The Power of Asking; aka My Father’s 75% Chance of Success Theory

Growing up I was very timid, especially when it came to girls. In junior high there was a girl I liked. A lot. There was a school dance coming up and I desperately wanted to ask her to go as my date, but just couldn’t muster the courage. I was too shy (no pun intended). Trying to help me, my father told me a story – a crude joke:

A man walks into a bar, sits next to a pretty woman and asks her if she wants to go to his place for some late night romance. She throws her drink in his face, slaps him across the cheek and storms off. The bartender says to the man “you must get a lot of drinks thrown in your face?” The man responds, “yes I do, but I also take a lot of women to my place.”

He explained his point was that if you don’t ask, you’ll never get what you want. Thankfully that wasn’t the extend of his advice and my father then followed up with his 75% chance of success theory. It goes something like this:

Generally speaking if you want something from someone, the simple act of asking for it gives you an immediate 75% chance of getting a positive response. How is that possible, you might ask? Here’s how it works.

In order for you to get what you want from someone else you need to want it and they need to agree to it. You already want it, meaning you’re 50% there. Of the remaining 50% they’ll either say yes or no, meaning you only have a 25% chance of getting a no, and a total of 75% chance of getting a yes. On the other hand, if you don’t ask, your chance of getting a yes is zero, zilch, zip, nada, bubkes.

Granted, math isn’t my dad’s strong suit, but he makes a very important point. If you don’t ask, you won’t get what you want. This principle extends to everything in life – if you don’t try you’ll never succeed. But if you try, you might succeed. Just by trying you’re half way there. Of the remaining half you’ll either succeed or you won’t. The odds of success are in favor of those who try.

Over the years I’ve followed this advice many times over. I didn’t know I wanted to be a professional musician until I was nearing the end of my military service (mandatory in Israel, where I’m originally from) at age 21. At the time I couldn’t really read music, I knew no music theory what-so-ever and my keyboard skills were rudimentary at best. Yet emboldened by my dad’s advice, I applied to Rimon School of Jazz & Contemporary Music, and much to my surprise was accepted.

Less than a year later, a team from Berklee College of Music was visiting the school and auditioning students for scholarships to Berklee. I couldn’t play well enough to audition, and I knew it. So I hounded them to let me apply some other way, explaining I was a composer, not a performer. After several days of relentless pestering by me, they came up with a seemingly impossible task – I had less than 24 hours to create a 15 minute demo of my music complete with lead sheets for all songs, plus create a full orchestral score.

Driven by my father’s advice, I worked all night to write my first orchestral piece. I had no idea what I was doing; my first orchestration class was scheduled to begin the following semester. I had recently recorded a 4-song demo, so I created lead sheets for the 4 songs and decided to submit those along with the new orchestral piece as my scholarship application portfolio. I skipped school the next day so I could work on creating the portfolio. I drove to the school near the end of the day just in time to catch the Berklee folks as they were leaving the school to head back to Boston.

My efforts were rewarded and I earned a partial scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music. In retrospect I realize my orchestral score was horrendous – I wrote outside of instruments ranges, I knew nothing of transpositions, it was a mess. My lead sheets were sloppy and inaccurate. But the fact that I worked so hard and delivered everything they asked for was what impressed them. Had I not tried, I would never have gone to Berklee.

I’ve had many similar experiences since. Coming to Los Angeles was another one of those “if I don’t try I won’t succeed” decisions. A few years later as I was building my career I was an out of work assistant and in desperate need of work. I used IMDB, which was brand new at the time, to look up who composed some of my favorite scores. I then looked up who their music editors were, found the their phone numbers in the union directory and started cold calling them all. I made about 20 phone calls. Each and every one of them essentially blew me off. Some were very kind & encouraging, some were not. Some were friendly, some less so. None of them offered me a job, or even a meeting. A couple took my contact information.

I was beginning to doubt the 75% chance of success theory when my phone rang one evening about 3 weeks after I had made all those calls. The next day I was on the Universal lot working on Red Dragon, my first Danny Elfman film. Nearly a decade and a half has gone by since, and I’ve worked on nearly 100 features about 20 of them with Danny. It would never have happened had I not decided to try and make those cold-calls.

I can go on with many more examples of how trying paid off throughout my life. Trying or asking doesn’t always produce the desired results. Just because the odds are in the favor of those who try doesn’t mean they always succeed. But experience has shown me that if you keep trying and don’t give up eventually you’ll get that yes, eventually you’ll succeed.

Oh, and I did end up asking that girl to the dance in junior high… and she said yes.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me, or add a comment.