Learning Core Values from a Rude Stranger
I remember playing a gig at a cigar bar on the upper west side of Manhattan when I was still a college student. As a kid from Virginia, it was exciting to be playing in New York, but I was also asthmatic and the cigar smoke nearly did me in. The guitarist who started booking me on gigs regularly had aligned himself with the owner of a small franchise of cigar bars, so every weekend I was in Manhattan having a great time, but nearly keeling over by the end of the gig.
On this particular night, a customer approached me during a break and said, “You seem like a smart kid with lots of talent. Why are you playing jazz? Don’t you realize it’s a dying art form? Why would anyone pursue a career in jazz now?”
I looked at him in amazement. There was something condescending in his tone. I thought “This guy, in this neighborhood, at this place, drinking this scotch, probably has a ton of money. He probably works on Wall Street and he thinks money is the only reason for living.” But I didn’t say any of that. Instead, I calmly and politely responded “Because I love it.” and got away from him as quickly as I could.
When I look back on that moment now I realize it was a reasonable question from a purely logistical point of view. But more than that, I had never asked myself or even thought about why I was doing it.
Answer the Question
Simon Sinek is well-known for his book Start with Why which is aimed at marketing people or entrepreneurs, of which I am neither. However, we all need to be able to answer that question. Why do we really do what we do?
I’ve thought about this extensively since that moment. My answer to the cigar bar guy was actually correct, but it wasn’t the whole answer. I needed to drill down and really explore my feelings about it. If I was willing to dedicate my life to the pursuit of this music, I better have a good and clearly defined reason.
So, why do I love jazz?
- I love the feeling that I get when I’m improvising and it’s working.
— Why? Because I feel connected to the universe and it confirms to me that I’m doing what I was meant to do.
• I love the feeling of making something with other musicians that goes beyond what we could do on our own.
— Why? Because the feeling of being part of a team and part of a community.
• I love the freedom of jazz.
— Why? If there is room for eccentric characters like Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, surely my own quirks would be accepted.
• I love the element of risk; that you don’t really know what’s going to happen.
— Why? It’s a bit like being on a rollercoaster: you’re strapped in but not entirely sure of what lies ahead. It’s exhilarating.
• I love the feeling of not knowing exactly what’s going on but being at peace with it.
— Why? Fear of the unknown is the main thing that holds people back in improvisation. Conquering that fear, or letting it coexist with you is tied to trusting the other musicians and the universe. It’s an incredibly liberating experience.
• I love the tradition of it.
— Why? Being part of something that connects back to the music that came before us gives me a sense of direction. When I’m thinking about not just the giants we herald but everyday people of the past who also loved this music — being connected to that is a powerful feeling.
• I love breaking free of the tradition.
— Why? Rules were meant to be broken. When you see the boundaries of the genre and go outside it or combine it with something else, it’s at once liberating and, in a way, the most traditional thing you can do in jazz.
• I love that it’s a language in a way; that I can go anywhere and play with jazz musicians I’ve never met and make something beautiful.
— Why? We connect through language, for me doing this through music makes it more comfortable and opens up the possibility of deeper relationships.
• I love the connection I feel with the audience.
— Why? As a kid, I was terrified of public speaking. Now that I’m sometimes on tour with my own band and I have to do all the talking, I’ve actually come to enjoy it. Similar to a comedian, if I can get someone to laugh or tell a story that people relate to, I get a warm feeling. Musically, being able to sense when someone in the audience is moved by the music is like a shot of endorphins. I love that something I play might inspire someone, or make someone feel an emotion, even if it’s just to distract them from their worries for a moment.
Looking at my answers a clear pattern emerges connection. Connecting with the universe, community, tradition, musicians, and listeners past and present. Connecting with people. After all, it’s through this music that I found my wife.
The connection is also about sharing the feelings I associate with the music. Just like when I play someone an album that I like, I hope they can feel how it makes me feel. When I perform it’s much the same thing. If I feel inspired I’m hoping at least one person in the audience will feel inspired with me.
Who, not Why
Ultimately, the question I’m answering is “who am I?” because whether I’m examining the drums or jazz or composition or design or writing, they all end up with the same answer: I create to connect. That’s who I am.
As an autistic person, that’s also complicated because I have a hard time maintaining relationships, but I still feel it’s my purpose to share feelings through creativity. If I make someone a sandwich, I want them to experience what I think tastes great.
“I may not do everything great in my life, but I’m good at this. I manage to touch people’s lives with what I do and I want to share this with you.”
— from Jon Favreau’s film Chef
We all need a north star; that thing that guides us in everything we do. It’s easy to lose our way. I’ve definitely gone through lost periods and usually, this was due to my ego. Feeling jealous of someone else’s success, feeling bored or uninspired (as if it’s the universe’s job to inspire me); these are distractions that my ego creates by playing to my fears of being unsuccessful or irrelevant. The ego plays the victim and tries to convince me that my efforts are all pointless. Sound familiar?
However, if I take the reins and find my north star (connection) the ego will just have to take the back seat. When we’re driven by pure intentions that’s when we gain entry into the flow state. That’s when we create our best work.
Amid all the cigar smoke that balmy night in Manhattan, I could have told that guy to keep his career advice to himself, or worse. Thinking back on it now, I wish I could thank him instead.
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