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

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

John Gardner: Life is an endless unfolding

From the writings of John Gardner (ht John Maeda), who served in LBJ’s administration as secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare: 

One of the enemies of sound, lifelong motivation is a rather childish conception we have of the kind of concrete, describable goal toward which all of our efforts drive us. We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived. We want a scoring system that tells us when we’ve piled up enough points to count ourselves successful. 

So you scramble and sweat and climb to reach what you thought was the goal. When you get to the top you stand up and look around and chances are you feel a little empty. Maybe more than a little empty. 

You wonder whether you climbed the wrong mountain. 

But life isn’t a mountain that has a summit, Nor is it — as some suppose — a riddle that has an answer. Nor a game that has a final score. 

Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring. 

This has the flavor of Alan Watts’s comparison of life to music.

“Life is an endless unfolding.” Lovely.

It’s common to see life as a mission to get somewhere, a journey with a shining final destination somewhere out there just beyond the horizon.

But, you’ll never get there, because there is no there there.

The journey, of course, is the destination. You will never arrive.

Or, actually, you’re constantly arriving.

 

Choose kind 

My 7-year-old daughter came by my office after school on Tuesday. It’s the last week of school, and she was lively and lighthearted and spent some time, as usual, writing on the whiteboard in my office. When I left work I noticed she had written this on the board: 

“When given a choice to be right or kind, choose kind.”

I paused and wondered where a 7-year-old came up with such a thoughtful bit of wisdom, but I forgot to ask her about it.

The next day my wife and I attended the end-of-year party for her second-grade class. Her teacher, Ms. McCranie, is a superhero of a teacher, and she’s retiring this year after a long and remarkable career. As Ms. McCranie was giving out the academic awards she came to the Citizenship Award and explained that it was awarded primarily for kindness. She said she tells her students that, “when given a choice to be right or kind, choose kind.”

“Aha”, I thought. That’s where my Annie got that wisdom. And I was so impressed that this thought had been impressed in my daughter’s consciousness so distinctly.

And then Ms. McCranie announced that the Citizenship Award for her class was being awarded to Annie.

Her mom and sister and I are entitled to smirk at this slightly, knowing what it’s like to live with her occasionally feisty and fiery moods. But if in public and at school, at least, she’s demonstrating enough kindness to win a class award and she can quote verbatim such solid wisdom, I’ll take it.

I need to have that wisdom impressed on me regularly as well.

 

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.