What can business owners and entrepreneurs learn from a musical about the life of someone who lived in the 1700s and died in an infamous duel? A lot, as it turns out. Lin-Manuel Miranda brought the life of Alexander Hamilton to the stage – and the forefront of pop culture – in 2015 with Hamilton, the biographical production that went on to win 11 Tony Awards. Using hip-hop, rap and other musical forms, Miranda recounts not just Hamilton’s ups and downs, but also the story of the American Revolution and the founding of the United States.
While there are many lessons one can take from the hit show, you might be surprised to realize many of them can apply to running your own business. And even though Hamilton, as America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, set the blueprint for the United States’ Treasury Department, these lessons go deeper than dollars and cents.
Business lessons from Hamilton songs
Across more than 40 songs, Miranda uses different musical styles to convey Hamilton’s story as the man encounters war, political pursuits and personal tragedies. The Pulitzer-winning drama is moving from a number of perspectives, but it’s particularly instructive from an entrepreneurial point of view. Here are the lessons business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs should take away from some of the show’s songs.
1. “My Shot”
“I am not throwing away my shot / I am not throwing away my shot / Hey, yo, I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / And I’m not throwing away my shot.”
The song: “My Shot” is the musical’s “I want” song. It lays out what Hamilton, then a 19-year-old immigrant in New York, desperately wants: to rise above his station and make a name for himself. As Hamilton, Miranda raps his ambitions and his determination to achieve them. He vows not to waste any opportunities and highlights the qualities that fuel his appetite for success. He even boasts, “Don’t be shocked when your hist’ry book mentions me.” With the help of revolutionaries John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan and the Marquis de Lafayette, Hamilton pledges to “rise up.”
The lesson: Hamilton’s passion initially stuns those around him until they see the value in his call to action. If not for his raw ambition and willingness to shrug off warnings from the likes of future rival Aaron Burr, he never would have impacted his fellow Patriots and steered his life toward greater glory. Prospective entrepreneurs need to be just as “scrappy and hungry” as Hamilton if they want to have any chance of succeeding when running up against conventional wisdom and the challenges business ownership presents.
Hamilton declares he’s “past patiently waitin’ / I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation /Every action’s an act of creation / I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow / For the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow.”
He shows the importance of taking risks, seizing opportunities and promoting yourself, your values and beliefs. While ego can sometimes be a person’s downfall (and it is for Hamilton at times), his confidence, eagerness and commitment are essential qualities entrepreneurs need to possess.
According to a ResumeLab survey, 80% of people believe ambition, which most describe as a “desire for achievements, distinction and power,” is a “good thing.”
2. “Right Hand Man”
“I cannot be everyone at once, people / I am in dire need of assistance.”
The song: As the colonies’ fight against the British goes poorly, General George Washington realizes he is “gonna need a right-hand man.” He is frank about the fact that their “odds are beyond scary,” as his army is “outmanned / outnumbered / outplanned” and in desperate need of “an all-out stand” if they’re going to defeat the British forces. Washington requests to see Hamilton, whom he’s heard is in high demand, and explains he “need[s] someone like you to lighten the load.” Hamilton, in turn, realizes Washington “needs all the help [he] can get” and offers up “some friends,” along with specific strategies for turning the tide.
The lesson: If you’re a new business owner, it can be tempting to prove you can go it alone. You might want to wear every hat yourself as you get your startup off the ground. After all, you’re ambitious. But as Washington knew well, there is strength in numbers. Even if you don’t want an equal business partner, you will likely need at least one other person alongside you to help shoulder the burden of launching your business and operating it daily.
Ideally, you find someone who wants to “fight” and has a “hunger” like Hamilton does – employees or colleagues who share your dedication to the company’s mission and have complementary skills. You need to hire the right people for your organization and surround yourself with expert advisers, much like Washington does. Together, you can “rise to the occasion” of starting and sustaining a new business. [Learn about the importance of cultural fit when hiring.]
3. “Wait for It”
“I’m not falling behind or running late / I’m not standing still / I am lying in wait.”
The song: While Hamilton isn’t shy about his ambitions and determination, which often cause him to act impulsively, Burr hides from the spotlight and prefers to observe what’s happening around him before deciding whether or not to take action. Hamilton views Burr as a bystander who lets life pass him by, but the future vice president sees things differently. In Burr’s eyes, the “relentless” Hamilton “faces an endless uphill climb” and “has something to prove” and “nothing to lose.” But Burr’s not going to jump the gun – he’s “willing to wait for it.”
The lesson: When you see others in your sector succeed, it’s easy to become impatient. It’s hard to watch others thrive, as Burr does with Hamilton, when deep down you want to achieve similar success. But Burr understands the value of knowing exactly when to strike. As a new business owner, you may need to slow down your original timeline and wait to launch until market conditions are ideal. If you rush your product out the door or begin offering services before your company is ready, it’s likely to backfire.
Hamilton would argue that Burr was too cautious, but in business, careful planning is required. However, neither Hamilton’s nor Burr’s approaches are flawless. Both succeeded because of their operating styles, but both failed because of them too. You will have better luck if you can balance the two – knowing when to push ahead and when to fall back.
4. “History Has Its Eyes on You”
“Let me tell you what I’d wish I’d known / when I was young and dreamed of glory / you have no control / who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
The song: Some time after Washington hires Hamilton as his “right-hand man,” Hamilton’s impulsiveness and recklessness get him sent home from the battlefront. That is, until Washington recognizes the war is nearing its end and the Patriots have a chance to win it all … if they have Hamilton’s help. Washington concludes he “need[s] my right-hand man back,” but he’s not willing to let Hamilton return without some words of warning. Washington tells him, “I know that we can win / I know that greatness lies in you / but remember from here on in / history has its eyes on you.”
The lesson: Washington’s older age gives him perspective that Hamilton doesn’t yet have: People are watching you, and they, not you, will determine your legacy. Sustaining a successful business often necessitates getting press attention, but that same press may cover your lowest lows just as they do your highest highs. And while the media has traditionally filled the role of watchdog when it comes to business and government, today, more and more members of the public are taking on that responsibility too.
Thanks to social media and how quickly things can go viral nowadays, it’s harder and harder to cover up your mistakes. You want to make a name for yourself and your business, but not for the wrong reasons. Hamilton, despite Washington’s advice, often learned this the hard way. If you remember that “history has its eyes on you” as you take calculated risks, you’ll be better prepared to handle the sometimes harsh glare of the spotlight that entrepreneurs find themselves in.
5. “Non-Stop” & “Take a Break”
“Maaaaan, the man is non-stop!”
“Take a break / run away with us for the summer.”
The songs: After the war ends, Hamilton becomes a lawyer but finds himself pulled toward politics and public service – specifically, defending the new U.S. Constitution by writing 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers. Burr and others wonder why Hamilton “write[s] day and night like [he’s] running out of time” and why he “fight[s] like it’s going out of style,” repeatedly pointing out how he seems to work “non-stop.”
Not even his wife Eliza can get him to put his pen down for an extended time. Eliza begs Hamilton to set work aside to spend the summer with their family upstate, but Hamilton’s focus is almost exclusively on his work: “I have to get my plan through Congress / I can’t stop until I get this plan through Congress.”
The lesson: Despite all his success to date, Hamilton’s ambitions only grow, with his sister-in-law astutely observing, “He will never be satisfied.” Hamilton is always attempting to outperform those around him, despite Burr’s warning that “assum[ing] you’re the smartest in the room … may be your doom.”
As with running a government, running a company sometimes requires a “non-stop” pace. You may have set business hours, but there are still all the tasks that need to get done after hours. Many find the entrepreneurial life all-consuming for this reason. There’s no way around it: Running and sustaining a business takes a lot of work. You have to commit to potentially being needed around the clock.
That sometimes means sacrificing work-life balance, which Hamilton does here. At the same time, if you don’t take that break, you’re likely going to burn out. You’ll also risk ruining the important relationships in your life if you neglect your family and friends. Finding the right pace to balance the personal and the professional can be a challenge. Unlike Hamilton, you may at least be able to find some work-life rhythm. If you identify the seasons during which your business tends to be busier, you can take advantage of the slower times in the cycle so you can take care of your mental health and spend time with loved ones.
6. “Cabinet Battle #1” & “Cabinet Battle #2”
“Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder … You have to find a compromise.”
“Remember, my decision on this matter is not subject to congressional approval / The only person you have to convince is me.”
The songs: Once Hamilton officially joins Washington’s Cabinet, the group has several issues to sort out so they can establish their new nation. Washington convenes meetings with his secretaries to hash out these matters, with Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson facing off on the prospect of a national bank and whether or not to intervene in France’s escalating dispute with England.
In the former case, Hamilton proposes a financial plan but meets resistance from both Jefferson and Congressman James Madison. Hamilton can’t move forward without enough congressional votes, so Washington orders him to convince his opponents to sign off on the plan. When dealing with tensions between the French and British, however, while Washington still asks Hamilton and Jefferson to present their opposing viewpoints, he makes clear the final decision on whether to aid France is his alone.
The lesson: Like any great leader, Washington knows he’s only as good as the people with whom he surrounds himself. Instead of acting as a monarch like the King of England, he invites his Cabinet members to make proposals, seeks their advice, and at times leaves issues to Congress to decide. As a business owner, you should similarly consult those around you before making big decisions. Running a business is difficult, so gathering expertise and opinions from advisers can prove invaluable. It can also open the door to compromise and negotiations when parties disagree.
While it’s wise to take others’ perspectives into account, there is also value in recognizing when the ultimate decision-making power needs to reside solely with you. Washington gives both Hamilton and Jefferson the opportunity to have their say on France’s conflict and considers those arguments before issuing his decision. This strategy helps ensure those you work with feel included and gives you the chance to hear viewpoints you might not have otherwise realized.
7. “The Room Where It Happens”
“They emerge with a compromise, having opened doors that were / previously closed / Bros / The immigrant emerges with unprecedented financial power / a system he can shape however he wants / The Virginians emerge with the nation’s capital / and here’s the pièce de résistance / No one else was in / the room where it happened.”
The song: After Washington demands Hamilton find a compromise to get his financial plan passed, Hamilton accepts an invitation to join Jefferson and Madison for dinner. Jefferson and Madison have already realized, “Maybe we can solve one problem with another,” and are ready to negotiate for “a quid pro quo.” The trio ends up reaching a deal that pushes Hamilton’s proposal through Congress while also moving the country’s capital closer to where Jefferson and Madison prefer. Burr, an outsider to these events, observes that Hamilton “got more than [he] gave.” Hamilton is also delighted that he “wanted what [he] got.” Everyone is seemingly happy – except Burr, who is tired of sitting on the sidelines watching everyone around him make power moves.
The lesson: Hamilton’s meeting with Jefferson and Madison demonstrates the importance of compromise. In business, you regularly have to negotiate, whether with vendors, competitors or your own employees. The best way to reach a resolution is to find a compromise that allows all parties to walk away feeling victorious. That may require, as it does for Jefferson and Madison, looking at the problem from a different angle and setting the stage for the opposing sides to come to terms.
Burr learns a different lesson from these events: “You get nothing if you / wait for it, wait for it, wait.” In a departure from his previous desire to sit back until exactly the right moment, Burr finally realizes he wants to “be in the room where it happens” and the advantages that come from having a seat at the table. This applies to business in two different ways:
- First, as a business owner, it can be beneficial for you to sit on different councils and boards and take part in conversations about different issues, even if you’re not the party making the decision. You can still share your voice and learn from others.
- Second, it can also be advantageous to invite others in your company who may be lower in the hierarchy to sit in on your own meetings. This presents an opportunity for them to learn while breeding inclusivity, which boosts morale.
8. “One Last Time”
“We’re gonna teach ’em how to say goodbye.”
The song: Hamilton is stunned when Washington reveals he’s stepping down from the presidency and not running for reelection. As Hamilton tries to get his mentor to change his mind, Washington argues his move will make the nation “strong” and that “if I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on / it outlives me when I’m gone.” That’s not to say Washington has any intention of going quietly. He works with Hamilton to craft his Farewell Address, explaining, “I wanna talk about what I have learned / the hard-won wisdom I have earned.” In this speech, Washington is humble, taking responsibility for errors he may have unintentionally made and expressing his hope that the country continues on its path.
The lesson: Washington once again imparts an important lesson to Hamilton: knowing when to say goodbye and how to do it. This is critical in business across different facets. You may need to recognize when it’s time to discontinue a product. Perhaps it’s your entire business that needs to shut down. Or maybe it’s time for you to retire and pass the torch to someone else, whether that means selling your business to a third party or someone already in the organization.
A business leader needs the foresight to recognize when it’s time to move on, and they also need to be able to convince others around them to get on board with that decision, as Washington does with Hamilton. With the right parting words, you can set up those you’re leaving behind for continued success.
9. “The World Was Wide Enough”
“I should’ve known / the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.”
The song: After Burr enters politics, first as a senator and then as vice president, he believes something (or rather someone) is standing in his way and holding back his success: Hamilton. He first calls out his longtime frenemy via letter, but when Hamilton refuses to apologize for Burr’s perceived grievances, he challenges Hamilton to their now-infamous duel. The consequences are deadly, with Burr fatally shooting Hamilton. Burr almost immediately regrets his actions, but even more so when he realizes how he will now forever be regarded as a “villain in your history” because of this one moment: “History obliterates / in every picture it paints / it paints me and all my mistakes.”
The lesson: Burr learned the lesson here way too late – you may be competing against others, but that competition can be healthy. As a business owner, you certainly want to outperform all your rivals. But you don’t need to eliminate all your rivals. Assuming you’ve chosen the right sector for your company, the marketplace should be big enough for some competition. In fact, there may even be times when it’s worth teaming up together. Burr and Hamilton did actually work together from time to time, particularly when they were both practicing law. But Burr’s eventual determination to settle scores came with irreversible consequences, and as he put it, “I survived, but I paid for it.” There may be times when it’s worth taking (metaphorical) shots at your competition and taking calculated risks to reach the next level in your business – but not at the expense of everything you’ve built.
What business owners can learn from Hamilton and the Founding Fathers
In Hamilton’s opening number, titled “Alexander Hamilton,” it’s said Hamilton “got a lot farther by working a lot harder / by being a lot smarter / by being a self-starter.” This is undoubtedly true, and it’s true of successful entrepreneurs too. However, although many of Hamilton’s actions are good to emulate, there are also mistakes to avoid.
The same is true of Burr and his behavior. Even Washington, for all his valor and leadership, voluntarily highlights his missteps and regrets. The lives of these three Founding Fathers paved the way for the U.S. government, but in doing so, they set examples to keep in mind as you found your own business.