I thought I’d do something a little different here and record today’s newsletter as an audio file. Check it out below (or just read it the usual way)
Whether writing music or prose, a goal can often get in the way. A vision too firmly held threatens and shreds the fabric of play.
The same can be said of our day to day knowledge work, so creative is its nature.
Meanwhile, goals can certainly be helpful in many scenarios. Deadlines and accountability, achievements and product launches, meeting an expectation of ourselves and others are all important in their own ways.
The trouble isn’t in the goals themselves. It’s in the emotion behind them–namely, a sense of need.
Jazz pianist Kenny Werner, in his book Effortless Mastery, encourages a seemingly simple cure:
Let go of need.
Of course, it’s easier said than done.
At the piano, the idea is to:
- Recognize any tension, likely arising from some sense of need – to sound good, to write a good song, etc.
- When that tension is recognized, I lift my hands from the keys.
- When I can feel that tension dissipate, I return my hands to the keys.
But it’s not enough to only say “let go of need”. It’s troublesome to focus only on a negative.
What we look for is that sense of presence, behind which is play, that inner toddler engaged in deep focus, flowing with ideas and the work in front of them. But this is not a faucet that’s turned on and off.
At the piano, I attempt to return play only with the simplest single note. Any complexity beyond is a sense of need weighing too heavy. If I still cannot find play there, I may set it aside for the session, planning a clear time of return for when I hope to be fresh again.
In other words, we don’t ask our work to give us flow. We bring flow, even and particularly in its most nascent forms of play, to the work.
There are many times I’ve written a better piece of music by letting go of what I thought it needed to be, or thought it needed to deliver.
In the work place, there are products that have succeeded only when realizing how the audience used it differently than the creators originally envisioned. There are medicines that have been discovered only by realizing their “side effects” could be preferred effects in other scenarios.
Most stories are powered by that same engine. A protagonist realizes that what thought they needed wasn’t it. In this way, what we are truly letting go of isn’t what we need, so much as what we think we need.
Realizing the difference is hardly simple. But the first steps there are: Pause, take your hands off the keys, and pay attention to that sensation of need. Can you set it aside before returning your hands to the keys?
Doing so often releases something that didn’t need to be there, and invites something that does.
PS – Special thanks to my pal, Billy Broas, who made the suggestion of trying an audio version of the post.
PPS – Also, check out part 1 of this post, Troubles with Goals