Filed under "Life Lessons"

March 7, 2017

Learn from Everything

It’s likely that you’ll come across many problems in life that have no realistic solution. Maybe your boss is a jerk who lacks basic leadership skills. Maybe your project is doomed due to an upper management oversight that’s beyond your control. Maybe your country is going through some difficult changes that are affecting you and those around you.

Since we feel powerless in these situations, our natural tendency is to take control of what little we can—we get angry, resentful, and maybe even lash out at others.

Instead, I offer an alternative, and that is to learn from everything.

Learn from every difficult situation that’s beyond your control. If your boss sucks, study him or her closely to see where you can do things differently when you get an opportunity to lead. If your project is doomed, learn why it’s doomed so you can communicate those red flags next time you foresee a project going down in flames. If your country is in peril, learn from the circumstances that led to that outcome, and work to inform others of how to guard against another such outcome in the future.

You’re not as powerless as you think. Your greatest asset is the ability to observe, reason, and learn when you’re up against the wall. From there, you can take those lessons to make a better future for yourself and those around you.

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Over ten years ago, I stood in front of my bedroom mirror with my pawn shop acoustic guitar and strummed three chords, hummed a tune, and called it my first song. I had no idea if it was good or not (it wasn’t), but I’d finally crossed a line into being a creator.

Over the next 10+ years, I’d craft songs for fun, play in bands, record EPs for friends, and hone my craft into something I can be proud of. Here’s what I learned along the way.

In the beginning, you’ll be bland and rip off other artists’ work

The wonderful, but terrifying thing about creating any sort of art is that there are, in theory, an infinite number of combinations and outcomes when putting pen to page, so to speak.

The average guitar has 138 playable notes and an estimated 2,341 chord combinations. Not only that, but simply holding your guitar in different ways can yield different sounds.

With this in mind, we typically approach new art forms with the help of frameworks. I learned guitar by memorizing basic, popular chord patterns and pop songs. I was instructed by teachers to hold my guitar a certain way. From there, I moved into learning scales and absorbing guitar method books.

We turn to these resources because we’re lost and overwhelmed by the possibilities. We want to create something, but we don’t know how to go about creating it.

So, when starting out, you’ll mostly be ripping off other people’s work and/or making bland art. What you need to know is that this is totally okay and part of the creation process. Rip people off all you want, but know that you’re capable of much more.

Inspiration is a mix of influence and accident

Last I checked, I have over 150 song samples in a folder on my computer, dating back over 5 years. Of those, only 12 were developed into full songs. While that’s far less than the output a full-time musician might have, it illustrates that you’re not going to get it right the first time.

I’ve written full songs after months of trial and error, and I’ve written full songs after 2 hours of goofing around on my guitar. There’s no tried and true system, except that you absolutely have to put in the work and fail repeatedly.

Additionally, building a backlog of influences is incredibly important. As you explore your craft, you’ll gain insights from studying other artists, each of which can teach you new tools for expanding your art. If you don’t appreciate other artists, you won’t be appreciated by other artists.

Not only that, but if you’re in the habit of saving all of your old drafts, you may even find yourself being influenced by your past self. I find this practice of saving old work to be invaluable, as I’ve often discovered that my past self had some interesting ideas that just needed time to bake.

If you’re afraid to seek feedback, you’re not ready

When I write music, I send an early draft to two longtime friends to get their feedback.

I do this because, as a creator, you experience your work in a way that no one else ever will — you’ll see the flaws, you’ll have your favorite nuances that no one else notices, you’ll remember the entire story of how your work came into being.

In short, you’re married to it.

You need to give it to someone who can experience it as it’s meant to be experienced. If not, it’s nearly impossible to know if your work is actually accomplishing what you want.

Also, getting feedback on your work is scary and hard. It puts you in a vulnerable position of sharing your flawed creative process.

And trust me, you’re going to create some garbage that you’ll believe to be a work of genius; it’s humbling to hear this isn’t the case. At the same time, it’s exhilarating when you discover that it’s really connecting with people.

Thankfully, the process of requesting and receiving feedback becomes much easier to stomach over time. You’ll eventually develop a sense for what’s actually good and what’s garbage, but it’s important that you never stop looking for feedback from those you trust and respect.

If you’re afraid to take this step and expose yourself to constructive feedback, you’re not ready to reach the heights to which you aspire.

You should love the final drafts

When you create something that matches up with what you want to express, you’ll love it. It’ll be the pinnacle of your self-expression, and you’ll consider it an extension of yourself (and you should love yourself, right?).

If you don’t love what you’re creating, go back to the drawing board. Rewrite it. Store it away for later. Re-use it in a future work, and reshape it into something better.

Stop publishing art you don’t love.

If you’d like to hear my music, head over to my Soundcloud.

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February 20, 2017

“In one sentence…”

Years ago, I was involved with an interview panel for a candidate who couldn’t seem to articulate his thoughts and viewpoints. While his answers to our questions were acceptable, he lacked candor. With the hopes of leading the candidate to more revealing and focused answers, one of my colleagues asked him a simple question, “in one sentence, what do you want from this job?”

The candidate offered up all the correct answers he could come up with—”to become a better developer; to learn how this company works and make it better; oh, and for the challenge; to be awesome; to do great work; to solve difficult problems.” His multiple responses only soured our opinion and diluted what could’ve been a great answer.

In the end, we didn’t move forward with the candidate. It was tough to gauge his viewpoints or skill based on his responses, which taught me a valuable lesson:

Words are powerful, and often, using fewer words makes the biggest impact.

Next time you’re in a position that requires a careful choice of words, try to deliver those words with brevity. Take your time, think, and articulate.

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February 17, 2017

Be Helpful

For some people, being approached by a co-worker with a request is sometimes viewed as an inconvenience, especially when that requests asks a lot of us. Perhaps the co-worker doesn’t have a good understanding of what exactly you do, or what you’re responsible for.

If you want to provide a better interaction with those co-workers, immediately give yourself a goal when the interaction begins:

Help this person.

Avoid the temptation to slough them off on somebody else unless that person would be better able to help. Avoid making excuses for why you can’t help. Do what you can to make their situation a bit better. When the interaction is over, perhaps ask, “what else can I do to help you?”

Sometimes, the most productive move for your career is to improve the career of others.

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February 13, 2017

Thank Someone Today

There are many people in your life that deserve your gratitude.

While some of us are quick to assume we found success from our efforts alone, the truth is that we’re all guided by a multitude of influencers and advocates. I myself was raised by great parents, I’m supported by a loving wife, I’ve been mentored by great leaders, and I’m motivated by a great team.

Take an opportunity to show gratitude for an act of kindness today.

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Early in my music career (lol), I got a chance to play guitar for a church youth group. In the months that followed, I had a blast being the sole musician each week, playing for a small crowd of 20-30 students.

Being fairly new to guitar, I was a bit raw and inconsistent with my playing, but it was a great confidence boost for a shy kid with a dream of playing music for a crowd.

After a few months of being the go-to musician, I was joined by a fellow guitar player, John. We spent the following several weeks playing together, but it wasn’t an immediate success. John came with new ideas, but I had an ego, which led to me causing trouble and stalling progress towards better music each week.

One evening, before we started playing for the night, John pulled me aside and gave me some advice. “Brian, you tend to play your acoustic guitar a bit too loud and forceful. Try softening it up a bit and go for a clearer sound.”

Wow, I thought, I’ve been doing this wrong for so long now! It was a tough pill to swallow, but I quickly realized John was right. What he was really saying was, “you don’t have to play loud to be heard. Just play well.” Simple. Effective.

Taking John’s advice that night, he and I played a round of songs better than we had in all the weeks prior. After our set, he gave me a thumbs up. “Much better,” he said.

I always respected John for giving me that advice, and I’ve carried variations of it with me throughout my (non-music) career.

You don’t have to work so hard. Just do good work.

You don’t have to speak loudly to get your point across. Just speak clearly.

You don’t have to do everything. Just do one thing well.

Thumbs up, John.

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January 27, 2017

Real leadership

Real leadership isn’t an opportunity to dictate; it’s a call to greater service. It’s grounded in humility. It doesn’t self-serve; it builds others up, and understands that vulnerability is as equally important as strength. It shows kindness to the lesser, and respect to the greater.

Real leadership doesn’t complain; it asks how we can improve, together. It listens, it empathizes. It resists ego, and recognizes good work. It breeds optimism. It empowers people and gives them a voice.

Real leadership endures, bleeds, and sacrifices for those it serves. It speaks truth, and never sinks to falsehood, no matter the cost. It accepts defeat; it accepts victory in stride.

Real leadership, above all, is grounded in wisdom.

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January 26, 2017

Enemies

We tend to misidentify our enemies.

Enemies threaten to do harm to you or those you love. Enemies actively try to sabotage your happiness and well-being.

Those who express a point of view different from yours are not your enemies. Those who fight for the improvement of their own lives are not your enemies.

Don’t vilify others by default.

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January 24, 2017

The coward and the hero

A quote from Cus D’Amato, boxing trainer of Mike Tyson:

The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It’s the same thing, fear, but it’s what you do with it that matters.

 

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January 23, 2017

Today

You know that habit you’ve been wanting to kick, or that project you’ve been wanting to start, or that book you’ve been meaning to write? Maybe there’s a new diet plan you’ve mentally committed to, but haven’t taken your first bite of vegetables. Maybe there’s a novel you’ve been dying to read, but you haven’t had the time. Maybe there’s a difficult email you’ve needed to compose, or an assignment that’s gone past the point of safe procrastination. Maybe there’s a relationship that’s gone south and needs a healing conversation. Maybe there’s a raise you’re badly needing, but haven’t worked up the nerve to ask for it. Maybe there’s someone out there who needs to hear that you love them. Maybe there’s a new job posting you’ve had your eye on, but feel wildly unqualified for.

Today’s the day.

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