Episode 044 – Just Like Jazz

“Breaking the rules requires learning the rules; disrupting routines requires establishing routines.”

Miles Davis said, “If you’re not making mistakes, it’s a mistake.”

In order to create structure and be productive, we have to develop routines, habits, and schedules.

And then, once we have established those routines, we’re told that routines stifle creativity.

So… we need to break away from our routine.

We need to improvise, like Miles Davis. We need to make big, glaring mistakes if we ever want to move forward. We have to disrupt the routine and break the rules.

But before you can break the rules, you have to learn the rules.

It’s all here.

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Until next time… Be nice. Do good stuff.

Teddy Roosevelt said, in any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The next best thing is the wrong thing. And the absolute worst thing you can do is nothing. As this show wallows in this in between seasons break, the right thing would be to just get on with season four, for God’s sake, but the absolute worst thing would be to do nothing. So here we are, episode 44. Hell, who knows what’s going on? Let’s just go ahead. All right, we’re here in the command and Control center, and I want to talk about a jazz album. Don’t click away.

It’s only to establish some context. And it’s not just any jazz album, but one of the best selling of all times, miles Davis’s 1959 album Kind of Blue. You don’t have to like jazz or know a single thing about this record, except this every tune on this record is a first take. There were no retakes at a time when musicians and producers were perfecting the art of recording and doing multiple takes, and even overdubs, miles threw it all out the window and went with an improv sort of approach to the record, kinda like I’m taking with this episode. Now, Frank Barrett, a jazz pianist and a management scholar, writes in his book, yes to the Mess, that musicians like Miles and Sonny Rollins, they didn’t just perform, they mastered the art of simultaneously unlearning and experimenting while performing. Barrett goes on to draw lines through the jazz world that connect to some of the greatest leaders of our time, across all spectrums, from the military to the manufacturing world. And he makes the claim that great leaders must also be great improvisers if they want any chance at an innovative approach to crisis management, economic volatility, and all of the rapidly evolving realities of our globally connected world. Now, this is what I find interesting.

Improvisation is basically at the opposite end of the spectrum from preparation, planning and routine. And in order to create structure and be productive, we have to develop routines and habits and schedules. We have Google Calendars synced with our Asana, and productivity apps like Trello and Airtable. We set tasks and we get our little dopamine hits when we check them off. We have our routines. And some of those routines maybe become habits if we’re lucky. Oftentimes we use those two words interchangeably when in fact, they’re not really the same. And so what’s the difference? Well, both habits and routines are regular and repeated actions.

But habits happen with little or no conscious thought smoking. Whereas routines require a greater degree of intention and effort, like working out. Now, I don’t want to get bogged down with the routine habits ritual thing. The point is, we’re all encouraged to establish healthy routines. I mean, what can be bad? But then once we’ve established those routines, we’re told that routines stifle creativity. So we need to break away from our routine. Pablo Picasso said something that I want to touch on. Vonnegut said it, and others have said it in a myriad of ways, but the sentiment is basically the same.

In order to break the rules, you must first learn the rules in turn. In order to disrupt a routine, you must first establish a routine. Now, way back in episode 13, A Simple Change of Scenery, I talked about how the brain responds to small changes in your routine or your environment. How by simply changing the mug you drink your coffee from or changing the route you take to work, the brain is signaled something’s different. The brain then kicks into a higher gear, and in this heightened state, it improves your ability to learn new things. And now that we’ve gone to all of this effort to establish this healthy routine, it’s time to disrupt it. It’s time to improvise. Showtime, kids.

You see, breaking the routine tells your brain it’s time to pay attention. The experts in this sort of stuff say, go out and make a bunch of mistakes. Miles said it in 1959. He said, if you’re not making mistakes, it’s a mistake. Fred Barrett says, if everything you play is clean and slick, it means you’ve given up experimenting. So what does all this have to do with anything? Well, it has everything to do with that quote from Teddy Roosevelt. You know, the wrong thing season four would be the right thing. A meandering episode one cut in the spirit of Miles could be the wrong thing, but the absolute worst thing would be nothing, and we can’t have nothing.

And all of this is directly connected to the magnet stuck to my refrigerator in my Nashville house from ten years ago. Big letters. It read dwell impossibility. Emily Dickinson said that, and it’s an abbreviated version of the original quote. But that doesn’t matter. I love the sentiment. And I not only dwell in possibility, I live there full time. Or I used to.

Something’s happened over the last decade. My brain has come to the conclusion that creativity is now this linear thing. First this, then this, once that is there, and that other thing is just about right. Then creative shit happens. Here we go. I’m ready. Where are you? Let’s go. I only have a certain amount of time before I have to switch brains and be analytical again.

Can’t meander all day in la la land. Or can we? You see, I’ve gotten so good with my routine, it’s absolutely choked the life out of my creativity. The creativity that used to shoot out of me like a four year old with a Roman candle. Now I get up at 515 in the morning, something I swore I’d never do. I go for an hour walk. I come home, I work out, I make coffee for Mel, I shower, and I head to my desk. Creativity. Here we are.

Let’s go. It doesn’t work that way. And this is where I contradict myself. You see, I’ve always said that professionals don’t sit around and wait for inspiration. Professionals put their ass in the chair and they get to work. And the muse never shows up until the work has begun and not a moment before. But sometimes the creative mind has to have the freedom to meander aimlessly. That’s when all the psycho babble we tell ourselves gets distracted.

Which then provides the opening. The opening through which the creative mind bursts through the facade of what the routine has built there. It’s like getting on stage without knowing the song you’re going to play. The bass player turns around and looks at you and says, all blues in G. And that’s the moment all of that preparation and practice gets out of the way. It has to, or the magic can’t get through. And at the end of the day, your skill gets you in the door. But it’s your adaptability that keeps you there.

You see, we learn nothing from success. The real learning and transformation comes after a big mistake or several mistakes. It’s then that we can establish the routine, get back on task and begin the process all over again. So here’s to the wrong thing. Here’s to glaring mistakes and gross misjudgments. Did I get it wrong? I hope so. For today, the wrong thing is the right thing. And nothing is nowhere to be seen.

Until next time, my friends. I’m going to ask that you actively search out an opportunity to perform a completely random act of kindness. Do it, and at some point I’ll be back on the regular schedule and I hope you’ll be here with me. Until then, you know what I’m going to say? Be nice. Do good stuff.


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