'The Third Door' Author Alex Banayan on Seeking Life Advice From Quincy Jones, Lady Gaga, Pitbull & More

Daniel Johnson 
Alex Banayan

"I called my best friends, we all got together one night and I asked who could be our professors if we could create our dream university?"

When Alex Banayan first met Quincy Jones four years ago, it was during a dark period in his life -- he had recently dropped out of college and was questioning his decision, as well as his entire life trajectory, while other personal and family problems had manifested physically in a limp. So he was elated recently when he checked his spam folder on Facebook Messages and found a note from one of Jones' staffers.

"He said that Quincy was going around the office with a box of my books, handing them one by one to people, saying everybody in the company has to read it," Banayan, now 25, tells Billboard. That book, The Third Door, is the result of a seven year mission Banayan undertook to unlock the secret to immense success. Throughout his project, which he first embarked on while a college student attending USC, Banayan convinced the most successful people in America -- from music luminaries like Jones and Lady Gaga to icons ranging from Bill Gates to Maya Angelou -- to open up to him about their unique paths and help Banayan uncover a common thread between them. The chronicles of his journey and the lessons he's learned along the way outlined are outline in the book, out now via Crown/Penguin Random House. 

Banayan recently spoke with Billboard about some of his findings: how Lady Gaga is just like Bill Gates, how he got Pitbull to discuss what shapes his perspective on life, and how Jones himself helped Banayan through a tough stretch. 

Can you explain the idea behind The Third Door

Well, the journey started seven years ago. At first, I had no intention of trying to find this one key to success, but what happened about 70 percent into the journey is that I started to find a common melody in all of the interviews I was doing. What I realized when I was 21 is that success is sort of like getting into a nightclub in that there's always three ways in. There's the first door; the main entrance where the line curves around the block where 99 percent of the people are waiting hoping to get in. Then there's a second door; the VIP entrance where the billionaires and celebrities go through. And for some reason, society makes us believe those are the only two ways. You either wait your turn or you're born into it. But what I've learned is that there's always, always, always the third door. It's the one down the alley, through the kitchen, through a window. There's always that third way in. It doesn't matter if that's how Bill Gates made his first software or Lady Gaga got her first record deal, they all took that third door. That's not only the title of the book, but the energy I'm trying to inject. 

You've chosen the most successful people to highlight in a variety of fields, from music to business and technology. How did you go about deciding who to include? 

I had the idea for the book and I had the mission, and once I got the funding I was trying to decide how to go about choosing people. There's that Forbes list of the richest people on earth but I just don't believe in an algorithm like that. What I ended up doing is that I called my best friends, we all got together one night and I asked who could be our professors if we could create our dream university? Then it became really easy; people like Bill Gates would teach business, Lady Gaga would teach music and Maya Angelou would teach us poetry. That became the treasure map that guided me. 

You've said that Quincy Jones knows how the world works more than anyone you've ever met in your life. Why is that?

When I first went into interview Quincy Jones it was towards the end of my journey. What Quincy couldn't have known at the time is that I was probably in one of the darkest and hardest places of my life. I was feeling like my entire mission was a mistake, not only from a career standpoint, but personally as well. My parents were separating, my dad got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and I remember physically walking in with a limp. So forget about my emotions, even my body was breaking down. I don't know why, but the second Quincy walked into the room, he has this vortex of energy and when you're in his presence you're with him. Your mind can't be anywhere else. I think it comes from his background; Quincy as a producer, so his superpower is sitting down with someone else, sensing exactly who they are and knowing exactly what they need to do to get where they have to go. That 45 minute interview turned into 2.5 hours where he essentially reached his hand into my heart and rearranged the circuitry. There's never been a time when I walked in as one person and walked out another. 

 

Lady Gaga is another icon with whom you scored a one on one interview. How did you track her down?

I was rejected again and again by her former manager, Troy Carter. Eventually, I met a man named Matt Nicholson through a friend of mine. Matt, at the time, ran LittleMonsters.com, Lady Gaga's social network and we grew extremely close. After a few months he said, "Why haven't you pressed me on the Gaga thing? If you want an interview I can make it happen." Matt knew that Lady Gaga was giving a keynote at SXSW in Austin and he said to come out Austin with him and find time to do the interview. 

What did you learn from her once you finally connected? What sets her apart?

If you've seen her interviews you know how wise, thoughtful and creative she is. What I didn't expect, that really struck me, is how powerful a leader she is in her own camp. Normally an artist's manager really runs the camp, they're the leader and the energetic source while the artist is creating the music and the art. With Gaga, even the way she just speaks to her team to me was so shockingly similar to the way Bill Gates speaks to his staff, or any of these other corporate CEOs I've come in contact with.

Which is how?

It's really hard to describe, but there's a sense of certainty in uncertain times which is impressive. The week I spoke with Gaga was probably one of the most turbulent times of her career; she had split with her longtime manager [Carter],-- had emergency surgery, canceled tour dates and released [her third album] ArtPop, which was her lowest selling by far. I was so impressed by her ability to say, "This is what we're doing, this is how we're getting it done." She wasn't a passive artist in the machinery, which I've heard a lot of artists fall into. She's been carving her own path and I believe it comes from her roots starting out in New York City pretending to be her own manager. 

I understand Pitbull invited you to his penthouse in Miami and really opened up to you. What was that experience like?

I remember we were on his balcony looking over the city as the sun was setting and he's pointing out all of the landmarks of his childhood. It felt like in The Lion King when Mufasa and Simba are on a cliff and Mufasa is like, "Everything the light touches is our kingdom." [Laugh--s] When we started talking about his life, he ended up sharing things with me about his childhood he had never shared before, from the fact he was literally born with cocaine in his blood and that he had to move high schools six different times and never actually graduated. The more he opened up, the more I got to understand really what shapes his thinking. 


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