We Get to Invent It! 

You never know when creativity will strike or, more importantly, be called forth.

This weekend I’ve been feeling particularly melancholy, what with, you know, the world.

Thankfully Dan Rather et al over at Steady send a weekly email entitled “Smile for a Saturday”.  I needed a smile this morning, so I opened it and watched a video of Brazilian pianist Elaine Rodriguez conducting an impromptu performance in flexibility and good humor, when one of her piano pedals malfunctions.  I learned a bit about the literal mechanics of moving pianos; but more importantly, I saw how expertise, humility, and connection can save us in adversity.

While crew rushed to change pianos on stage, Ms. Rodriguez spoke to the audience.  She explained what was happening, got help, and continued to play music that did not require the pedal while she and the audience waited.  She chose pieces that sounded appropriate for the circumstances.  She looked into the audience and made eye contact, engaging them throughout.  She gave everybody, including me, the sense that we were all in it together.  Nobody knew what would happen next, how long it would take, and how the evening would turn out.  But I’d bet money that every person was glued to their seat, happily in it for the duration.

“We get to invent it!”  This may be one of my favorite sentences, and I have exclaimed it more often in the past two years than possibly in my whole life.  We thought we could not include telehealth in regular medical schedules.  We thought teams always had to meet in person, in the office, all the time to function.  We thought executives’ work necessarily required them to travel internationally over 50% of the time to lead effectively.  Maybe so, and maybe not.  COVID forced us all to reassess our default assumptions and practices.  Some served us well and proved their value through lockdown and beyond.  Some not so much, and now we get to invent how to be and do differently. Faced with adversity, we can play different songs.

My nascent idea and title for this post had just formed when YouTube autoplay began the next video, of Ben Folds composing a new song, on stage at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2017.  Friends, you’ gotta watch this!!  He literally invents a song and leads the National Symphony Orchestra through its impromptu performance, beginning to end, in ten minutes.  Stop reading now and watch, and let’s debrief below, shall we?  I’ll wait. 😉 

See if you agree that this improvisation parallels our pandemic experience:

A Minor Key

First, the MC accepts an audience suggestion of A minor as the key for the piece.  Minor keys have a somber and ominous feel compared to major keys.  They grab my attention, make me slow down, listen more slowly and mindfully.  This makes sense because most music we hear is composed in major keys; it’s the default.  Okay, now I’m prepared for the Darth Vader theme (in case you’re wondering about the difference between major and minor keys, hear the Imperial March in a major key, and Chariots of Fire in minor).  This is the first constraint placed on Folds’s new composition:  Invent a song that everybody expects to sound solemn, foreboding, and sad.  Stay home.  Wear a mask.  Curtail your travel.  No more team lunches, boondoggles, water cooler chit chat.  Stress, stress, stress.  A minor sounds like the right key for inventing a song in the Age of COVID.

Upbeat!

Next, the MC asks the audience what tempo they want to hear, ballad or upbeat?  Immediate and loud spontaneous consensus: “Upbeat!”  What a fantastic challenge, how will this work?  As leaders, culture and morale start with us.  We get to choose how we show up, no matter the circumstances.  Maybe this correlates with taking a minor key and making an upbeat song—knowing to start slowly, from a serious, thoughtful place, AND choosing to uplift.  Minor key does not necessarily make a song sad, plodding, or a slog.  Rather, it makes our upbeat-ness necessarily more intentional.  To see and amplify the positive in a negative situation does not mean ignoring, repressing, or dismissing the bad.  It means accepting and embracing it, naming it, navigating it, making the most of all that is, and then moving forward with it all, in concert.  This is what leaders are called to do.

“These New Spaces Are All Designed to Be Flexible.”

The MC asks for a ‘an interesting sentence’ from the program book, perhaps as the unifying theme for the upbeat song in A minor—the mission, purpose, direction—the cause.  I kid you not, this is the sentence that emerged.  How cosmically prescient, this video, I have goosebumps.

“We Get to Invent It!”  In the wake of Battleship COVID, we now get to design our spaces to be flexible—all spaces!  That includes physical work spaces, spaces in our own minds for how and what to be, and spaces between us in relationship, whether at home, in college dorms, at work, at the grocery store, at concerts, or in traffic—everywhere, all the time! 

Confident Thinkering

Folds sits at the piano and starts noodling.  He smiles.  You can imagine his integrated brain gears turning, changing position while staying in contact, engaged and rotating for optimal efficiency and torque.  He hits a little rut and resets, still smiling.  He knows exactly what he’s doing, understands and embraces the process of creation, the necessary messiness and disorganization of initiating something meaningful.  He also has no idea what he’s doing; the product is not yet formed.  He is inventing in real time.  Isn’t that what we are all doing now?  What expertise and skill sets can we ground ourselves in, as individuals and collaborative (or competitive!) teams, that give us the confidence to invent?  How do we orient ourselves for maximal power to accomplish our goals?

Think and tinker.  Use your knowledge, expound on theory, do the thought experiments.  Then take the experiments from thought to piano, to conversation, to teamwork.  Try stuff out.  Pilot–thoughtfully.  Exercise both humility and confidence at once:  Go all in, get all out quickly if it doesn’t work, repeat.

Collaborate

Over the next several minutes he tinkers with baseline, progression, melody.  He starts sounding out with the cellos, then winds, then violins, violas, and finally basses and drums.  At each stage, he invents something, tries it, integrates with the previous section, and assesses.  Does it work?  “…Just to make sure I don’t suck…sorry, this takes a second to create a whole song.”  The song evolves in front of our eyes and ears, passing through organic adjustments of timing, notes, combinations of sounds and participation.  “…Let’s hear it all together, make sure it’s not crazy…”  The orchestra conductor follows attentively, providing seamless ancillary direction and guidance to the group.

Is this not what any team in transition needs?  Leaders recognize material constraints and requirements:  A minor key, upbeat tempo, These New Spaces Are All Designed to Be Flexible.  They take the first steps, feeling things out, listening.  They check in with the team at all levels—how does it sound for this group?  What about when we add other groups?  How’s the harmony?  Is it working for the whole?  If not, what do we need to change?  

Revel in the Awesomeness

The performance climaxes after all parts have rehearsed, integrated, and repeated.  Folks are comfortable in their brand new learned nerve pathways.  Now they get to really play together, to have fun, improvise, and enjoy their accomplishment.  What would happen if we celebrated our successes, even the smallest ones, more often and loudly (‘fivetissimo”)?

It occurs to me here that this performance works because of certain fundamental premises:  1) Everybody agrees to participate, and to follow Ben Folds’s lead.  2) Everybody speaks the same language.  Real time communication occurs cleanly and efficiently, with immediate feedback.  3) The leader trusts the team to do what they do best, giving appropriate instruction according to roles.  4) The task is brief, the goal is clear and simple, and the leader takes responsibility for the end product.

This video is neither a perfect nor a complete metaphor for creating optimal post-COVID environments and relationships.  Still, it inspires and activates me.  It provokes thought and creativity, and spurs me to enroll others in new ideas, experimentation, and shared accountability for our collective outcomes. 

Really, if you have not already watched, please take ten minutes.  You can even just listen.  I bet you won’t regret it, and it may even inspire you.

The Menopause Inflection

From overlook on Ptarmigan Trail, Silverthorne, Colorado. Left to right: Buffalo Mountain, Red Mountain, Silverthorne Peak

What does the graph of your life look like? 

I imagine we’d all put something related to time or age on the horizontal axis, but what goes on the vertical?  What is meaningful to you, that is worth measuring, over a lifetime?  Joy?  Financial success/accumulation?  Education? Learning?  Status?  Growth?  Contribution?

For a long time I conceptually contrasted puberty and menopause, seeing the former as an exponential acceleration in growth and the latter a rapid decline, like the two stems of a broad arch, an upside down parabola.  This past week during a patient interview, however, a wholly different perspective dawned on me.  Menopause may signal the end of child-bearing years, of youth.  Some may perceive it only as a global decline—the unmistakable physical sign that we are now closer to the end of our life than the beginning.  But what if it’s also a new beginning, life expectancy not withstanding?

My patient and I discussed the trade-offs we are called to make throughout life—career, relationships, geography, etc.  What do we get in return for trading away our reproductive years?  For me the greatest payoffs are wisdom and confidence.  After about 5 decades of living, learning, and being in relationship with self and others, I welcome this phase of life with keenness and joy.  What a relief to have my personality and values established, to know what I stand for.  How rewarding to feel that I can walk into any room and talk to anyone, knowing fully and without question who I am, without having to compare myself to anyone around me.  How fun to find opportunities for continued learning around every corner, in domains I never thought I’d encounter, or even knew existed!  Everything I have experienced, learned, and struggled through until now comprises a thread in the tapestry of my life, and the picture gets more dense and colorful with each passing day, year, and decade.

The life graph of learning and personal growth is most interesting to me.  Superimposed on the graph of challenge and pain, I might see the lines travel in parallel trajectories—no surprise.  As the years pass, though, I see a net positive slope, a steady climb of the most meaningful curves, and menopause perhaps as a milestone inflection point, beyond which the ascent may well progress with fewer stutters and regressions, as wisdom and confidence accrue, and mission/cause come into greater focus and clarity.

I choose to see and draw my life graph this way.

Why not keep climbing until the end and go out at a peak? 

Gotta go now, I’ got work to do.

Mantras for 2022

What words encircle your consciousness this year?

Maybe you don’t roll with words?  What ideas, feelings, sounds, or other sensations, then? 

When you get still, where does your energy settle, and what aspirations arise?

I share some of mine here; I’d love to read some of yours in the comments!

“Stop Shoulding All Over Yourself”

As I get older, I reach for larger, stronger mental shovels to evict certain voices from my mind.  “New Year’s resolutions are useless, don’t bother” (see evidence to the contrary). “Get up early and write in the morning, it’s the only way.”  Do this, do that, think this, feel that.  I’ve internalized enough societal standards and constraints, some helpful, many not.  Every year of adulthood also solidifies my own core values and goals, which themselves drive me forcefully—not enough, never enough, must be better, always more.  In the end all the ‘Shoulds’, both external and internal, can feel heavy.  I know who I am, I know what’s important to me.  I’m a lifelong learner.  I progress because it’s my nature.  I do what I need to do and I’m good at it; I am enough.

Competence and Confidence

So many recurring challenges—this past year especially, but just generally in life, right?  When I look back only at the past weeks or months, it’s too easy to judge myself harshly and wonder, am I really enough?  Look at all the mistakes I keep making, over and again!  But when I breathe slowly and deeply, looking back farther on the long arc of learning, I see unequivocal progress.  “If it’s important, it will be repeated,” they always told us in medical school.  Life lessons always seem to come around again just when I need them.  With every iteration, when I can be fully present, tame my feral emotions, and call forth skills already learned, my ability deepens, even shines.  Every such instance prepares me for the next trial.  This is the benefit of mid-life: seeing clear evidence of advancing competence, and feeling the confidence to own it.

Transform the Story

The first and most important lesson I learned from coaching was to recognize the stories I tell.  All of our perceptions are, in very large proportion, formed in advance by our past experiences, biases, and expectations.  “Reality”, how we make meaning, is far more subjective than we realize (ha!) or admit, and I’m convinced that most human conflict arises when we deny awareness and acceptance of this.  I’ve gotten pretty good at noticing and moderating the stories I tell in new and low stakes encounters.  But in longstanding, intimate relationships and high stakes situations, I am often still chained to my deep, often negative, and ultimately self-defeating stories.  Ironically they are stories about others which, when I’m honest, are actually projections of my own concealed wounds.  How fascinating…and worthy of the work to disassemble, to free myself and my loved ones from these abstract cages of invented being.

Lightly, Lightly, Ever Lightly

*deep breath*

It’s all so much, this work, this drive, this constant striving in potential and possibility.  There is a role and a place for the Shoulds; the challenges all make me stronger; and the old stories all served a purpose once.  To grow is to shed, break, and deconstruct, and also to synthesize, integrate, and reform, ad infinitum.  It can and does often feel pretty heavy.  But now, this year, I choose lightness instead.  I have only this one life, yes, and it is finite.  There is only so much I can do…  And that’s still a lot, and I’m still young yet!  I’ got time, I’ got this; and even if I don’t, damn, I’ve done a fair bit already.  If it all ended today, of course I would have serious regrets.  And I’ve done my best; I’ve never stopped trying.  What more could I ask of myself?

Any and every moment can carry all hope, could make or break everything (really?), and could have nothing to do with anything–who knows in that moment?  I’m learning and doing every day anyway; why apply unnecessary pressure?  No, I’d rather have more fun in this time that I have.  So I’ll keep doing what needs doing.  I just don’t have to take it all (or myself) so damn seriously.

Oh and ODOMOBaaT, of course.  That just goes without saying.