#111 David Geffen

Summary Notes


David Geffen, a complex and ruthlessly ambitious figure, has left an indelible mark on American entertainment, as chronicled by Tom King in "The Operator." Geffen's journey from the mailroom at William Morris to billionaire status involved transforming the music industry, producing Broadway shows, and founding a Hollywood studio. Despite his meteoric success, Geffen's path was marred by contentious relationships and a relentless pursuit of wealth that, paradoxically, failed to bring him happiness. His knack for deal-making and strategic vision was counterbalanced by his interpersonal flaws and the unhappiness that trailed his achievements. Geffen's story is a testament to the power of ambition and the complex nature of success.

Summary Notes

  • David Geffen has had a significant impact on American popular culture.
  • His career encompasses roles as a power agent, record industry mogul, Broadway producer, and Hollywood studio founder.
  • Geffen's pursuit of fame, money, and power has been marked by ruthlessness.

"Complex, contentious, and blessed with the perfect pitch ability to find the next big talent, David Geffen has shaped American popular culture and transformed the way Hollywood does business."

This quote highlights Geffen's complex personality, his contentious nature, and his exceptional ability to identify talent, which has allowed him to leave a substantial imprint on American culture and the business practices of Hollywood.

The Operator by Tom King

  • The book "The Operator" by Tom King provides an in-depth look at David Geffen's rise in Hollywood.
  • It includes anecdotes from celebrities and offers a view into the ruthless and dazzling world of Hollywood.
  • The book explores the bargains made for success and Geffen's relentless drive.

"The operator transports readers to a world that is as ruthless as it is dazzling, revealing a great American story about success and the bargains made for it."

This quote encapsulates the essence of Geffen's story as told by Tom King, which is a tale of ambition, ruthlessness, and the trade-offs necessary for success in Hollywood.

Soul in the Game

  • The concept of "soul in the game" is discussed, referring to a deep personal investment in one's work.
  • Notable figures with "soul in the game" include Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, James Dyson, Yvon Chouinard, Henry Royce, Enzo Ferrari, and Adi Dassler.
  • The idea is contrasted with David Geffen's approach, which lacked this personal investment.

"This is from James Dyson, his autobiography, which is one of my favorite books that I've ever read for the podcast. And this is what soul in the game sounds like when you're writing your autobiography. He says, 'This is not even a business book. It is anything, or if anything, a book against business, against the principles that have filled the world with ugly, useless objects and unhappy people.'"

This quote from James Dyson's autobiography reflects the ethos of having "soul in the game," where the focus is not solely on business and profit but on creating value and making a positive impact.

Nassim Taleb's Definition of Soul in the Game

  • Nassim Taleb provides a definition of "soul in the game" in his book "Skin in the Game."
  • Characteristics of people with "soul in the game" include doing things for existential reasons, combining art and business, not compromising on quality, and having sacred taboos.

"Artisans have soul in the game. So now he's going to list some of the characteristics of people that have soul in the game. Number one, artisans do things for existential reasons. First, financial and commercial ones later."

This quote from Nassim Taleb's book outlines the characteristics of individuals who are deeply invested in their work beyond financial incentives, suggesting that their work is a form of art and expression.

David Geffen's Personality and Approach

  • David Geffen is described as having a searing focus, unyielding drive, and outlandish nerve.
  • However, his approach to success was often ruthless, and he lacked "soul in the game."
  • Geffen's life demonstrates that while ruthlessness can lead to success, it may come at the expense of others and personal happiness.

"Geffen had repaid him by making insensitive comments to the press. As Ross lay dying from cancer, a quote from Geffen's only sibling, his brother. Why would you want to write a book about him? Why don't you write a book about somebody who's done good for the world?"

This quote reflects the negative aspects of Geffen's personality, where even close relationships were not immune to his ruthless and insensitive behavior.

Early Life and Influence of Bhatya Geffen

  • Bhatya Geffen, David's mother, was an ambitious entrepreneur who established a successful bra business.
  • Her personality and drive influenced David Geffen's own ambitions and approach to life.
  • Bhatya's entrepreneurial spirit and determination to succeed despite obstacles laid the groundwork for David's future endeavors.

"Baya moved about the neighborhood with the force of a hurricane. She was convinced she was put on the earth to tell people how things ought to be done, whether or not they asked for her instructions."

This quote describes Bhatya Geffen's dominant personality, which was a significant influence on David Geffen's own character and his approach to business and life.

Theme: The Celebration of Strength Over Weakness

  • The narrative begins with a rejection of the idea that celebrating weakness is admirable.
  • David Geffen's family history is recounted, emphasizing the tragic loss of his relatives during the Holocaust.
  • Baya, David's relative, discovers the fate of her family after two decades of separation.
  • The massacre at Babi Yar is described, highlighting the horrors experienced by Baya's family.
  • The notion that feeling small and weak is beautiful is challenged as a lie.
  • Baya's strength is illustrated through her ability to recover from a nervous breakdown caused by the traumatic news.

"The idea that it's beautiful to feel very small and very weak and to feel that you need other people is a lie."

This quote captures the speaker's belief that the romanticization of weakness is deceptive and that strength, particularly in the face of adversity, is more commendable.

Theme: Baya's Entrepreneurial Influence on David Geffen

  • Baya is characterized as a master entrepreneur who was able to support her family financially.
  • David Geffen is described as having learned the value of hard work and financial management from Baya.
  • Baya's business acumen, particularly her cost management, is highlighted as a key lesson for David.
  • The narrative suggests that Baya's entrepreneurial spirit was a significant influence on David's future career choices.

"David might not have realized it, but he was being educated by a master entrepreneur."

This quote suggests that David Geffen's business skills were shaped by Baya's example, even if he was not consciously aware of it at the time.

Theme: David Geffen's Early Passion and Career Decisions

  • David Geffen is portrayed as having a deep passion for show business from an early age.
  • He is faced with a choice between pursuing what he loves and choosing a path that promises greater financial rewards.
  • The narrative discusses the potential pitfalls of pursuing money over happiness, using David as an example.
  • David's discontent with life, despite his success, is highlighted as a cautionary tale.

"David found something he loved at a very early age. And this is going to influence the career that he chooses."

This quote emphasizes the impact of David's early passion for show business on his later career decisions, underscoring the importance of following one's interests.

Theme: The Power of Positive Thinking and Self-Perception

  • David's mother encourages him to think of himself as superior, suggesting that self-perception can influence others' perceptions.
  • The narrative compares this advice to that given by Nolan Bushnell to Steve Jobs, highlighting the power of confidence and control.
  • The importance of a positive mental attitude and perseverance in overcoming obstacles is affirmed.

"You may not be very tall, but you will stand head and shoulders above everyone. If you think of yourself as head and shoulders above everyone else, you will be."

This quote from Baya to David Geffen illustrates the concept that self-belief can lead to others perceiving one as successful, emphasizing the psychological aspect of success.

Theme: David Geffen's Personal Struggles and Identity

  • David Geffen's insecurities about his appearance and sexual orientation are discussed.
  • Despite his professional success, David struggles with self-acceptance and the desire to be someone he is not.
  • The narrative encourages embracing one's uniqueness rather than conforming to societal expectations.

"He was small framed and short, and he had a nose that he thought of as big and ugly."

This quote describes David Geffen's negative self-image, which contrasts with his professional achievements, highlighting the complexity of his character.

Theme: David Geffen's Ambition and Ethical Flexibility

  • David Geffen's ambition is portrayed as relentless, leading him to take extreme measures to succeed.
  • His willingness to lie and manipulate situations to his advantage is examined.
  • The narrative acknowledges that while Geffen's tactics were effective, they are not ethically recommended.

"Having tossed aside all notions of right and wrong, young David Geffen simply lived by different rules than did the rest of society around him."

This quote encapsulates David Geffen's disregard for conventional ethics in pursuit of his ambitions, suggesting a moral ambiguity in his path to success.

David Geffen's Philosophy and Career Growth

  • David Geffen did not believe in limits, only plateaus, and constantly sought to go beyond them.
  • He rose from working in a mailroom to amassing a fortune through ambition and forging relationships.
  • Geffen's ability to create what seemed like authentic relationships was key to his success, although they were often transactional in nature.
  • He was advised to pursue a career in the music industry rather than movies for quicker success.
  • Geffen's focus on music led to the creation of multiple record labels, despite his initial interest in movies.

"David definitely, even if he didn't know that Bruce Lee quote, he definitely personified that idea. One thing I took away from him is he did not believe there was a ceiling to what he could accomplish."

The quote emphasizes Geffen's limitless ambition and his approach to his career, mirroring Bruce Lee's philosophy of seeing no limits, only plateaus.

Building Relationships and Recognizing Opportunities

  • David Geffen built a relationship with the president of William Morris by mirroring tactics used by Aristotle Onassis.
  • Geffen's opportunistic approach led him to work on Saturdays, stalking Lefkowitz to eventually form a relationship.
  • His ambition impressed Lefkowitz, leading to a lunch invitation and a significant career connection.
  • Geffen's relationship-building was strategic, aiming to advance his career.

"For weeks, Geffen stalked Lefkowitz... until one Saturday, the two stood together waiting for the elevator. Geffen introduced himself and struck up a conversation."

This quote describes the calculated method Geffen used to form a pivotal relationship with a key industry figure, which greatly influenced his career trajectory.

Career Strategy and Music Industry Success

  • Geffen was influenced by advice to pursue a career in the music industry for faster advancement.
  • His decision to enter the music industry was driven by the potential for quick wealth, not a passion for music.
  • Geffen recognized the value of publishing rights and sought to stay close to the money-making aspects of the music business.
  • He utilized his understanding of the industry to become wealthy by managing publishing rights and owning the work of others.

"So David's takeaway was it was not an undying passion for music that made him decide to try to make his fortune in the business. He did it because he might get rich quickly."

This quote reveals Geffen's primary motivation for entering the music industry was financial gain rather than a love for music, highlighting his pragmatic approach to his career.

Geffen's Business Acumen and the Value of Ownership

  • Geffen realized the importance of owning both a record company and a management company for synergy and profit maximization.
  • He was frugal and overhead-averse, which contributed to his financial success.
  • Geffen's strategy involved using record deals to cover overhead costs, allowing him to focus on profit.
  • His approach to business was sometimes ruthless, valuing efficiency over fairness.

"The way Geffen saw it, there was a natural synergy in owning both a record company and a management company."

The quote outlines Geffen's strategic vision for his business, emphasizing the benefits of controlling multiple aspects of the industry for increased profitability.

Personal Traits and Life Choices

  • Geffen's ambition led to rapid success, but also to feelings of restlessness and dissatisfaction.
  • Despite his wealth, Geffen struggled with insecurity and a drive to constantly achieve more.
  • His aggressive behavior in business dealings sometimes led to physical altercations and strained relationships.
  • Geffen's self-perception did not align with his actions; he believed himself to be free of deceit despite evidence to the contrary.

"Geffen was driven by the devil that constantly told him he needed to be bigger, more, and something else."

This quote captures Geffen's internal struggle with never being satisfied and always striving for greater success, which was both a driving force and a source of discontent.

Conclusion and Reflection on Geffen's Legacy

  • Geffen's life and career are characterized by ambition, strategic relationship building, and a keen understanding of industry dynamics.
  • His pursuit of wealth and influence in the music industry was marked by calculated decisions and a focus on ownership.
  • Geffen's personal life was complicated by his aggressive behavior and the contradictions between his actions and self-image.
  • The study of Geffen's career offers lessons on the importance of strategic thinking and the complexities of achieving success.

"I think I'm unique in this business. I can sleep at night."

This quote reflects Geffen's self-assuredness and disconnect between his perception of his ethical conduct and his actual business practices, highlighting the complexity of his character.

Extreme Ownership vs Blame Culture

  • Dave (not further identified in the transcript) is characterized by blaming others for failures.
  • The book "Extreme Ownership" proposes the opposite approach, where leaders take full responsibility.
  • Leaders should consider their own role in failures, such as hiring the wrong person or failing to communicate standards, and learn from these mistakes.

"Dave would blame other people. If a record didn't sell, if this deal didn't go through, it was never, ever his fault, ever."

This quote illustrates the blame culture where individuals do not take responsibility for failures.

The Asylum Records Story

  • David Geffen starts Asylum Records, which is not his major label Geffen Records.
  • Geffen sells Asylum after a year and reluctantly agrees to an employment contract.
  • Despite his aversion to being controlled, Geffen accepts the contract for financial gain.
  • Geffen's desire for money and fear of failure prompted him to sell Asylum quickly.

"Although Geffen's goal from the beginning was to one day sell asylum and reap a cash windfall."

This quote highlights Geffen's initial intention to sell Asylum for profit.

David Geffen's Wealth and Depression

  • At 30, David Geffen is rich but depressed, realizing money didn't solve his problems.
  • Geffen's disillusionment with wealth occurs during a business trip in London.

"He claimed that his net worth was about $12 million, but he was surprised to realize that the millions of dollars he had just banked and the trappings he had been able to acquire with it did not make him happy."

This quote reflects on Geffen's realization that wealth did not equate to happiness.

Geffen's Relationship with Barry Diller and Jeffrey Katzenberg

  • Geffen befriends Barry Diller, the head of Paramount, and meets his assistant, Jeffrey Katzenberg.
  • Katzenberg impresses Geffen with his efficiency and hustle, foreshadowing a future partnership.

"Geffen, who had wasted many hours in customs, was flabbergasted as Katzenberg's oiling of the custom workers enabled him and Dillard to breeze through the process."

This quote shows Geffen's admiration for Katzenberg's ability to navigate the system efficiently.

Geffen's Foray into the Movie Business

  • Geffen learns the movie business at Warner Brothers but finds it incompatible with his style.
  • He fails to adapt to the slower pace and cultural differences of Hollywood compared to the music industry.
  • Geffen's impatience and directness do not mesh well with Hollywood's norms.

"Geffen, who had succeeded stellarly at everything he had taken on so far in his professional life, now find himself failing for the first time."

This quote captures Geffen's struggle with experiencing failure in an industry he loved.

Geffen's Deal-Making and Return to Music

  • Geffen is a masterful deal-maker who negotiates a unique agreement with Warner.
  • He insists on Warner funding his movie and theater ventures in addition to running a music label.
  • Geffen secures a deal where Warner shoulders all losses, but profits are split 50/50.

"Warner put up all the money but split any profits 50 50 with Geffen."

This quote explains the terms of Geffen's advantageous deal with Warner.

Geffen Records and Negotiation Tactics

  • Geffen manipulates relationships to gain ownership of Geffen Records and later sell it for a massive profit.
  • His negotiation tactics are effective but ethically questionable, damaging personal and business relationships.

"His crazy plan worked. He now owns Geffen 100%."

This quote summarizes the success of Geffen's strategic maneuvering to gain full control of his record label.

David Geffen's Role in Saving Calvin Klein

  • Geffen helps save Calvin Klein from bankruptcy by advising a shift from manufacturing to design and marketing.
  • He makes significant financial moves to alleviate the company's debt and restructure its operations.
  • Geffen's ability to identify and focus on strengths is highlighted as a key to success.

"Geffen surmised the company should be transformed from a manufacturing firm to a design, marketing, and licensing company."

This quote describes Geffen's strategic advice to Calvin Klein, focusing on the brand's core competencies.

David Geffen's Complex Personality

  • Geffen's personality is multifaceted, being both ruthless and generous.
  • He is depicted as an extremely gifted entrepreneur with notable flaws.
  • Geffen's own self-assessment acknowledges his imperfections and the ongoing effort to improve.

"I've been working on myself and my demons and my nonsense and my fucked upness for a long time."

This quote from Geffen reflects his self-awareness and lifelong personal development efforts.

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