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

Marcus Aurelius explains your options

A timely reminder from Marcus Aurelius:

“Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option:

to accept this event with humility

to treat this person as he should be treated

to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in.”

Another translation of that first line reads:

“Always and everywhere, it depends on you piously to be satisfied with the present conjunction of events.”

But what if “the present conjunction of events” sucks?

What is, already is. Resisting reality is futile and frustrating.

What if you simply observed even the most upsetting events and responded with fascination and curiosity?

Accept what has happened, bad and good, as though it is a gift to you to be used to expedite your own growth and propel you further and faster toward perfecting your character.

Sunday night Stoic: Forward progress

Meditations 8.7:

“Nature of any kind thrives on forward progress. And progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it—the nature in which it participates, as the leaf’s nature does in the tree’s.”

Even just bringing order to my workspace or cleaning my house feels like moving forward, like I’m making room for new possibilities.

Instead of asking “What do I need?” or “What can I get?”, what if I asked “What do I have to offer?” or “What can I contribute to lift others?”

Here’s to a week of forward progress, of making and doing and listening and of looking for opportunities to give and to contribute something worthwhile.

Sunday night Stoic: Step one and step two

Meditations 8.5:

“The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all. And before long you’ll be no one, nowhere—like Hadrian, like Augustus.

The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.”

Easy. Just two steps to become an awesome human. 

Two simple, overwhelmingly challenging steps

This is a good week to step anew into the life you want to live.

How fragile we are

  All life is sorrowful, or ultimately unsatisfactory.

Heartbreak is coming your way, no matter how good life may seem at the moment.

The deeper you get into life and the more you experience, the more you realize—whether you allow yourself to acknowledge it consciously or not—pain is inevitable.

You will lose those you love dearly.

You will hurt and be hurt.

That bright, shiny dream will either elude you, or possibly worse, will be realized yet end up falling short of truly satisfying you.

Discontent.

Disillusion.

Disappointment.

But if you’re heartbroken right now, hang on a bit. Keep moving forward.

Joy is on the horizon.

So is sorrow.

You can’t have one without the other. They define each other.

We break most easily when we expect only joy.

Cynical as it seems, the secret to happiness is low expectations. Or seeing reality as it is.

Expect heartbreak. Anticipate cruelty and pain and disappointment. Steel yourself for the impersonal rhythm of reality.

But don’t give in to despair and cynicism. 

Life sucks sometimes, but not all the time—not even most of the time. It’s filled with wonders and light and hope.

We are fragile creatures. 

Be kind to everyone. Everyone is breakable, no matter how strong they may seem. 

Be kind to everyone, even those who seem undeserving. Who knows what they’ve gone through, what burden they may be bearing?

Be strong for others. You will eventually need someone to be strong for you.
 

 

 

 

Sunday night Stoic: There is a limit to the time assigned you

Meditations 2.4:

“Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.”

It is final exams week for college students, and I still remember procrastinating like it was my job when I was a student facing a tough upcoming test.

My dorm room was never cleaner than when I had a deadline looming.

It was fear. The fear of doing hard things, the fear of failing, the fear of being exposed as the fallible mortal I am.

Procrastination is giving in to the resistance.

Most of us spend our lives putting off the big questions and the excrutiatingly hard tasks of making sense of our existence and doing something meaningful with our time on the planet.

So, tomorrow morning is going to be a “big rocks” morning for me. (If you don’t put the big rocks—the most significant priorities of your life—in the jar first, they’ll never get in. The trivial inessentials—the sand and gravel—will fill up your life and leave no room for what matters most.)

I’m going to use a jumbo sized blank page (or maybe even the jumbo whiteboard in my office) and some markers and start mapping what’s important and what needs to be done.

What is most important? Who is most important? What really matters that I have been putting off?

Damn the resistance, just start.

You don’t know when your time will be up.

Sunday night Stoic: Seize the day

Meditations 6.32:

“I am composed of a body and a soul. Things that happen to the body are meaningless. It cannot discriminate among them.

Nothing has meaning to my mind except its own actions. Which are within its own control. And it’s only the immediate ones that matter. Its past and future actions too are meaningless.”

This is hard stuff. This is graduate-level “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

You control your mind and how it responds to whatever happens.

Between stimulus and response there is a gap. In that gap is your ability to choose your response. It’s not easy to mind the gap, so to speak, but we get to try again and again all day long every day.

But only the present moment matters. Only the present moment is real. Past and future are phantoms.

This moment is where life is.

Your mind is the portal and the instrument for living.

Right here. Right now.

Live now in the full power of your ability to choose—to choose your attitude, your actions, your thoughts.

You have little control over how long your body will keep your mind in the game. (Eat well. Do your pushups. Don’t sit too much. Don’t drink and drive or text and drive. Avoid doing stupid things.)

Live while you can. And live wisely, in sync with your nature.

Seize the day.

Sunday morning Stoic: Postpone nothing

“There is indeed a limit fixed for us, just where the remorseless law of Fate has fixed it; but none of us knows how near he is to this limit. Therefore let us so order our minds as if we had come to the very end. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s account every day.” –Seneca

We all know sad stories of people whose lives ended suddenly, of children taken by illness or accident, of good men and women gone too soon, their lives artlessly unfinished.

Real life is not a novel or a movie. There is no guarantee of a tidy ending with satisfying closure and a happy exit from the stage.

Reality is indifferent to your story, to your sense of justice, to the poetry you are crafting as the artist of your life.

This indifference, if I pause to comprehend it, is the most terrifying thing I know. 

There are no guarantees, and my hopes for my own story ultimately have little power over circumstances beyond my control, over the capriciousness of fate.

But I do have power over how I respond to what reality brings my way today. 

Tomorrow is not promised. But I can make the best of today. I can stop deferring dreams and postponing plans. 

Make this day remarkable, a day worth talking about. 

Live while you can. Craft your life one day at a time.

Sunday night Stoic: How to act

Remember, Meditations was written by Marcus Aurelius as a sort of ongoing “note to self” while he was the Roman emperor, essentially the most powerful and influential person in the western world at the time.

He’s not lecturing someone else. He’s exhorting himself, calling for his own best, reminding himself of the kind of man he aspired to be. He could have gotten away with murder, much less selfish and boorish behavior.

Which makes passages like this (3.5) so remarkable:

“How to act:

Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without forethought, with misgivings.

Don’t gussy up your thoughts.

No surplus words or unnecessary actions.

Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier and patiently awaiting his recall from life. Needing no oath or witness.

Cheerfulness. Without requiring other people’s help. Or serenity supplied by others.

To stand up straight—not straightened.”

Sunday morning Stoic: A formula for savoring life

The author William Irvine (whose book, A Guide To The Good Life, is a great introduction to Stoic thought) shared the Stoic formula for happiness in this post on Stoicism Today.

Here’s the formula: X = the number of days you have left to live

It’s not exactly a formula, just a reminder that each of us has a finite, unknown number for X. Keeping this thought in mind daily, knowing the end of this day reduces by 1, can offer perspective that makes each day richer and more meaningful.

Irvine goes on to suggest another helpful formula: X = the number of times you will do something in the remainder of your life

You have X number of times left to call your mom or kiss your love or hug your kid or eat Green & Black’s organic 85 percent cacao dark chocolate.

As you do a thing, if you for a moment imagine it might be the last time you do it, you will experience it more mindfully, more vividly. It turns autopilot off, even if for just a second or two.

I took my daughters to the swimming pool yesterday. As they were clamoring for me to jump in and join them, I paused at the edge of the deep end of the pool, my toes poised on the edge of the warm cement, and imagined this would be my last time ever jumping into water. And then I stepped off and truly saw my feet splash in first and felt my body drop into the cool water and the delightful sensation of floating. The slight sting in my nose and eyes. The feeling of defying gravity for a moment. It was a joy. And, of course, it wasn’t the last time. I jumped in several times yesterday, but the only one I can recall clearly was the first jump which I had imagined as my last jump ever.

I think even a small moment here and there thinking in this way could have a big impact on your daily joy.

And as Irvine suggests in his post, it can encourage you to create more moments worth savoring:

And there is another important thing to realize about the above formula: you probably have it in your power to turn X into X+1! You need only go out of your way to do something one extra time. At this very moment, there are X more times you will kiss the person you love. But if, as the result of reading this, you go give him or her a kiss that you otherwise wouldn’t have given, you will increase this number to X+1. And chances are you will have fun doing it!


David Letterman and the power of turning obstacles into fuel

I’m of the Letterman generation. I began college the same year Late Night debuted on NBC.

Better observers of television and comedy have better summed up why Letterman is significant. (I love Jimmy Kimmel’s take.) But to me he was just real. He didn’t treat television like it was a big deal, and he didn’t treat people who thought they were a big deal like they were a big deal.

His show was irreverent and unpredictable and fun. His timing and self-deprecating humor and wry asides influenced the way I communicate and attempt humor and the way I respond to others. I’ve realized even some of my facial expressions are Letterman inspired.

I listened to Jason Snell’s The Incomparable podcast about Letterman yesterday on a long drive home from the holiday weekend. The podcast was really well done and right in the wheelhouse of someone who would regularly stay up late in the dorm lobby to catch at least a portion of Late Night.

The podcast reminded me that when Letterman got the Late Night gig airing immediately following The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson’s team at NBC put some restrictions on what Letterman could do on his show. He could have no more than four band members and could tell only four jokes in his monologue. They wanted to protect their turf at The Tonight Show and not risk some young upstart stealing their stuff.

But Letterman used those restrictions to reinvent the talk show and to come up with something unique to him. Bizarre, wacky, occasionally cringe-inducing, but so refreshingly unique.

Years later when Carson retired, everyone assumed The Tonight Show would go to Letterman. It was Letterman’s dream, and Carson saw him as his natural successor. But the suits at NBC gave the job to Jay Leno instead.

Again, though, Letterman ended up embracing this setback and used that disappointment to do something better. He moved to CBS, started The Late Show, and competed head-to-head with The Tonight Show.

But he got to stay in New York and keep doing his unique version of a talk show, just on a bigger stage and an hour earlier. He’s even said that if he had been given The Tonight Show, he probably would have just followed Carson’s formula out of respect for the institutions that The Tonight Show and Carson were.

It was the restrictions and the disappointment and the obstacles that Letterman used to shape himself and his show into the cultural forces they became. He didn’t end up winning the ratings war, but his influence resonates as no other television personality’s has since Carson.

Heartbreak? Disappointment? Obstacles in the way? Dream job falls through? Accept a bad turn of events as if you had chosen it to happen that way. Then get busy transforming that setback into previously unimagined possibilities. Turn your obstacles into fuel to propel you further and higher.

Stoic Zen: The glass is already broken

Kottke shared this paragraph from Mark Epstein’s book Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy From a Buddhist Perspective:

“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

This is Zen. But also very Stoic.

Negative visualization is a Stoic practice. Imagining and accepting the worst case can help me better appreciate what is while preparing me for what could be.

Sunday morning Stoic: Only the present

A crisp, bright, quiet spring Sunday morning.

A cup of tea (coconut) and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

A Sunday morning ritual for me.

It’s hard to open this book without reading a passage that delights or challenges and refreshes my mind with its clarity and straightforward insight.

This passage today, 8.35:

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.

Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present—and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that … well, then, heap shame upon it.”

Only the present.

Monday night Stoic: Take Antoninus as your model

Meditations 6.30:

“Take Antoninus as your model, always. His energy in doing what was rational … his steadiness in any situation … his sense of reverence … his calm expression … his gentleness … his modesty … his eagerness to grasp things. And how he never let things go before he was sure he had examined them thoroughly, understood them perfectly … the way he put up with unfair criticism, without returning it … how he couldn’t be hurried … how he wouldn’t listen to informers … how reliable he was as a judge of character, and of actions … not prone to backbiting, or cowardice, or jealousy, or empty rhetoric … content with the basics—in living quarters, bedding, clothes, food, servants … how hard he worked, how much he put up with … his ability to work straight through till dusk—because of his simple diet (he didn’t even need to relieve himself, except at set times) … his constancy and reliability as a friend … his tolerance of people who openly questioned his views and his delight at seeing his ideas improved on … his piety—without a trace of superstition …

So that when your time comes, your conscience will be as clear as his.”

Whether Antoninus (Marcus’s predecessor as emperor) was really this together or not, this description provides a great model of character for anyone to aspire to.

Becoming Steve Jobs: Adversity and failure before triumph

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The new, much-hyped biography, Becoming Steve Jobs, was released yesterday, and my pre-ordered copy was on my porch when I got home last night. This is the rare book that I’m choosing to purchase as a physical book instead of an ebook. The advance praise was sufficient enough and the topic is one I find fascinating. I’m thinking it will be a keeper.

The book explores how someone who seemed so insensitive and reckless at the beginning of his career could end up as THE visionary business leader of our time. I just started reading it and came to this passage in the prologue:

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“We can learn as much, if not more, from failure, from promising paths that turn into dead ends. The vision, understanding, patience, and wisdom that informed Steve’s last decade were forged in the trials of these intervening years.”

The greatness of the company that Steve Jobs fashioned in his last decade would not have been possible without the failures and shortcomings of his first couple of decades.

I’ve been fascinated recently by those who have turned adversity and failure to their advantage. We all seem to know that facing difficulties and enduring setbacks make us stronger and better. Yet we resist even the thought of coming up short or of taking on hardship.

Maybe we all should regularly and intentionally fling ourselves into the teeth of surefire heartbreak and dismal failure just so we can grow and learn faster.

 

Sunday evening Stoic: Good fortune

Meditations 5.37:

“I was once a fortunate man but at some point fortune abandoned me. But true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions.”

Good character.

Good intentions.

Good actions.

These you can control. 

What happens to you, not so much. How you respond, all you.

Cinderella’s Stoic virtues: Courage and kindness

I took my wife and daughters to see the new live-action Cinderella movie yesterday. I’m no movie critic, but I thought it was really good.

It’s visually sumptuous. The costume design, the sets, the locations, the sweeping camera movements all were dazzling and crafted on an epic scale.

Kenneth Branagh, the Shakespearean actor, directed and played the story straight and with a classic, elegant style. No clever updates. It’s in essence the same Cinderella story you know from the original Disney animated feature. But it’s done so well.

The acting performances are solid. Lily James as Cinderella lights up the screen. She’s earnest and charming and quietly strong without being sappy sweet. The prince is not a bore or a boor. The ailing king is endearing. The wicked stepmother, Cate Blanchett, is suitably cruel but finishes by coming across as pitiable.

It’s not high art, but it’s a worthwhile story, especially for my young daughters. Early in the story Cinderella’s dying mother exhorts her to always “have courage and be kind.” That mantra gets repeated throughout. It could seem simplistic, but the character solidly embodies those traits.

When Cinderella gets banished to the attic, she could have become a teary-eyed damsel in distress in typical princess fairy tale style. But this Cinderella embraces her fate with a twinkle of optimism and hope and makes the best of it. She deals with her cruel treatment and bad fortune with similar fortitude throughout the story without coming across as weak and woeful. She exhibits Stoic-like acceptance of all that happens outside of her control and remains kind in spite of the cruelty she endures.

“Have courage and be kind”, simple and obvious as it is, is a decent motto for anyone, aspiring princess or not.

No one is fearless, but we can all show courage by taking action in spite of our fears. And life is too short to be short on kindness.

Four thumbs up for Cinderella from me and my three princesses.