Miles Davis, So What, and being in accord no matter the chord

This story that opens jazz great Herbie Hancock’s memoir, Possibilities, is profound:

I’m onstage at a concert hall in Stockholm, Sweden, in the mid-1960s playing piano with the Miles Davis Quintet. We’re on tour, and this show is really heating up. The band is tight—we’re all in sync, all on the same wavelength. The music is flowing, we’re connecting with the audience, and everything feels magical, like we’re weaving a spell.

Tony Williams, the drumming prodigy who joined Miles as a teenager, is on fire. Ron Carter’s fingers are flying up and down the neck of his bass, and Wayne Shorter’s saxophone is just screaming. The five of us have become one entity, shifting and flowing with the music. We’re playing one of Miles’s classics, “So What,” and as we hurtle toward Miles’s solo, it’s the peak of the evening; the whole audience is on the edge of their seats.

Miles starts playing, building up to his solo, and just as he’s about to really let loose, he takes a breath. And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from—it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, “Oh, shit.” It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it.

Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right. In that moment I believe my mouth actually fell open. What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles just took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction. The crowd went absolutely crazy.

I was in my early twenties and had already been with Miles for a couple of years by this time. But he always was capable of surprising me, and that night, when he somehow turned my chord from a wrong to a right, he definitely did. In the dressing room after the show I asked Miles about it. I felt a little sheepish, but Miles just winked at me, a hint of a smile on his chiseled face. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Miles wasn’t one to talk a whole lot about things when he could show us something instead.

It took me years to fully understand what happened in that moment onstage. As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the “wrong” chord. But Miles never judged it—he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of “How can I integrate that chord into everything else we’re dong?” And because he didn’t judge it, he was able to run with it, to turn it into something amazing.

Miles Davis was the greatest jazz musician of his time. (Of all time, many would say.) And he was a famously difficult, contrarian personality. I was cringing with Hancock as I read this story, fearing the reaction from Miles.

But Miles merely heard Hancock’s “wrong” chord “as a sound that had happened” and did something excellent with it. And that the iconic jazz song they were playing is entitled “So What” makes this story perfect.

What has happened has already happened. Just say, “So what?” There’s no going back, and there’s no value in resisting reality or fretting about something you have no control over.

Miles didn’t judge that chord as bad or wrong. He used it, instead, to push him and his band into a new direction and to make something wonderful out of it. The obstacle is the way.

By being in accord with reality, by not resisting what is, you can take on whatever may come and use it as fuel to continue moving forward.

“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel.” –Marcus Aurelius

Kurosawa on peaking at 80

I make a point in a talk I do for student groups that there’s no hurry to make your mark or to “hit it big”.

There seems to be more pressure than ever for young people to not only have their career figured out right out of college, but to be rich and famous by the time they’re, say, 30. Crazy.

I challenge these 20-year-olds to instead aim to be awesome by the time they’re 60.

This advice goes over with a resounding thud every time I share it. But I’m convinced that you will make better decisions and actually grow and improve faster by choosing the long game instead of trying to conquer the world in your youth.

Even DaVinci’s first great success, The Last Supper, didn’t come till he was almost 50 years old.

Recently I saw this letter from a then 77-year-old Akira Kurosawa, the great Japanese filmmaker, wishing a happy 70th birthday to fellow filmmaker Ingmar Bergman:

Remarkable. At 77, he was expecting his best work was still ahead of him.

You don’t have to have it figured out. You won’t ever. Do your best where you are. Be excellent in just the next five minutes. Don’t force it or rush past this moment or compare yourself to some arbitrary or pointless standard set by others.

The arc of your life, should you be fortunate to have it counted in many decades, could bend gently and satisfyingly towards a kind of excellence you can’t even imagine from your current vantage point.

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” –Henry David Thoreau

How we spend our days

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” –Annie Dillard

A few years ago I committed to posting something on my blog every day for an indefinite time period to see if I could keep it up. And I did, for a long time. Many days I would get to the evening with no ideas for a post and simply find a quote to share with a brief comment, just to keep my commitment to posting something, anything, to keep from breaking the string.

Other days I would latch onto an idea early on, and it would suffuse my whole day, giving me something delightful to puzzle on and sparking connections and possibilities I hadn’t imagined when the idea first appeared.

The challenge to write and publish every day wasn’t as much of a burden as I had imagined. Knowing that I was committed to sharing something daily kept my antennae up in a way that made those days more engaging, more filled with wonder and possibility. I woke up each morning knowing I had a quest before me, and I seemed to move through those days with a greater sense of awareness and curiosity. And fun. Being intentional about searching and then sharing gave those days more juice.

I was writing less for some unseen audience out there than I was for my own benefit. I’ve found that actively trying to express myself helps me to see and understand in ways I don’t when I’m in my default passive mode. What’s the line—“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” And “the best way to understand something is to try to express it.”

But knowing that someone else out there might read what I write adds a bit of oomph to my efforts. As an author explained, it’s the difference between cleaning your house just because you need to versus cleaning your house when you know guests are coming to visit. Writing in public pushes me towards clarity and purposefulness in ways that merely writing for myself privately in a diary never will.

I’ve not only not been posting daily recently, I’ve just let this blog lie fallow for most of the past couple of years. Occasionally a friend will ask when I’m going to get back to it, and I’m always caught off guard that anyone actually had been reading it.

But at the heart of my drift is, I think, the general melancholy of the times. “What do I know?”, I say to myself. What can I write that would add any real value in a world that seems especially off kilter at the moment?

Well, when the world seems particularly unexplainable or even hopeless, that should be motivation to act—to write or organize movements or volunteer or make something lovely. Do something that might bring a little clarity or kindness or joy in order to stymie, even if momentarily, the relentless pull of entropy, the invincible law of physics that ultimately all things fall apart. But striving against that pull of chaos is our calling. It’s how we got here and survived to this point.

So, I’m back at it, writing here regularly for my own benefit, and possibly for yours.

Not every day will be marked by brilliant prose or moving poetry. Most posts will be forgettable. Some cringeworthy. I’ll be lucky to have even ten percent of my posts turn out to be something I’m proud of. But I’ll be proud just to put my fingers to the keys regularly again.

Making creative expression a daily expectation and a daily habit will mark my days with curiosity and wonder and probably some frustration and disappointment. A fair trade.

I want to spend more of my days than not in the intentional pursuit of truth and beauty. This little corner of the internet is my stake in the ground for that and a daily exercise in attempting to live a more excellent life.

Do something amazing


I just discovered this message above the exit of my daughter’s middle school.

As you exit this week today, do something amazing before you go. 

Make a connection that you’ve been meaning to make. Be that person that lights up the room, that summons smiles even from strangers. 

Solve a problem. Get started on that big idea. Focus intently today, without distraction, for a solid hour or more and make something that delights you. 

Uncork your enthusiasm. Make room for wonder. 

Do something amazing.

Cal Newport: Quit social media

Cal Newport has a knack for counterintuitive insight.

His book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, was a compelling challenge to quit trying to find your elusive vocational passion and instead focus on obtaining the kind of mastery that leads to genuine career fulfillment. (Pick a career path you wouldn’t mind getting really good at and stick with it for a while.)

His most recent book, Deep Work, is a wake up call that most of us are doing work wrong. Busyness is not the same as effectiveness. He exhorts us to escape the trivial distractions that drain our time and attention and instead block out time and space for focused, deep work.

Now he’s shared his recent TEDx Talk that is a provocative encouragement to quit social media altogether.

He makes a solid argument. Social media is primarily entertainment. And it’s particularly, deviously addictive and distracting.

Weeks ago I deleted the Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone, and I don’t miss them. 

Tweetbot, though, is still on my home screen and is my most used app by far. Whenever I get even the slightest bit restless, it’s off to Twitter I go. I can disappear there for a long time, mindlessly scrolling, hypnotized by whatever others are tweeting at the moment, clicking links that lead me further into interesting if not important diversions.

I have unearthed some real insights this way, but most of my time browsing internet time-sinkholes is sadly unaccounted for by meaningful results. 

I’m not ready to delete my social media accounts. But I can put a hedge around my attention and structure my time more rigidly to get real work done. 

I’ve found that my best work comes after I’ve spent around 30-45 minutes ramping up my focus without taking breaks to check email or Twitter. It’s like I need that warm up time before flow sets in and then magic can happen. 

Two hours can fly by once I get in that zone. And that zone is a happy place to be and exponentially more productive and more fertile for breakthroughs than ten times as much time spent flitting about the internet. 

Quit social media? Maybe. 

But at least shrink its hold on your attention and on the little time you have to make something worthwhile each day.  

The worst way to come up with new ideas

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Yet, this is standard procedure for most of us.

(I, at least, leave my fluorescent lights off while I aimlessly browse the web. Nothing but the warm glow of a desk lamp to light my forays into creative futility.)

Nice post on the UGMONK blog to remind you to regularly change your scenery: “How I Stay Inspired and Come Up with New Ideas”

Get up. Get out. If you’re going to aimlessly browse, make it something not built of 1’s and 0’s.

Mike Birbiglia’s excellent advice

The comedian and filmmaker offers his unsolicited advice, ostensibly to those who want a career as a performer. But these tips apply to anyone who wants to make something meaningful on their own terms.

Here’s his final tip:

6. CLEVERNESS IS OVERRATED, AND HEART IS UNDERRATED

Plus, there are fewer people competing for heart, so you have a better chance of getting noticed. Sometimes people say, “One thing you have to offer in your work is yourself.” I disagree. I think it’s the only thing.

Lin-Manuel Miranda on leaving college with “stuff” already created

Lin-Manuel Miranda is the man of the moment with Hamilton’s incredible success.

This Rolling Stone feature sheds some light on his drive.

He has written his way to the top. Like the character he portrays on stage, Alexander Hamilton, Miranda is a prolific writer.

Here’s Miranda in the Rolling Stone interview talking about his creative output while he was a college student:

I finished college with a ton of stuff written. I was painfully aware of the financial sacrifices my parents were making so that I could go to college, so I was not going to just leave with a B.A. in something. I was going to leave with stuff. I wrote a show every year of college. Not for credit, but because I needed to be leaving with more than just a B.A. So in that way, I’m very Hamilton-esque, in that I’m aware of both time and of the incredible opportunity that I’m lucky to have, and not wanting to squander either.

“I needed to be leaving with more than just a B.A….” Incredible.

He didn’t wait on a degree or permission or a paying gig to start doing what he wanted to do.

He acted as if, as if he already was who he wanted to be.

What if we just started doing what we think we want to be doing without waiting to be picked or to qualify somehow.

Miranda didn’t wait. He’s a smashing success not because he paid his dues or bought into the system or followed a path others laid out. 

He made it big because he got busy doing the work that was calling to him as soon as it called.

He picked himself. 

 

Louis CK, the Carlin strategy, and inviting the awful

Plateaus happen. Regularly.

Years ago, in the midst of what was at that point an unremarkable career in stand-up comedy, Louis CK was frustrated with the creative rut he found himself in.

And then he learned the Carlin strategy, and everything changed.

It turns out that George Carlin would record a comedy special every year and then, the next day, throw out that material and start over from scratch.

Louis was stunned by that approach. He had worked long and hard to come up with the material for his show, and he had never imagined throwing it out and starting over.

But he was discontent with his work and the arc of his career, so he gave the Carlin strategy a try.

It was hard. Awful and hard at first.

But that void summoned better work eventually. And he kept doing it every year—scrapping his tried and true material and forcing himself to begin with a blank page once again.

And, in the process, Louis CK became Louis CK.

I do a version of the Carlin strategy with the presentations I give every year. I start over with new themes and slide designs and new ideas and stories.

It’s frustrating and a bit unsettling at first. I love the security of doing what I’m confident will work.

You have to sit with the awful for a while. Trick yourself if you have to by saying “I’m going to start by intentionally making this as awful as I can.”

Any action, even atrociously bad work, will at least propel you forward. You likely will surprise yourself, though, if you persist, and find that your awful starts getting better.

New ideas will appear that you would have never imagined if you had stuck to your old material.

Some of my best work came only after letting go of the good stuff I had been clinging to.

If you need a jolt in your creative life, consider the Carlin strategy. What if you started from scratch and created something completely new?

HT: Cal Newport — How Louis C.K. Became Funny and Why It Matters

 

Show your work: The Force Awakens edition

I love seeing how creators create.

I appreciate a master pulling the curtain back and letting us see at least a bit of the behind-the-scenes process. The chaos and messes and wayward first drafts that lie behind the art are just as instructive as, if not more than, the inspiration and perspiration.

I preordered on iTunes the digital download of the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, so it was waiting on me when I woke up last Friday. My family enjoyed a movie night together as we watched the film again for the first time since we saw it in the theater on Christmas day.

And it was entertaining the second time through. But the next morning I got even more enjoyment out of watching the documentary that was packaged with the extra features, Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey.

It’s an hour-long documentary about the making of the film, and it was better than most “making-of” films I’ve seen.

The documentary spotlighted a visceral enthusiasm among the film’s makers. They all seem like kids let loose in the toy factory, from the young lead actors to the veteran director and producers and writers.

There’s a great scene in the documentary of the key cast members reading through the entire script together before the shooting began.

I was most intrigued, though, by the way designers and artists were let loose to create compelling images, of potential characters and sets and scenes, even before a script was in place.

The director and writer were inspired by these images which often ended up informing the story.

A light saber duel in the snow? How cool would that be? How can the story take us there?

And, indeed, that was my favorite scene in the film, and the turning point in the plot.

When I’m creating a presentation, I’m often inspired by disparate, seemingly unrelated ideas and images. Even honing the typography of a slide or stumbling on a compelling image I find online can propel my narrative in a different direction than I originally imagined.

In the discovery phase of your work, feel free to ramble and collect and follow what delights you. Consume voraciously. Make note of every little thing that sparks your curiosity.

The small details can support the big picture, but it’s possible for those details, even seeming tangents, to give life to a big picture you haven’t yet imagined.

 

 

Adam Grant on what thwarts creativity in kids

This was an enlightening New York Times column by the prolific young scholar, Adam Grant. He highlights research that shows that too much structure and a rules-focused environment are not conducive to sparking creative thinking:

So what does it take to raise a creative child? One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.

Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.

My wife and I certainly fall into that “average of fewer than one rule” category. I’ve worried that we’re terrible slackers and need to give our kids more structure, like an actual bed time or chores and such.

But, thanks, Adam Grant. We will continue with our rule-free ways.

I do think there’s much merit to establishing a general sense of values and a clear direction and then leaving it up to the kids (or your team or organization) to use their own judgment and creativity to figure out how to proceed on their own. This less controlling approach is more interesting and organic and just more fun, too.

Precise rules and micromanaging might get the results you desire, but it precludes potentially better results you didn’t imagine.

Billy Collins on finding your voice

The poet Billy Collins was speaking at a White House poetry student workshop and was asked about “finding your voice”. Here’s a portion of his response as shared by Austin Kleon:

Your voice has an external source. It is not lying within you. It is lying in other people’s poetry. It is lying on the shelves of the library. To find your voice, you need to read deeply. You need to look inside yourself, of course, for material, because poetry is something that honors subjectivity. It honors your interiority. It honors what’s inside. But to find a way to express that, you have to look outside yourself.

Read widely, read all the poetry you can get your hands on. And in your reading, you’re searching for something. Not so much your voice. You’re searching for poets that make you jealous. Professors of writing call this “literary influence.” It’s jealousy. And it’s with every art, whether you play the saxophone, or do charcoal drawings. You’re looking to get influenced by people who make you furiously jealous.

Read widely. Find poets that make you envious. And then copy them. Try to get like them.

This is so good and rings true for me, not just for poetry but for any creative endeavor.

Consume everything you can about what grabs you. Be voracious. Read and explore and scour every curiosity.

Find the very best people in the field you want to be in and soak up their insight and their style. Follow them on Twitter. Read what influenced them. Act as if you were a peer of your creative heroes.

And don’t wait to get busy making your own stuff, even if at first it seems like a derivative copy of those you’re aspiring to emulate.

Your voice will come only from using it.

Consume good stuff to make good stuff

Austin Kleon on what he does if he’s feeling blocked creatively:

“When I stall out, it’s time to start taking things in again: read more, re-read, watch movies, listen to music, go to art museums, travel, take people to lunch, etc. Just being open and alert and on the lookout for That Thing that will get me going again. Getting out the jumper cables and hunting down a battery.”

When I’m in a creative lull, I usually find I’m in a reading lull as well.

I need to consume good stuff in order to make good stuff.

Don’t wait

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True.

The best way to know something is to try to express it.

I’ve heard people say they don’t want to pursue a relationship until they figure themselves out first. There’s nothing like being in a relationship, though, to reveal yourself to yourself.

And don’t wait till you feel inspired to start creating. It’s the starting and the doing that summons the inspiration.

Have a bias for action, for doing and making, even when—especially when—you don’t think you know enough or feel it enough to get started. 

Just start. 

You are the creative type

When you say “creative people”, it’s redundant. –Elizabeth Gilbert

I listened to the TED Radio Hour podcast today and this episode, The Source of Creativity. It features Sting and Sir Ken Robinson and the author Elizabeth Gilbert all discussing the mystery and magic of the creative process. 

Gilbert’s reminder that everyone is creative was particularly striking. 

It’s tempting to assume only a select few are gifted with creative talents. And maybe that’s your excuse for not creating. 

But if you’re alive and reading this, you, too, are filled with unique and infinite creative potential. 

You’ve just got to make the effort to express yourself, to uncork that potential, to craft it into something tangible. 

This effort will encounter a lot of resistance and will require courage and persistence. 

Most aren’t willing to pay the price or to show up often enough to summon the muse. 

But don’t say you are not a creative person.