Alexander Hamilton: Too good to be ignored

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We are at peak Hamilton.

The broadway musical is all the rage. Tickets are impossible for the foreseeable future.

The cast just graced the White House for a mini performance.

And the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has a compelling story of his own along with charisma galore.

I’ve had the soundtrack on repeat on my Mac at work. It’s excellent music whether or not you’ve seen the show or even know the basics of the story.

I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, and it’s clear why Miranda found inspiration in the life of one of our (previously) more obscure founding fathers. Hamilton was an intense, charismatic personality with a knack for putting himself in the center of the most important events.

And he was a baller whose titanic work ethic and oversized ambition rocketed his talent to inevitable greatness.

Hamilton was a poor kid whose father abandoned him and whose mother died and left him in poverty on a hellish island in the Caribbean. Objectively, he should have been just another anonymous kid whose life was derailed by misfortunes beyond his control.

But Hamilton was too talented and too determined to be ignored. Largely self-taught, he was a prodigy with a quill and ink. The kid wrote his way off that island and into American history. (Go read the book or somehow see the show. It’s a killer story.)

What’s striking to me as I read about Hamilton is how his talent and effort and sheer audacity created the opportunities that made him and ended up helping to make our nation.

Whatever task he was given, he gave it his all. As a junior officer when the American revolution began, his competence and attention to discipline and detail in the midst of what was generally a ragtag band of half-hearted soldiers caught the eye of George Washington. His effort and resulting insights and instincts made him indispensable as General Washington’s young assistant.

Hamilton had a prodigious ability to just do work. As the architect of some of the nation’s primary government institutions and philosophies, he would write late into the night and get back at it early the next morning. He was young, but he was no overnight sensation. He  worked hard and earned his seat at the table.

I regularly refer to the comedian Steve Martin’s admonition: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” This worked for Steve Martin in stand-up comedy in the 1970s and for Alexander Hamilton in nation-building in the 1770s.

The surest way to success is focused, smart, persevering, old-fashioned effort.

You can’t control what others do or what opportunities are offered to you, but you can control what you do with what you’ve been given.

Pursue mastery. Settle in for the long haul of gradual, continuous improvement. Be awesome, and be ready to take your shot if it comes.



Brothers In Arms

During my senior year in college I was one of the first guys in my dorm to get a CD player. 

This album by Dire Straits was THE CD to get to show how crispy good this new digital format was. Guys would come by my room just to listen to a track or two and marvel at the clarity compared to vinyl. 

And this album still holds up and remains one of my favorites. It’s especially suited for a quiet night and for headphones. 

More music, more happy

My family recently upgraded our primary television and added a Sonos Playbar as well. It was an expensive addition to an already costly purchase, but it’s proving to be well worth it. (Remember: “The things you use every day should be the best-designed things you can get.”)

We use TV almost exclusively for streaming Netflix, Hulu, and iTunes, and it’s our kids who use it the most. But this new soundbar has us listening to a lot more music.

I’m no audiophile, but the quality of the sound from this Sonos soundbar is remarkable for just a single device, at least compared to what we had before.

And having great audio in our living room and the new Apple TV prompted me to give Apple’s streaming music service another try.

So, we are listening to music more often now, and it’s been a delight. We click on a playlist or album while having dinner or doing chores or winding down for bed, and it’s added a wonderful extra bit of joy to our home.

It turns out that Sonos has been doing research about this and is actively marketing results that show that listening to music out loud in your home has measurable benefits for the whole family.

Their study shows that households that play music out loud laugh more and have less tension. There’s a long list of other benefits highlighted by their research.

I know that turning on music makes us less inclined to retreat into our devices. Cooking and dining together are just more fun with music in the background. We find ourselves often singing along out loud together as we go about our evening routines.

You don’t need a fancy sound system or a sophisticated taste in music to reap these benefits. Just put on some music and tune in with those you share your life with.


The only holiday music you need

I love the holiday season, really I do. But most Christmas music wears pretty thin really quickly for me. 

However, the only Christmas music you need is Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas. You can put it on repeat for the whole month and never wear it out. It’s a truly great jazz album, not just a great holiday album. 

Here it is on YouTube. Or go buy it on iTunes

Also, Bruce Springsteen’s version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town is as joyful and hip as any Christmas song I know. My kids know I’ll sing my heart out whenever this one comes on. 

My current work soundtrack: Pianist James Rhodes’s Inside Tracks


This new album, a collection of pianist James Rhodes’s favorites from previous recordings, has been my work soundtrack this week.

I don’t typically work with music on, but this music is perfect company. It’s just the piano. No orchestra. No lyrics. And it’s music from some of the greatest composers ever, performed by a dynamic talent.

Here is Rhodes’s explanation of his song choices for this collection:

“For this compilation (of my personal recordings from the last six years) I wanted to carry on in that vein and so I’ve made it a mix tape—these are the pieces that come up in my head unwarranted at 4am to get me through another rotten night of insomnia. These are the ones that always give me hope and a reason to hang on in there—because if music like this can exist then there is simply no question that the good outweighs the bad. They are my inside tracks.”

This album is a great introduction to Rhodes. If you need some music in your life, give this a chance.

James Rhodes: “Serious” music


This lovely Zen Pencils post introduced me to the pianist James Rhodes, who has an incredible personal story to go along with his immense musical talent.

He came through an abusive childhood and was given new life by music. 

I listened to his Live in Brighton album while I worked today. Between pieces he discusses the stories of the musicians and the compositions he’s playing. His language is frank, funny, and a bit off-color, and it’s the most refreshing experience I’ve had with classical music since I first discovered composer Benjamin Zander’s TED Talk

He talks about how lacking the term “classical” is for the genre and wonders if it’s “serious” music. 

How many classical albums have earned an “Explicit” label in iTunes?

Intrigued? Check it out. 

A Dave Grohl Christmas: The gift of surprise and delight

Most gift-giving gatherings this time of year have a bit of an absurd quality to them. Family members make wish lists for each other of exactly what they want, and there’s an implied understanding that you need to stick with the list. But, then, what’s the point? You could avoid the hassle and all just buy yourself what you want, right? (Or save your money and just have great conversations.)

“What do you want for Christmas?” you’re asked. “Surprise and delight would be nice”, I want to say.

But surprise and delight is hard. Which is why most gift-giving moments feel more like an obligation as we stay safe and simply get what everyone asks for. The fear of the clunker gift is real, but it’s a risk worth taking to keep hope alive for moments of genuine surprise and delight. Caution is the devil, right? That caution may keep you from being the one giving unwanted gifts, but it will also keep you from doing something remarkable, like offering genuine surprise and delight.

Our 13-year-old nephew is 13 in the best way anyone can be 13. He’s smart and kind, but he’s kind of cool, too. At family gatherings he tends to disappear and avoid the awkwardness of close quarters with all the relatives as best he can. (I did that, too, when I was a teenager. Okay, I still do that now sometimes.) You’ve got to work to get him to talk at meals, and he’s not quick to smile. You’ve got to earn the smile.

But he loves playing guitar and lights up when he’s talking about music. He’s taught himself how to play, and he’s pretty good. He’s become really focused on all things guitar, playing in seemingly every spare moment and regularly listening to cool music. (We share an appreciation of John Mayer, and I’ve earned a cool point or two just from that.)

His hero, though, is Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters. Grohl is the man. My wife and I found this out while talking with him at Thanksgiving. We were curious and wanted to know what gets him excited, what he’s into.

Well, when it came time to find a Christmas gift for him, we didn’t even check his wish list. I started wondering what a 13-year-old guitar-playing Dave Grohl fan might enjoy. After some online searches, we stumbled across a print of a great Dave Grohl quote. We bought it and framed it and wrapped it for our nephew’s gift.

At our family Christmas gathering last week, we were going around the circle watching each person open a gift. When my nephew’s turn came, my wife and I watched eagerly as he unwrapped our present. He held up the print and began reading the quote, with a bit of a quizzical, “What is this?” kind of expression on his face, as if he was bracing himself to summon a polite response to a random, cheesy, unwished-for gift. Then, when he read to the bottom of the quote and saw “Dave Grohl”, his expression transformed, and his face lit up with what clearly was surprise and delight.

He smiled at us and said something about Grohl being a hero. He kept that unforced grin for a moment, and we knew we had done it. Success! Surprise and delight. And we were as delighted at the giving of a thoughtful gift as he was in receiving it. Probably more so.

It could have bombed and left us and him wishing we had just gotten him a DVD or an iTunes card. But it was the moment of the season for us so far.

Trying to put yourself inside someone else and divine what might delight is hard work and has low-percentage success. Most people don’t know what would delight themselves, even. Henry Ford famously said that if he asked people what they wanted they would have said “A faster horse.”

Apple is the behemoth it is now for its market-defying commitment to create products that trump conventional wisdom and delight in their details. They do not poll customers or rely on market consultants to determine what to make next. They don’t ask for a “wish list” from the market. They aim for awesome. What would delight them to make? And what would put smiles on the faces of their customers?

Whether it’s in giving gifts to family and friends or creating products and experiences in your work, aiming for surprise and delight will pay off and reward the effort required. Or not. You could crash and burn.

But aim for awesome, people. And cheer on those who forsake their caution in the attempt to create a remarkable moment and give a gift worth talking about.

And rock on, Dave Grohl.

The Dave Grohl print that won Christmas

Sam Smith: Do it for the love

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I spent the last two weeks interviewing college students for openings on our staff. My colleague regularly asks students in the interviews what music they’re listening to now. It sparks some good discussions, but it also enlightens me about the current music scene. Otherwise, I’m pretty oblivious to new music.

Every year after interview season I go get some of the music the students recommend. This year, Sam Smith was the most mentioned name. One student described him as the male version of Adele. That sold me. I’m not a streaming service fan (yet) because I just don’t need that much music in my life, so I went to iTunes and downloaded Sam Smith’s album, In The Lonely Hour. And it’s really good. He’s got a powerful, soulful voice for such a young guy.

The first track, though, Money On My Mind, has this line: “I don’t have money on my mind. I do it for the love.”

Intrinsic rewards for the win. Put your focus on the thing itself and honing and fine-tuning it for your delight. Don’t be distracted by any potential extrinsic reward.

We don’t make movies to make money. We make money so we can make more movies. –Walt Disney

Find those things you do just for the love, not for the money or the recognition. Even if you can’t make a living from the things you do for love, do them anyway. Make them hobbies and side-hustles. Your best work comes from that place, and it’s the path to a more authentic, more alive kind of life.