Five Lessons from ‘School of Rock’ that Solopreneurs Often Learn the Hard Way

Deirdre Morrison
8 min readDec 15, 2022

--

If you saw it first time round, prepare to feel old. The Jack Black classic movie, School of Rock turns 20 in 2023.

But despite it’s age and subject matter, this movie is loaded with certain traits, tendencies and traps that many striving to create a business based on their passion will recognise. If you haven’t seen it, then it’s a product development analogy that’s worth having in your back pocket. I won’t be holding back on the spoilers either, so go watch it first (available on Netflix and in many charity shop DVD racks at time of writing), or read on and (re)watch a mindset masterclass starring Jack Black when you’re through.

Poster for the now classic movie, starring Jack Black and directed by Richard Linklater.
  1. Trying to fit your offer into the wrong package, or offering it to the wrong audience

How many of us have been down this road! And how many times!!

As the movie opens, lead character, Dewey Finn, is pursuing his rock dream with gusto, to a largely unimpressed audience. He gives it everything, but man, that ain’t cutting it. This is NOT his ideal audience, and he’s clearly out of sync with what they want. They know it, the band knows it…. Everyone except Dewey knows it.

To be fair to Dewey, he does not let this stop him. And in many ways, his dogged determination is both his biggest strength, and his biggest weakness. The thing about Dewey is that he doesn’t really care about the record deals, or the fans, or the fame. He genuinely cares about the music. To take music out of Dewey’s life would be like depriving him of oxygen. Music IS his purpose.

Dewey doesn’t help himself of course, living like a slob, and sponging off his long-time friend, Ned, without any real plans to turn his fortunes around, apart from dreaming of a win at Battle of the Bands. Ned, on the other hand, has shelved his love of music in favour of a steady paycheck, and a questionable relationship. He misses the music, but he doesn’t have Dewey’s blind faith or bloody-minded determination to live the rock life.

Dewey’s determination is an asset, for sure. It is the single-minded focus that let’s him spot an (albeit illegal) opportunity to stretch his window to reach his vision of success. However, it turns out that it’s this somewhat rigid view of what success will look like that’s actually holding him back. Life is funny like that. We often know what we love doing, but we somehow get stuck on the wrong channel when looking at a picture of how that might look in real life. We’ve got limited views of how we can deploy our passions purposefully and profitably. We pick up on messages about what constitutes success, and what it means to be happy. We’re labouring under a whole heap of expectations and ‘shoulds’. They can blinker us to avenues that truly fire us up — and no pun intended, but it’s often blind luck that we get beyond that, unless we are actively looking to reality check our world view.

So here’s where it gets interesting. Dewey, in a moment of desperation, pretends to be the sedate and dependable Ned, in order to get a temporary teaching post at a very expensive private school. He fully intends to milk this place, ignore any accompanying responsibilities, and basically just slack off for as long as he can. This changes when he sees his students at their music lesson, and the cogs in his brain start turning. Dewey sees another way to pursue his passion, albeit he is still trying to shoe-horn it into his original idea.

2. Be part of something bigger than you

As soon as Dewey starts to connect with this group of kids, things start to change. He himself acts like a sullen teenager much of the time, but they prove to be his perfect and inimitable foil. Like a microcosm of humanity, they all find their role within the ‘class project’, aka, Dewey’s new hope to get a band together for Battle of the Bands — and they’re not afraid to dispute the roles allotted to them in order to find a better fit.

These kids are like the most discerning customers. They know what’s right for them. They are strong, and creative and whole. They’re also pretty switched on. Dewey Finn has got to conduct their energy like a master to get them bought into this concept of the ‘class project’. But here’s the thing, like so many aspects of starting a business, our Dewey has to learn a lot about himself along the way too. He has to start getting past his ‘I am the creative overlord’ approach, and really see what his team bring to the table. And in being able to do so, he finds the gem that goes on to bring them the crown they need, if not the crown they want.

The kids, of course, are also products of their parents lifestyles, experiences and expectations. Although we’re never given a lot of information about Dewey’s own background, we get our first sense that he understands these kids on an emotional level when he sees Zak Mooneyham’s dad giving him a hard time about his music. As an aside, these parents are also products of the previous generation’s experiences and expectations — they want the best for their kids, and are trying incredibly hard to give them what they believe is the best start in life. Unfortunately, their view of what a ‘best life’ might be is also blinkered by their beliefs. If you don’t know you’re in a box, how can you hope to get out of it, right? Some of the kids, like the class factotum, Summer Hathaway, thrive in this academic environment, while others, like Freddy Jones, are problems waiting to happen, as they become more and more bored and disillusioned by their imprisonment in a system designed to produce a homogenous product.

3. Engage and Let Go

Dewey does eventually start to become a team player — even if his tact leaves a lot to be desired. His zone of genius though is in seeing talent and believing in it more than the kids believe in it themselves. He is the antidote to the dogma they’ve been fed about the way to be successful. He sees their talent and not their appearance, or their levels of cool, or their affluence. And this can be so difficult sometimes, when you have a vision that you want to execute. Finding that new team member, handing them the reins, not micromanaging or expecting them to read your mind. But in the moment where the girls finally reveal the name of the band, we see the value in letting go. We see the prize we win for trusting others to bring their talents to the table.

Dewey’s growth journey is non-linear to say the least. While his dedication and engagement in the teaching process skyrockets, he’s still not shy of manipulating and wheeler-dealing to get what he wants. But in a moment when he seems to have accepted defeat, it’s the kick in the ass from Summer that actually helps him find the motivation to get them to the next stage. And this is another reason why engagement is so important — accountability and community are buzzwords for solopreneurs, but it works. Having someone who backs you up and keeps you going can make all the difference. And as we saw at the start of the movie, that’s not always our best friend, or even our families. They want what’s best for us, as they see it, and sometimes that’s security, not the white knuckle ride of building a business.

https://images.app.goo.gl/tAagUjwDuCfz9cw29

4. Always offer your truth, because someone is receiving it.

Part of the irony of Dewey’s journey is that as soon as he stops pretending, we see a completely different human. At the parent-teacher evening, he tries to fluff his way through telling the parents what the kids are learning. His entire approach is fear driven. Unfortunately, his impostor syndrome is a little more literal than most peoples, but as he’s about to be arrested, we see another of Dewey’s most endearing moments. He describes how impressed he is by the kids, what they’re capable of, and how much belief he has in them. Unfortunately, this time, it seems like his luck has run out though, and he legs it and goes home to lick his wounds. The kids, on the other hand, are not willing to throw away their work, of which they are rightly very proud.

They literally drag him from his bed, and just about get to the venue on time. Before they go on stage, we see another signal of growth from Dewey — he defers to Zak’s superior song writing skills, and recommends that they go with that for their performance. Zak agrees, on the condition that Dewey sings it. This innovation-driven move achieves the best blend of the resources they have. But it’s still not enough. This movie is better than a simple winning = success ending. Plus, it’s got an axe to grind with The Man….

So, despite the progress he’s made, and the journey he’s been on, Dewey is devastated when his old band is crowned the winners, and not School of Rock. But the kids, in their wisdom, know that a simple, short-sighted focus on the cheque isn’t what’s important. And they gently remind Dewey that the music is not about winning some competition. Their success is more complete, because it is intrinsic. They were never looking for external validation. They have absorbed the true tao of Dewey, his higher self, and they reflect it back to him beautifully.

The crowd, however, have not missed the injustice that has just been perpetrated. They holler for a School of Rock encore, led, by the same parents who had earlier railed against their kids ‘wasting their time’ on rock music. In seeing their children’s talent and joy in the music, they loosen their grip.

5. The stories we tell ourselves shape our world, our options, and our chances of success

Dewey Finn told himself that he had to succeed in an adult rock band to live his true passion. Ned Schneebly told himself that he had to abandon his musical aspirations in order to live a happy and secure life. Rosalie Mullins, the incredibly uptight principal, told herself that she could never make a mistake, or it would be her head in the smasher. The parents believed that academics were the only thing their kids should be working on. Keyboard wunderkind Lawrence, told himself that he wasn’t cool enough to be in a band, and the soulful Tamika believed she was too fat to go on stage.

Every single one of these beliefs was wrong. They had the potential to trap and limit the potential of each of the characters. And they all required an intervention to shake them up and find a new perspective.

So here’s the challenge. If you’re an entrepreneur, you may not fully appreciate me drawing parallels with someone like Dewey Finn. That’s ok = he can be pretty unlikeable. But in really digging deep, he taps into the highest version of himself.

Even then, it’s not straight forward. Even then, he needs support. But that support is there.

Engage. Innovate. Don’t be too rigid in what you believe to be the ‘right version’ of success. Ask yourself how much of that is received wisdom before you adopt it as your own.

Deirdre Morrison is an applied neuroscience practitioner with a soft spot for cinema. She helps people understand their brains in order to consistently make better decisions and have better actions, reactions and interactions. Deirdre can be found at NeuroCreative.Studio for 1–1 and small group work.

She is also the award winning host of The Ambition Incubator Podcast, where she interviews entrepreneurs, experts, and shares bite-sized brain science.

--

--

Deirdre Morrison

Ideas are my drug. It’s not a habit I plan to kick. I take my supply from many sources, and I’ll share what I have, but I don't push them..