Learning by Immersion: Lessons from Paul McCartney

Have you ever asked someone how they know something or can do something, and they have no idea?

Now and then, I bump into natural storytellers. Telling stories is their default mode. They effortlessly share examples to illustrate their points, and they’re engaging, funny and excellent conversationalists, mostly.

And when I ask them how they learned their storytelling skills, not only do they have a scant idea, but some are unaware they share stories at all. It’s like magic to them.

I’m now on the lookout for people with great skills but somewhat uncertain about how they can do what they do. These people interest me because they might provide insight into how they acquire a skill, like storytelling, without formal learning.

I remember watching a documentary recently featuring the legendary music producer Rick Rubin in conversation with Paul McCartney (McCartney 3,2,1). Did you know McCartney was in a band before Wings?[1]

Several times, Rubin asked McCartney how he learned certain things, and McCartney was sometimes at a loss to explain. McCartney is famous for not being able to read or write music. He just never learned and now doesn’t want to in case it ruins his talent. This inability to write music suggests that Paul learned his skills differently from most.

So I went searching for hints on how Paul acquired his musical prowess.

Piano player

Paul McCartney first learned songs and music by listening to his father play the piano. His father, Jim, was a self-taught musician who often played his sturdy upright in the front room of their small family home. Paul’s dad loved the American standards, and most of the time, the audience was just Paul, his mum, and his brother. But on special occasions, like New Year’s Eve, they would get their relatives around for singsongs and have tremendous fun (Norman, 2016).

McCartney’s biographer, Philip Norman, notes that “Paul’s earliest inklings of melody were his father’s exuberant cross-handed versions of old standards like George Gershwin’s 1922 hit ‘Stairway to Paradise’” (Norman, 2016: 32).

Paul’s dad wanted to school him properly in piano, but Paul didn’t like his teacher—too old and smelled funny—so that was the end of Paul’s formal music education (Norman, 2016).

So from the start of Paul’s life, he heard lots of music, sang songs, and even harmonised with his younger brother Mike. He was immersed in music and learned the sounds, rhythms, tones, and melodies intuitively.

Paul also absorbed his father’s love of words. Crosswords, jokes, and silly wordplay were the order of the day in the McCartney household. As McCartney says, “As a boy, I did not realise that I was absorbing my father’s love of words and phrases, but this, I believe, was the start of it all for me” (McCartney, 2021).

And what a start it was: novels, plays, poems. McCartney devoured as many words as he could to the point where he could play with them, toss them in the air and see what magic happens (McCartney, 2021).

When McCartney met John Lennon and formed their first band, his musical experience was already developing. They deepened their understanding by listening to records they loved over and over. But they weren’t just consuming music. They turned it over in their minds and examined how the musicians accomplished the effects they heard. They were noticing how it worked.

They quickly progressed to imitation by playing covers. McCartney and Lennon were pushed into writing their own songs because if the band before them on a bill played a cover they were planning to play, they would have to drop it. To fix that, they decided to write their own music (Bateman et al., 2020).

And because McCartney didn’t know music theory or even how to write music, when he created a new song, he had to memorise it by singing it early and often. Each repetition forged new neural pathways to build a brain that would be ready for the next jump in skill level.

Paul was immersed in songs and music from birth. Everyone around him enjoyed music and singing. It was fun. Someone he respected (Dad) showed him informally how to play the piano. Paul imitated the songs he liked as covers. Eventually, he’s forced into writing his own songs and had to commit them to memory through repetition.

So what have we learned that might apply to acquiring storytelling skills?

  1. Surround yourself with people who tell stories.
  2. Ensure you like and respect those storytellers and that you enjoy their company.
  3. Start to notice the elements that make for a good story.
  4. Start finding and telling your own stories.
  5. Enjoy listening to more stories.

[1]I overheard a group of students say this on a bus in the 1980s.


Bateman, J., Hayes, S., and Will Arnett, hosts, “Paul McCartney.” Smartless, episode 19, 23 November 2020, https://pca.st/episode/11dce650-6ca4-47c1-a9c6-51f42d162c1a

McCartney, Paul. The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. Penguin Books, 2021. Kindle Edition.

Norman, Philip. Paul McCartney: The Biography. Kindle ed., Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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