managers make products for others. They are cognizant of how others use and respond to their products. They are aware of their own biases and what baggage they bring into the design process.

They are playing for others.