Afrojack performing at the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit Afrojack performing at the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit Afrojack performing at the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit Afrojack performing at the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit
Bold Leaders

Leadership

For Afrojack, Authenticity Matters Most

DJ Says the Key to His Success is Staying True to Himself

It’s hard to imagine, but Grammy-winning D.J. and producer Nick van de Wall, better known as Afrojack, says he was once an awkward teen who couldn’t get a girlfriend.

“I was walking through school with my head down, my headphones in,” he told the audience at October's Forbes Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia. “I did not fit in.”

So he decided to study what made someone popular—or not—and came to a simple realization that changed his life: Be yourself. “People who do exactly what they want, no matter what [others] think, those are the kind of people who make friends,” he explained.

The Dutch 27-year-old draws crowds of 25,000 to sold-out shows around the world, and more than 950,000 people follow him on Instagram. He earned his following largely by sticking to his own advice: “Don’t make decisions based on what you think you should be doing.”

His approach has served him well: Forbes estimates that he earned $22 million in the 12 months ending June 30, 2014.

For Afrojack, putting on a show doesn’t mean putting on airs. “People need realness, reality,” he explained. “People can sense when someone is being pretentious or fake,” which is a surefire way to lose their interest. Aiming only to please others means playing the role of follower, with popular opinion charting the way; leaders carry out a vision all their own. As he explained, “The only thing you can do to actually lead a crowd is to prove your passion to them.”

In this day and age, social media isn’t helping with peer pressure. Van de Wall said he notices people changing their real-life behavior just to get a better reaction from online followers. He confessed that he too has worried about social-media reactions at times, such as when he co-produced mainstream hits like Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything.”

Chasing “likes,” he said, doesn’t lead to long-term success.

“This is exactly the behavior that’s not respected,” van de Wall said. “It’s really easy to pretend to be what you want to be perceived as.” Discovering your authentic self can be more challenging—but also more rewarding. “People will respect you for being who you are,” he said.

That doesn’t mean ignoring the world around you. A big part of being a DJ—and an entrepreneur—is watching and listening. When van de Wall goes onstage, he starts by playing two songs he has planned in advance to gauge the audience’s vibe. “I see how people react,” he said. “You’re constantly leading them…trying to get everyone involved in a certain journey.” After taking stock, he tailors his set list to fit the mood.

Still, bad reviews happen, and some listeners never get on board. He admitted that he reacts to comments he knows he should ignore—he’s human, after all—but he doesn’t let himself bring that baggage to a performance.

“From the moment I go onstage, I can have no insecurities because [the audience is] already there. What should I be insecure about?” he explained. “You have to imagine, 99 percent of people buy the ticket because they want to buy the ticket.” The same rings true in life offstage, he said: “If you go into a business deal, the reason someone is sitting across from you is because he has faith.”

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