Raise the aspirations of others

Tyler Cowen is an economics professor and a prolific blogger at Marginal Revolution. He’s an A-list follow with multiple blog posts every day, and he’s a voracious reader who has pointed me to a lot of insightful articles and books.

I love this thought from Cowen: “At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind”

I have appreciated those who have seen more in me than I thought possible, who summoned something greater from me by their expectations.

And I have delighted in those moments when I have been able to awaken a new possibility in someone else. That’s a calling that keeps me going.

What if you looked for opportunities to heighten the trajectory of someone who would otherwise settle for a lower arc?

What if you regularly asked “What if…?”

There could be more people more fully fulfilling their potential with even a slight course correction thanks to your interest and curiosity and encouragement.

Awaken possibility.

A belief in the blood

“My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle. What do I care about knowledge? All I want is to answer to my blood, direct, without fribbling intervention of mind, or moral, or what not.” –D. H. Lawrence

This reminds me of Kubrick’s “The truth of a thing is the feel of it, not the think of it.”

“We can go wrong in our minds.”

Indeed. Just read the news.

Undoubtedly, our age is more disconnected than any before it from the physical—from blood and flesh and the feel of sunshine on skin and feet on actual ground. And face-to-face conversation. And taste and smell and the delicate sounds that get lost in the wash of noise emanating from ubiquitous devices.

There’s a knowing that comes from the body that our long-ago ancestors probably were in touch with in a way we never will be.

Not that I want to quit feeding my mind. But I know I need to more fully inhabit more often my flesh and blood.

And feel as well as think.

Lines of excellence

In a press conference just weeks before his death, President Kennedy was asked by a reporter if he liked his job. Kennedy’s response:

“Well, I find the work rewarding. Whether I am going to stay and what my intentions are and all the rest, it seems to me it is still a good many, many months away. But as far as the job of President goes, it is rewarding. And I have given before to this group the definition of happiness of the Greeks, and I will define it again: it is full use of your powers along lines of excellence. I find, therefore, the Presidency provides some happiness.”

The “full use of your powers along lines of excellence”.

Powers?

I’m late to the Marvel Cinematic Universe party, and the last few films have had me wondering who many of the superheroes are and what exactly are their powers.

Well, what exactly are your powers? I’m not completely sure what mine are.

Whatever they are, I know I’m not putting them to their “full use”.

Passive mode prevails over active mode way too often and the easy distractions of this age make it even harder to muster the will, to fully tap into my powers.

The looming regret just around the corner will be that of unfulfilled potential and unlived life. Powers wasted, left dormant and unsummoned.

Snap out of it, this half-slumber that most of us are muddling through. Fully use your gifts. Make them true gifts that offer value beyond yourself.

And be awesome in the process. Aim for excellence. Be discontent with just good enough.

Full use of your powers along lines of excellence.

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” –Robert Louis Stevenson

The Journey is the Thing

“Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.” Tal Ben-Shahar in Happier

It’s about pointing yourself in a direction and toward an end that matters to you, and then fully inhabiting the journey toward that end. But it’s this moment, this step in the journey that is the true destination.

President Kennedy, in one of his final press conferences, responded to a question about how he was liking being President with a reference to the ancient Greek definition of happiness as “the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.”

That resonates. Tapping the limits of your potential and employing the full use of your powers in the quest toward some noble destination. An excellent journey.

Act as if you were absolutely perfect

“Disregard whatever you think yourself to be and act as if you were absolutely perfect—whatever your idea of perfection may be. All you need is courage… Behave as best you know. Do what you think you should. Don’t be afraid of mistakes; you can always correct them. Only intentions matter. The shape things take is not within your power; the motives of your actions are.” –Sri Nisargadatta Maharam

Caution is the devil, right? Have a bias toward action, even if you don’t know if you’re doing the “right” thing.

I tend to overthink and procrastinate and often end up missing out on the chance to do something good or to make something meaningful happen.

The better course is to just take action. Do something, anything.

Have courage. Act like you are who you aspire to be.

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