Leading by virtue

I recently listened to a podcast that featured the blues songwriter Dion. He has had a tremendous career and has recently released a new album at the age of 81.

One of the key things he said when being interviewed that one of the biggest lessons he learnt was told by a priest when he was 15 years of age; that the key to happiness is to be a virtuous man and do good.

Aldous Huxley admitted that it was embarrassing that the best advice he could give after 45 years of research, was for people to be kinder to each other.

Over two thousand years ago, Plato made the philosophical argument that those who are just will be happier.

It is so simple yet so elusive, because the so much of the culture today is designed to make us feel inadequate, protect our own interests and be fearful of anything different. Social Media has given everyone a megaphone and it so happens that the loudest voices, which are the ones fuelled by hatred are the ones that garner most attention. It is only recently that they are acknowledging the fact that action needs to be taken to quash this, but then there is the fact that so much money is involved in it, which leads us on to another point, that greed for the last four decades has been far too legitimised.

I have interacted with people of all sorts of backgrounds and I know that wealth does not make people happier, on the contrary, it can make them significantly more miserable.

The most happiness I have seen is when people lead by building connections, lifting others not putting them down and being generous in a variety of ways.

We all have the opportunity to make a positive contribution each and every day.

What will you choose to do?

The Ravel Affair

I am currently attempting to write my first string quartet. It is a significantly new creative path for me and very challenging but nevertheless rewarding.

Upon my research of different quartets, Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major is one of my favourites. I consider it to be a beautiful piece with extraordinary passages and details typical of Ravel’s musical personality that would continue to evolve later on in his career.

What I find remarkable about the story of this piece is that it was his final submission to the conservatoire de Paris and Prix de Rome competitions to which both rejected the piece. Aside from having mixed reviews from the Parisian press, his teacher, Gabriel Faure, to whom the piece is dedicated to, dismissed the last movement as ‘stunted and in fact a failure’. Ravel himself believed that the quartet was an inadequate realisation.

Thankfully Debussy, whose own string quartet piece, which was written ten years previously and most likely had some influence on Ravel, wrote to him a letter with some words of encouragement and insisted he did not touch a single note of the piece he had written.

From what I’ve read, the truth appears that Ravel was an unconventional character with unconventional approaches to musical composition that was difficult for the conservatoire’s ultra conservative director to accept. He had enough resilience, or indifference to any other criticism than his own to keep going on his own path and it just so happens that the frustrations and failure he dealt with led him to propelling forward in his career and eventually being revered as one of the greatest French composers of all time.

Sometimes, art and the work created just so happens to be received in a time where the culture is not ready to accept its value. Some works find that appreciation is manifested at a later date, in some cases even beyond the life of the artist. Ravel’s String Quartet is now one of the most played chamber pieces.

The reason I like stories like this is that it reaffirms that steering your own creative path and focusing on what it is you want to achieve is better than changing what you do and who you are merely to fit in.

More often than not, innovation comes from the outside.

Looking out of the plane

Flying is a strange experience and when I was working internationally, I flew more in the last 4 years than I had in my entire life.

There are parts of the experience I like. I usually like the packing side, the excitement of going somewhere different and I even like sitting with a coffee in the departure lounge as I can usually relax with a book or some music, I also like watching movies on the plane.

There are parts of the experience I thoroughly dislike. The long process of getting through security, endless queueing, lack of leg room, and the way my ears suffer from the air pressure when the plane is descending. One of the most excruciating things I have ever been through was an hour long descent whilst a poor baby cries relentlessly.

One of the more profound experiences I have is when I am looking out the window. Besides the amazing aerial views on offer, I sometimes will see a town or a city and all of a sudden, I see more than buildings.

I see people, cars along the roads and then start wondering about all the lives being lived. What people are doing with their time, what are they going through, what are their dreams or desires and in what way are they suffering?

The word for this experience is ‘sonder’. For some reason, when I am flying, I get a more concrete understanding of the fact that every life is as vivid and as complex as our own.

When we adopt this view, it becomes easier to employ empathy and whilst it may be a particularly visceral experience for me when I am on the plane, I will try to keep it in mind when I am on the ground.

Thrashing through bad ideas

One of the interesting things about teaching composition is that it requires students to get used to exploring sounds, options and ultimately dealing with the fact that initially a lot of what they try isn’t going to work straight away.

There is a criteria you can set, you can work within parameters and music theory and other knowledge can certainly help in making choices that are suitable, but with that knowledge is also the willingness to take the rulebook and throw it away as that leads to innovation and originality.

Some students are so fearful of this, that it requires a Herculean effort to put anything down. To create, we need to get used to putting down bad ideas and then thrashing through them.

Almost always, there is potential to find something worthwhile amidst the ideas that are laid down, that is where thrashing can happen. What is worth keeping? What can we develop here? Will this work better if we get rid of this part or save it for later? What if we try this or that approach? How can we make this better? A myriad of questions to ask and plenty of creative possibilities.

Being open to the creative possibility is key and it comes when we give ourselves an environment where we can thrash through what we have without any judgement from the outside world. Just you and the work, and maybe some trusted people to advise you along the way.

Feeling like doing the work

One of the key distinctions to tell if someone is professional or not is whether they are willing to show up and do the work, immaterial of whether they feel like it or not.

There are plenty of reasons to be distracted, tired or emotional enough not to feel like doing the work but when opportunity is there to contribute, it’s good to learn to put these feelings to one side (for the time being) and commit to getting ourselves over the line.

There will of course be times and specific circumstances where it’s really important to take time out but more often than not, once we get stuck in to the creating, we can actually end up feeling better for it.

Any worthwhile path

Any worthwhile path will probably involve risk, discomfort, adversity, suffering and pain.

It is the reason why people don’t write a novel.

And systems have made sure we avoid that pain, that we stay comfortable, avoid risk and stick to complying, showing up and doing what we are told and expected to do without finding our own path.

I see it happen all the time. I hear people say they won’t do something because they are setting themselves up for disappointment, I’ve seen children denied a pathway because they parents are scared stuff of the risks involved.

The pain is real and it’s only natural to avoid it.

But the things that that part of us dares to do, feels compared to create is hard to ignore when we dig deep and listen to our desires. And I think it’s worth leaning into the tension to pushing ourselves to do it. There are choices to be made.

And one choice we have is to build the skills necessary to achieve what we want. With that comes the acceptance that if we want to write something good, we are probably going to spend significantly more time writing stuff which is bad. It’s only through the ongoing process of attempting, failing, failing more, failing again that we find ways to make things better. It may take years or decades to achieve your best work, but it can happen if you’re willing to pay your dues.

I thoroughly dislike the way ‘talent’ and ‘genius’ are used. As if a scarce amount of people are blessed by external force. Nonsense. This kind of limelight success story is more a tangled web of exceptional hard work, a supportive environment, benefit of the doubt, luck, being in the right place at the right time and often privilege.

You have the potential to create and make something. You just need to decide whether taking the path with many dips is the right choice for you.

The edges is where it is at.

Now and then I check the Spotify top 50 charts and my gut reaction is a wince.

I approach the music without prejudice and will always be fascinated by what makes a hit a hit, but other than my musicological curiosity. The music more often than not, is not for me.

I’ve come to learn that there is are fundamental reasons why the chart music does not work for me.

One reason is that my musically trained ears usually require something with a bit more sophistication.

Another is maybe that the production is a bit run of mill. Super loud, super compressed and sound choices that are being used at the time simply because their fashionable.

The most important reason is that my values as to what music means to me is rarely aligned with what is in the charts.

As a result. If I mentioned my top favourite albums to anyone around me, it is unlikely they have heard it.

I choose music that speaks to me in a way that is more personal, weird and interesting.

That is okay.

We are an era where hits mean very little. TV especially seems to be going through an extraordinarily exciting period of creative development where shows are coming up that are unique and tailor made for an audience with a specific taste.

If you aim to target only 1% of the population of the U.K. with what you create, that’s still 660,000 people.

It’s good to have a space in your creative output where you maintain a full sense of integrity, stay true to what you want to achieve and work in your niche.

Everyone else is already taken.

P.S. If you might like the music I like, below is the playlist. There is no better marketing tool than word of mouth.

A day at a time

Matthew Kelly said in his book ‘The Long View’ that ‘we overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in a year’.

As we progress through each day, a lot of our feelings are driven by the story we tell ourselves and I am really good at telling myself I have not achieved enough in the day. In some ways that can be a good thing, because it is driving me to make forward strides towards my goals and other times it can be not so feel good and leave me feeling tired and defeated.

This is a mini battle of perception and goals can be outlined into longer term, medium term and short term goals. When I start telling myself I am not getting very far I find this writing these down helps me put a perspective on where I am, where I am going and what I can do next.

Sometimes it is important to take the pressure off. Especially now, when there is so much uncertainty and disruption going on. For the struggles many of us are having to go through, it can and should be considered an achievement enough to have gotten out of bed, gotten dressed and taken in the surrounding area or appreciated something like the simple delight of a hot drink.

It is important to monitor our energy levels, accept that what we can do in a day may be enough for today and tomorrow, we can build on it. We may surprise ourselves when reflecting over a longer period of time how these far these little drips of progress got us.

Looking outwards vs. looking inwards

A lot of the problems that are occurring in the world today are because of the latter.

The way in which our media works intertwined with the swift evolution of our survival instincts makes looking inwards quite an understandable condition. The need for acceptance and approval, the need to feel loved, appreciated or the security as a result of wealth and or privilege.

The problems start occurring when those inward needs get in the way of others accessing theirs and when the decisions we make are motivated by fear. From my experience, this leads to a deep sense of unhappiness.

Looking outwards however creates possibility, instead of looking at what we can do for ourselves, we start thinking about what we can do for others, what can we create for others, what collaborations we can make happen and what contributions we can make and what communities we can bring together.

We have the choice, and by lifting up others, it is likely that you will be lifting yourself as well.

Positive habits for each day

Since the lockdown, my routine has gone flying out of the window. In response to that I have since incorporated habits into my daily routine that would allow me some sense of structure and help me achieve some thing positive each day.

Here are some of the habits I have steadily included in my day:

Drinking water at the start of every day

Doing some form of exercise each day (Running, cycling or full body at home) for at least 20 minutes with one rest day a week.

Going for a walk each day

Eating food and vegetables and cooking most of what I eat from scratch.

Doing some form of creating – time span ranges from half an hour to 8 hours depending on my day.

Writing an article each day

Reading for at least half an hour a day

Allocating specific times to check social media, news feeds, emails etc.

With the exception of creating, which is essentially my vocation, everything listed above are small and incremental. Most things are half an hour long in duration. I can confidently say that these have really helped me maintain a positive outlook during what is an otherwise uncertain time.

* I really recommend ‘Zen Habits’ by Leo Babauta. It is a great little book that offers great insight into making positive transformations. One of the reasons so many people cannot commit to their resolutions at the start of every year is that they are expecting too much change in too short a period of time. What we should be instead looking for is small incremental changes gradually over time.