Posts Tagged 'genius'

The Tao of John Wooden

I have a deep admiration for John Wooden.

The legendary UCLA basketball coach, “The Wizard of Westwood,” passed away Friday at the age of 99.

Having retired from the game 35 years ago, he moved on to share his philosophy on leadership and trademark “Pyramid of Success” with others through books and speaking engagements.

Wooden built a legacy of winning matched by very few in all of sport on a reputation for tremendous character and hard-nosed attention to detail. Having a mild obsession with organization myself, I write out my nightly lesson plans on 3×5 index cards with specific intervals for each subject as an homage to his down-to-the-minute practice regiments.

His expectations centered on peak performance. Results were secondary.

Drilling his players to fulfill talent instead of counting victories and defeats  led to ten national championships and a host of “Wooden-isms” which can be applied in all arenas.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.

Proper attitude is central to achievement. On the long road from “concept” to “success,” you encounter many opportunities to become discouraged and give up.

Be resilient in the face of disappointment. It will get you far.

Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.

Everyone knows a person that repeats the same mistake over and over. Part of maturity is realizing what keeps us from becoming better and deciding to go in a different direction to avoid the same results.

Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.

When you’re making a drastic change or tackling a major challenge, it is easy to notice what’s beyond your reach. Suddenly, you’ve fallen into a hole believing your powers are unequal to the task.

Focus instead on what you are able influence.

The rest will come.

If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

A classic line, it pairs well with another: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

Haste leads to errant thinking and decreased quality. Be patient. Emphasize precision first, then concern yourself with speed.

There has to be a definite purpose and goal if you are to progress. If you are not intent about what you are doing, you aren’t able to resist the temptation to do something else that might be more fun at the moment.

A peculiar concentration is necessary to reach the summit of your personal mountain. The climb is littered with distractions and chances to settle. Without single-minded determination to see the journey through, you will fall short.

It’s clear how Wooden’s simple, uncompromising system produced high-caliber execution.

The fundamental ideals he espoused created an environment and culture in which individuals could thrive in pursuit of team objectives.

Glory naturally followed.

Most important of all, however, is the guiding principle of his extraordinary life:

Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.

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Succeed Like John Mayer

I enjoy windows into another’s creative process.

There is an unspoken kinship amongst humanity, a deep and constant knowledge begging to be expressed–and therefore recalled–in the outside world. Ultimately, each of us must find our own way to share the message with others and the opportunity to see how someone else bridges the gap between “ethereal” and “tangible” fascinates me.

Over the last decade, John Mayer has risen to fame on the wings of his lyrical agility.

Though checkered by an uneven relationship with his own celebrity I(and the press it attracts), his talent for producing tracks which give voice to the “quarter-life crisis” and its anxieties is unmatched.

Recently, America was given the opportunity to peer into his brain a little.

He took the stage in New York for VH1’s Storytellers and described his songwriting brainstorms during breaks from playing various parts of his catalog.

He alluded to a few bars that traipsed through his head for months. He would sit with his guitar and “play it for hours” without any real idea what it was for or how it could be used. It was just there, persistent and unyielding, for him to toy with and shape to his satisfaction.

Tinkering with a simple trill led to his second major hit, “Your Body is A Wonderland.”

Being a writer, I instantly identified with the uneasy feeling of groping in the dark corners of the brain armed only with the certainty something meaningful is there. For days afterward, Mayer’s revealing soliloquies wandered through my mind as I pondered his undemanding and unhurried playfulness while pursuing progress.

Then, I asked the right question.

“Why do you have to be any different?”

I felt a sense of relief.  In an instant, “stop forcing it” calmed my jangling nerves. I thought, “You’re an arrogant ass, believing you have to write something perfect from the start.”

The moment was pure clarity—the lunacy of attempting to muscle an unprepared idea into something larger became unmistakable. It makes as much sense as polishing a diamond before you’re done digging it up.

How can you expect an exquisite outcome ahead of schedule?

Advancement is a series of short spurts.

Your ability to shine light on truth grows with time, as you grasp the magnitude of it.

It’s the way life has always worked.

When you strike out on the path focused on your own beliefs, faithful to the result, you are headed in the right direction.

Pace is irrelevant.

What matters is holding firm to your core values and being honest as you evaluate your performance, then correcting you course using subtle shifts.

This is how you attain the heights of your dreams.

Achievement is rooted in proceeding as yourself, guided by your principles to your ends. Patient adherence to the intuitive action plan oozing through your essence will always get you where you’re going.

And that’s how you succeed like John Mayer.

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Surround Yourself with Genius

John Coltrane (foreground) and Miles Davis record together.

There can be little doubt our environments affect our performance.

Whether leading or being led, a situation’s confines guide results. Sometimes these boundaries foster imagination or, at others, conformity.

Success is driven by innovation.

In the history of music, there are a handful of albums which can be said to have redirected a genre. Kind of Blue by the Miles Davis Sextet is one of them. Considering his tendency towards minimal direction, the man at the helm in Columbia 30th Street studio must have known a simple fact:

Creativity is the byproduct of free thought.

Each performer was invited because he brought the requisite skill to the converted church on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane both had skyrocketing reputations on the saxophone. Davis held Bill Evans’ work on the piano in high regard, often calling just to have the phone’s receiver laid beside his playing friend.

In order to squeeze the best from yourself, be surrounded by genius.

The brilliance produced throughout by every artist–each a virtuoso in his own right–makes it one of the finest musical achievements ever. Melody, tone and rhythm emanate from the instruments in exquisite harmony. The ensemble is at a peak, moving from note to note deftly before giving way to a counterpart.

Witnessing another reach heights of inventive ecstasy can only inspire you to do the same.

All this sprung from disjointed sketches and sparing guidance given to men of tremendous ability. Consciously or otherwise, Davis managed to change jazz by heeding the words of General George S. Patton:

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

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I could listen to Miles Davis all day.

Passing my waking hours with my iPod looping the three-plus hours of his music through my ears would be a quiet pleasure.

Jazz is an art form capable of spanning the emotional spectrum quickly and the trumpeter from Illinois was adept at eliciting them all.

Davis’ popularity blossomed in 1957 after the release of critically-acclaimed Miles Ahead, the bebop-influenced Birth of the Cool (recorded in 1949-50) and his work on Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, setting the French film’s mood with sultry compositions like “Generique” .

The following year, he began experimenting with modal composition and worked it into his take on George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, as well as the studio-made Milestones.

Then, in 1959, Kind of Blue arrived.

Turning aside the complex chords of his past alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker completely in favor of simpler scales, he produced a landmark in the history of recorded music. By unleashing the artist, he turned the genre on its ear.

The sextet on hand at Columbia 30th Street Studio included Davis and other luminaries of the time–Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane–roaming free across countless notes in unbridled improvisation.

With its smooth transition from indignant apathy to wistful romance, this is my favorite album of all time.

What makes it even more remarkable is the fact each of the five original tracks were produced with little in the way of direction or rehearsal. Davis was known to encourage expression and creativity by leaving his fellow musicians practically in the dark about the intended result of a session together.

The melodies are produced mostly by feel.

And that’s why I love it.

It’s all ingenuity, all the time.

Enjoy the opening song, “So What,” below.

Duke Ellington and Paul Gonsalves

“Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue”

This is one of the most brilliant pieces of improvisation in the history of jazz, particularly the Big Band variety. Originally composed by Ellington as two separate pieces, “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue,” with a piano interval to link them, legend has it that Gonsalves managed to successfully negotiate switching the preferred instrument to saxophone at the jazz monument Birdland on June 30, 1951.

On this particular day five years later, the song began simply enough, with the piano and  percussion section rhythmically setting the stage. The crowd is being told musically to take their seats. Then the horns sweep in to let you know the show is on. The winds call out their part, telling a comparatively subdued story as the trumpets, saxophones and trombones reply with tinny sarcasm. Up to this point, the tune has the trademark eloquence and technical quality of any Ellington work.

Then, Gonsalves’ saxophone saunters in unassumingly (possibly because it was being played into the wrong microphone). Over the course of 27 choruses–nearly 6.5 minutes–he rips off one of the most memorable solos in the history of music, gaining strength and altitude and sheer audacity with each passing bar. Band members begin to shout encouragement. They know what’s happening.

The sound resonates through the event, the crowd is lifted off their butts. A “striking platinum blonde woman in a black evening dress, named Elaine Anderson, jumped from her box seat and started dancing,” confirming the energy level had skyrocketed and giving it a further boost. Fellow attendants begin standing on chairs and whistling loudly as the bridge nears its midpoint, then applaud generously as the “wailing interval” gives way to the remainder of the song.

The horns let everyone know it’s time to get back to the sheet music. The winds announce themselves in the distance, gathering steam as they march forward, belting their airy tone in epic unison. The horns answer with force of their own. Like rival cheering sections, each throws their best at the other.

They’ve changed the environment. The air is on fire. If there had been a roof, it would have blown off and landed miles away. The song is nearing its close. Lungs are burning. Fingers ache from the furious activity. Nonetheless, the finish is a flourish and the crowd erupts in joyful gratitude for the honor of being witness to this ingenuity, this virtuosity, this majesty of moment-to-moment inspiration.

This is a description of the first known recording, performed live at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, which can be purchased here. (The episode embedded from YouTube above came later.)

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