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.




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.