Wayne Shorter: be the director of the movie of your life

I first became aware of Wayne Shorter’s artistry when I was a teenager and heard him play in the fabulous Bertrand Tavernier film Round Midnight. As an aspiring saxophonist, his command of the instrument grabbed my full attention and inspired me.

The news of his death at age 89 today was so sad to hear. I grieve for his family and friends. His passing is also a reminder that one’s heroes are mortal, and that while we can remember them through their accomplishments, in the case of artists like Shorter we also mourn the loss of their future works of art. The sheer brilliance of future performances we will never hear, moments of insight and reverie we will never get to experience. All such a loss.

In 2016, Shorter and Herbie Hancock collaborated on a creative manifesto of sorts, the full text of which I’ve included below. I take particular inspiration from the last point of their letter, where they exhort us to live in a state of constant wonder:

All that exists is a product of someone’s imagination; treasure and nurture yours and you’ll always find yourself on the precipice of discovery… Be the leaders in the movie of your life. You are the director, producer, and actor. Be bold and tirelessly compassionate as you dance through the voyage that is this lifetime.

For me, striving to live in a state of constant wonder is perhaps the best and most meaningful way to live in the face of the inevitability and finality of death.

Rest in peace, Wayne Shorter. May your music and memory be a blessing.


An Open Letter To The Next Generation Of Artists
by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter

To the Next Generation of Artists,

We find ourselves in turbulent and unpredictable times.

From the horror at the Bataclan to the upheaval in Syria and the senseless bloodshed in San Bernardino, we live in a time of great confusion and pain. As an artist, creator and dreamer of this world, we ask you not to be discouraged by what you see but to use your own lives, and by extension your art, as vehicles for the construction of peace.

While it’s true that the issues facing the world are complex, the answer to peace is simple; it begins with you. You don’t have to be living in a third world country or working for an NGO to make a difference. Each of us has a unique mission. We are all pieces in a giant, fluid puzzle, where the smallest of actions by one puzzle piece profoundly affects each of the others. You matter, your actions matter, your art matters.

We’d like to be clear that while this letter is written with an artistic audience in mind, these thoughts transcend professional boundaries and apply to all people, regardless of profession.

We are not alone. We do not exist alone and we cannot create alone. What this world needs is a humanistic awakening of the desire to raise one’s life condition to a place where our actions are rooted in altruism and compassion. You cannot hide behind a profession or instrument; you have to be human. Focus your energy on becoming the best human you can be. Focus on developing empathy and compassion. Through the process you’ll tap into a wealth of inspiration rooted in the complexity and curiosity of what it means to simply exist on this planet. Music is but a drop in the ocean of life.

The world needs new pathways. Don’t allow yourself to be hijacked by common rhetoric, or false beliefs and illusions about how life should be lived. It’s up to you to be the pioneers. Whether through the exploration of new sounds, rhythms, and harmonies or unexpected collaborations, processes and experiences, we encourage you to dispel repetition in all of its negative forms and consequences. Strive to create new actions both musically and with the pathway of your life. Never conform.

The unknown necessitates a moment-to-moment improvisation or creative process that is unparalleled in potential and fulfillment. There is no dress rehearsal for life because life, itself, is the real rehearsal. Every relationship, obstacle, interaction, etc. is a rehearsal for the next adventure in life. Everything is connected. Everything builds. Nothing is ever wasted. This type of thinking requires courage. Be courageous and do not lose your sense of exhilaration and reverence for this wonderful world around you.

We have this idea of failure, but it’s not real; it’s an illusion. There is no such thing as failure. What you perceive as failure is really a new opportunity, a new hand of cards, or a new canvas to create upon. In life there are unlimited opportunities. The words, “success” and “failure”, themselves, are nothing more than labels. Every moment is an opportunity. You, as a human being, have no limits; therefore infinite possibilities exist in any circumstance.

The world needs more one-on-one interaction among people of diverse origins with a greater emphasis on art, culture and education. Our differences are what we have in common. We can work to create an open and continuous plane where all types of people can exchange ideas, resources, thoughtfulness and kindness. We need to be connecting with one another, learning about one another, and experiencing life with one another. We can never have peace if we cannot understand the pain in each other’s hearts. The more we interact, the more we will come to realize that our humanity transcends all differences.

Art in any form is a medium for dialogue, which is a powerful tool. It is time for the music world to produce sound stories that ignite dialogue about the mystery of us. When we say the mystery of us, we’re talking about reflecting and challenging the fears, which prevent us from discovering our unlimited access to the courage inherent in us all. Yes, you are enough. Yes, you matter. Yes, you should keep going.

Arrogance can develop within artists, either from artists who believe that their status makes them more important, or those whose association with a creative field entitles them to some sort of superiority. Beware of ego; creativity cannot flow when only the ego is served.

The medical field has an organization called Doctors Without Borders. This lofty effort can serve as a model for transcending the limitations and strategies of old business formulas which are designed to perpetuate old systems in the guise of new ones. We’re speaking directly to a system that’s in place, a system that conditions consumers to purchase only the products that are dictated to be deemed marketable, a system where money is only the means to an end. The music business is a fraction of the business of life. Living with creative integrity can bring forth benefits never imagined.

Your elders can help you. They are a source of wealth in the form of wisdom. They have weathered storms and endured the same heartbreaks; let their struggles be the light that shines the way in the darkness. Don’t waste time repeating their mistakes. Instead, take what they’ve done and catapult you towards building a progressively better world for the progeny to come.

As we accumulate years, parts of our imagination tend to dull. Whether from sadness, prolonged struggle, or social conditioning, somewhere along the way people forget how to tap into the inherent magic that exists within our minds. Don’t let that part of your imagination fade away. Look up at the stars and imagine what it would be like to be an astronaut or a pilot. Imagine exploring the pyramids or Machu Picchu. Imagine flying like a bird or crashing through a wall like Superman. Imagine running with dinosaurs or swimming like mer-creatures. All that exists is a product of someone’s imagination; treasure and nurture yours and you’ll always find yourself on the precipice of discovery.

How does any of this lend to the creation of a peaceful society you ask? It begins with a cause. Your causes create the effects that shape your future and the future of all those around you. Be the leaders in the movie of your life. You are the director, producer, and actor. Be bold and tirelessly compassionate as you dance through the voyage that is this lifetime.

– Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock

A Conversation With Michael Dearing

I typically don’t go around trumpeting the arrival my latest pod episode to friends and family. Everyone is busy with their own thing, and I figure that if they’re going to listen to it, they’re going to find their own way to it. Human nature being what it is, they’re not likely to establish a listening habit just because I’m reminding them that HEY, I JUST POURED MY SOUL INTO MAKING THIS LATEST RECORDING.

That’s overstating it a bit, but for me, compared to writing words on a screen/page, speaking into a microphone represents a markedly higher level of personal commitment, involvement, and vulnerability. You can edit an audio track, but your voice is your voice, and it’s challenging to read pre-written stuff on the air — it only sounds right when it’s done wholly or partially off-the-cuff. If writing is close to the iterative, drawn-out process of designing something, then podding is akin to the real-time dynamic of playing jazz saxophone

Having said all of that, here’s my latest pod episode, one I think you will like:

Michael is the founder of Harrison Metal. As you’ll hear in the podcast, he did a ton of remarkable things before launching Harrison Metal, too. Michael and I met over ten years ago when he helped out as an “Industry Coach” for the Creating Infectious Action class which Bob Sutton and I used to teach at the Stanford d.school. He subsequently became a Consulting Associate Professor at the d.school, and it was fun to be on the faculty there together.

I am a big fan of Michael’s character and intellect, from which it follows that I am also a big fan of his feed on the Twitter. For this pod, we use that as a launchpad to talk about venture mechanics, gross margin, the clocks in Greenwich, modern capitalism, organizational life, why Harrison Metal is called Harrison Metal, and how a certain type of aquatic mammal will inherit the earth.

With the release of each new pod over the past year (save for one), I’ve consistently felt like the latest one is my favorite one ever. Ferry Porsche once said something similar, that his favorite Porsche was the one yet to be designed. My favorite pod is actually the next one to be recorded: I learn so much making these, I listen to other people’s work and learn from it, and I try to roll whatever insights I’ve had into our next recording. So it’s safe to say that this episode is by far my favorite one until we record another one.

But who knows? — perhaps this is the high water mark. Let’s ask the dolphins.


What is Disruptive Innovation?

“The problem with conflating a disruptive innovation with any breakthrough that changes an industry’s competitive patterns is that different types of innovation require different strategic approaches. To put it another way, the lessons we’ve learned about succeeding as a disruptive innovator (or defending against a disruptive challenger) will not apply to every company in a shifting market. If we get sloppy with our labels or fail to integrate insights from subsequent research and experience into the original theory, then managers may end up using the wrong tools for their context, reducing their chances of success.” 

– Clay Christensen, Michael Raynor, and Rory McDonald, What is Disruptive Innovation?


Amen. This is a wonderful, very timely article.

Mandatory reading for anyone engaged in the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life.

The Simple Pleasure of a Well-Crafted Tune

My musical training is as a jazz saxophonist—which by the way, informs pretty much every facet of my world view as a builder of things—so I naturally gravitate to any music involving that most excellent brass embodiment of all that is good about the civilized world: Michael Brecker, Tower of Power John Coltrane, Moon Hooch, and the like.

But in fact I like all kinds of music. To be sure, not every genre in the world floats my boat, but most of them do. Opera, classical, folk, funk, klezmer, rock, electronica—I like it all. In the parlance of the Blues Brothers, I like country and western. I could care less whether something is mainstream or indie, serious or frivolous, pop or high culture. At the end of the day, I just can’t resist the simple pleasure of a well-crafted tune. If it’s awesomely constructed and played with heart, give it to me.

I tend to obsess a bit over tunes that strike my fancy. Obsess, as in, listen to each one hundreds of times, over and over and over. My ever-tolerant family eventually bans such featured tunes from any public airplay in our home or automobiles. Oh well, I’ll always have my iPhone and earbuds…

The latest composition to be locked into semi-permanent repeat on my iPhone (and banned from my car) is High Times by Kacey Musgraves and her LED-bedecked band of bearded troubadours. It’s the first tune on this amazing NPR Tiny Desk concert—check it out:

There are so many things to admire about this composition and the way it’s performed:

  • I love how the first lyrics drop you right into the heart of the action, media res. No buried lede here.
  • There’s a beautiful variety of musical textures at work: solo voice, full instrumentation, warbling whistle, and some pregnant pauses.
  • Musgrave’s lyrics are deceiving in their simplicity; I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t find some sort of personal resonance in her themes of loneliness, self identity, seeking zero BS, and making life choices.

And so on. A music critic more deft than yrs trly could unpack High Times a lot better than I ever will. And I’m not sure that I want to—I don’t want to trample over the magic at work here.

The last tune to grab my attention in such a way was—wait for it—Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen. And before that it was Tubes by Moon Hooch. Preceded by Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. And so forth.

All totally different genres, and on the surface a fundamentally different approach to music making. And across all of these finely crafted tunes, I see so many things can inspire and inform the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life. Each one plays by the constraints of their respective genres, but uses them in a liberating way; the search for novelty within socially acceptable constraints can lead to incredible and surprising creative outcomes. And in each you can feel the artists performing in a flowing and authentic way. They’ve mastered the process and their instruments, and moved beyond those to another level of being. To me that’s the definition of an artist, and I believe you can be an artist no matter the tools of expression you work with.

Such are the simple pleasures of a well-crafted tune.

And remember, though nobody needs a thousand-dollar suit to take out the trash, I’ll definitely take one of those light-up ones!


Creative Connections: Patrick Dempsey

Patrick Dempsey metacool

Here’s the first in a new series here on metacool titled Creative Connections. This series will explore how creative leaders do what they do, looking at both their own creative process, as well as how they lead creative endeavors.

I can’t think of a better way to kick off Creative Connections than a chat with Patrick Dempsey. He exemplifies creative leadership and expression across multiple domains. Many of you are familiar with Patrick as a leading man in film and television. In recent years, paralleling the careers of Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, Patrick has also been learning the art of race driving. With great grit, determination, and perseverance, he’s vaulted himself to the highest ranks of motorsports. On Saturday he will take on the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans along with teammates Joe Foster and Patrick Long. This all-American crew will pilot a Porsche 911 GT3 RSR fielded by Dempsey Del Piero Racing.

Earlier this year I spent a day in the pits watching Dempsey and team race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. I witnessed the team recover from mechanical difficulties to come within seconds of victory, a truly epic effort. Racing is a team sport and a creative endeavor, and highlights many of the challenges experienced by groups striving to reach innovative outcomes. To win, you must find a way to balance the tension between the intentional planning, training, and practice needed to be competitive, and the emergent serendipity, improvisation, and chutzpah required to make the most of the hand you’re dealt. Racing is all of that, triple-distilled.

Patrick and I caught up after his race at Laguna Seca to talk about creativity and creative leadership. His thoughts and insights reveal some intriguing creative connections.

Patrick, how would you describe your own creative process?

Very hard to answer simply. To start anything creatively you have to be moved emotionally. And then you allow the emotion to carry you in the direction you need to go.

In order to create you have to have passion.

When it comes to the arts of acting or racing, how much of it is about having a plan, and how much of it is being open to what emerges?

You want to have a plan but there is always something that happens in a race where you need to adjust. The calmer you are in those moments, the better you are at the end of the race.

Artists and athletes often describe reaching a state of flow when they’re totally focused and immersed in a situation. Everything slows down, and you feel energized, even in rapture. You’re in the groove and you do incredible work. Does that ring true to you?

Yes, there is a rapture to it, there is a spiritual feeling when you sort of just stay completely 100% present in the moment.

It’s what you hope to have in every race and every stint you’re in the car, you try to get to that place emotionally.

A team like Dempsey Del Piero Racing represents a unique combination of creativity and execution—both really matter if you’re going to win. Similarly, in an award-winning show like Grey’s Anatomy, you’re working with an ensemble of talented artists. Over the years, what have you learned about helping others reach their creative potential?

Everybody has to have ownership like an ensemble team. Everybody has a role. The more empowered each individual is, the stronger the team.There is no room for unhealthy ego. It disrupts the entire flow and chemistry of the team. There is a beautiful fellowship and camaraderie when it’s working correctly, which is why I love it.

When people live up to their potential, they push you past what your own limitations to a much higher level of performance. With a strong group you can transcend to new levels.

With your busy life on and off the racetrack, how do you stay inspired?

I try to keep my heart open.

When it comes to living a creative life, what big lessons have you learned behind the wheel of a Porsche at Le Mans?

I think I’m in the process of learning that right now. And it doesn’t stop after Le Mans.


(a version of this post appeared on my LinkedIn Influencers page)