Ritual Riffs

Sonny Rollins — Speakerpedia.com

We all have our morning ritual. Coffee. Shower. Exercise. Meditate. Chant or Pray. Hemingway’s was to get up every morning at the glimpse of daylight, 5:30 or 6:00 AM. It didn’t matter if he’d imbibed the evening before. He was up writing. His ritual. We are what we repeatedly do, claimed Aristotle. That could be a good or bad thing.

But when is it time to break your ritual?

We’ve all read the lists on the habits of successful entrepreneurs. The routine of Mark Zuckerberg wearing the same t-shirt, Richard Branson swimming in the morning, Tory Burch reading emails at 5:45. While Hemingway wrote in the morning, his evening ritual was double daiquiris. Whether an evening drink or burrowing away at work, when do our rituals work against us?

Last month I was working with an incredibly bright engineer, Nate, spearheading a large project, and clearly needed a mental health day, which I mentioned to him. But he kept forging on, never stopped working. In the past year, he moved from the US to Shenzhen to Singapore. With each move he stepped into more complexity and much chaos. A new team, revolving boss, and challenging system. To help facilitate his transitions, he established healthy rituals. Up early, exercise and email. Arriving at the office early before anyone, buried behind flickering screens (he had 3), he focused on getting things done. Don’t get me wrong, he was social but felt work had to be done before socializing. To his colleagues he seemed distant and aloof.

This is how Nate created balance, but the ‘we become what we do’ turned into a double edged sword. This is how we’re all judged, by what we do and how we act, not by what we think about. (It’s probably a good thing that ‘thoughts’ are not visible.)

Work carries the badge of complexity. Complexity is the norm. Nate’s navigated organisational complexity and politics; the number of stakeholders, the number of clients, the number of countries and the number of power brokers. Rituals provided order, focus and the illusion that he was in control.

But do they work?

Rituals are important, but can also stunt your growth. Shaking up your rituals periodically wading through the muddy waters of uncertainty brings opportunity. Saxophonist, Sonny Rollins considered an impressive improviser spent three years playing his saxophone under a bridge to break his habit of playing the same riffs over and over. Rollins unlearning routines led to his exceptional music.

You don’t need to sit under a bridge for three years, but you may want to reconsider where you want to go and the purpose your rituals serve. As Rollins suggests, ‘’the most important thing is to get away from fixed functions.”

Rituals breed functional fixedness.

Break-up with your ritual, maybe a short separation. Adapt a jazz mindset and embrace uncertainty. Or give yourself a mental health day. Curl up with a book, watch a movie, go for a long run, anything but the daily routine. Nobody and no gadget to bother you. A day to slide down into a comfortable escape hatch and tune out the noise around us, those external pings and non-stop chatter in our head.


It doesn’t matter what method you choose — sitting under a bridge or taking a mental health day, don’t let your rituals stunt your growth.

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