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.