As most 70s and 80s kids are doing right now, I am listening to quite a bit of Van Halen, and reeling from the shock that we have lost a guitar virtuoso and rock legend too soon. Eddie Van Halen was more than a rock and roll icon whose musical skills and speed would have impressed Chopin, Korsakov, and Vivaldi. He was a leader and innovator worthy of study. I watched a Van Halen documentary just last month and was struck by his story. It was an immigrant’s story of rising to the top of a profession with daring, dedication, and resilience.

You won’t always fit in

Eddie and his brother moved to oh-so-cool California and didn’t speak the language. Not just SoCal surfer or Valley girl, but they struggled with English. Their father was Dutch and their mother was from what is now Indonesia.

They didn’t look like the other kids, couldn’t speak like the other kids, and their parents were urging them to play piano—not the coolest of musical instruments in the 1960s and 70s. This could have all gone wrong for Eddie and Alex, but they found their own way. They turned towards music that would make them cool, learned the language, and when they weren’t accepted into other cool cliques, they made their own, gradually.

This applies to so many people entering a new work force. There is always a new culture and language you have to adopt, adapt to, or struggle with. Find your own way in the crowd. If you don’t fit in, it just might mean the crowd should be following you. The rest of his examples might show you how to make yourself fit-in or vice versa.

Innovate and Experiment

Eddie pointed out once that he couldn’t read or write musical notes, so instead, he listened and improvised. This seeming flaw in a musical career didn’t stop him from winning piano recitals as a child or laying down some of the most amazing and mind-boggling guitar riffs. His guitar solos are amazing to hear and even more fun to watch. Find a video; you won’t be disappointed.

Creating his own perfect instrument might be one of the most unique things about Eddie Van Halen. To get the right sound, Eddie was ready to mix and match various parts of guitars. His guitar was called Frankenstrat, and it was a soulful monster.

You might struggle with the intricacies of a new team and mission, but there is little that can’t be overcome if you remain positive and watch how others do things. Your experiments, because of your dedication, or inexperience, could become prized techniques and inspire a new generation to become an innovator like you.


Eddie and his brother Alex formed a few bands in school and would eventually form the most famous of their bands: Van Halen. When you are struggling at work to get enough synergy to reach your goals, forming a band is always a possibility. Or you can join a band that is already gelled like David Lee Roth did when he stepped in as front-man for the Van Halen brothers. Being on your own at work is challenging and if you find that you don’t fit in any of the current cliques or work-groups, don’t be afraid to start your own. During meals and coffee breaks your formal and informal bands can sort out each other’s problems and, on a whole, make your larger organization function better.

Teach and Mentor

If you watch the 2015 Smithsonian talk with Eddie Van Halen, you can see he is a good teacher and enjoys showing others how he made his sound. Passing on your lessons to your peers, those following you, and even sometimes to your bosses, is a great sign of professionalism. What you know, you likely learned from others, so passing on your knowledge should be something you feel good about. Hoarding your insights and lessons like gold, on the other hand, is a sign that you are not thinking about your team in the right light. Your bosses know who shares ideas and who holds back their help so that others may fail. Plus, any teacher will freely admit, you learn more from teaching than you actually give.

Love what you do

One of the things I personally liked about Eddie Van Halen is that he was so happy looking when he performed. The smile on his face truly lit up the stage. Let’s be honest. If it looks like you are having fun, others will want to join you. So, when you face a tough task, put on a happy face and bring some humor into the room. We clearly know that Eddie had his own troubles off the stage. No one is perfect, but being able to lift others up even when you are down is a useful trick of the trade.

Eddie Van Halen, a unique force that will he heard for generations.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, works with numerous non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.