During my freshman year in college, John, a tall scraggly sophomore who lived across campus, fell for one of my roommates and began hanging out in our dorm. We became friends and he got me interested in one of his main hobbies — jazz.
Back then, I mostly listened to rock and folk music, with some classical thrown in for good measure. But John’s enthusiasm for a musical genre that felt entirely foreign to me was infectious and I began meeting up with him at the listening library so he could introduce me to his favorite ‘cool jazz’ artists — John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Keith Jarrett. I was quickly smitten by all of them.
I came to realize that there are a vast number of distinctive jazz styles pertaining to different eras and locales and I was determined to learn more. The following semester, I signed up for a “survey of jazz” class so I could gain a deeper appreciation of the musical and cultural streams that shaped the various stylistic approaches and school my ear.
Although I continued to listen to jazz vocalists over the years and once travelled to New Orleans to attend the famous Jazz Fest, I more or less abandoned my interest in jazz instrumental music once I left college.
This past fall, however, I fell in love with jazz all over again after I was invited to attend several live performances at some prominent New York City jazz venues.
Listening to such legends as bassist Eddie Gomez, pianist Kenny Barron, drummer Al Foster and trumpeter Wallace Roney perform, I couldn’t help but be gripped. The compositions they played were aurally rich; each of the pieces wove a complex narrative and the artists displayed extraordinary command of their instruments as well as a deep attunement to one another.
While watching them, it occurred to me that their polished approach holds a number of critical takeaways for those working in other fields. Here are five lessons that fine jazz performers can teach us about success on the job:
1. Figure out what your story is and consistently ignite others with its emotional power. The finest jazz musicians tell a story with their music — there’s a well-defined beginning and end with an arc of riveting highlights in between. The artists come back to the central theme again and again even as they explore a variety of harmonic pathways along the way that imprint their work with a uniquely personal stamp.
Every company and every worker has a story to tell that defines what they are about and what they hope to achieve. To support the business we work for while also developing our individual brand, it behooves us to determine what those core tales are and how to best convey their story lines through the full range of our activities. Then, no matter how chaotic or complicated things get, our essential mission remains in focus and success becomes more likely.
Michael Margolis, founder & CEO of GetStoried.com, a global and education support network that emphasizes the transformational power of storytelling, says “storytelling is about connecting to other people and helping people to see what you see.” He labels the strategy “your ultimate currency,” a way to “get others to care and believe in the same thing you do,” whether you’re a business or an individual.
2. Improvise as you go, but don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal. One of the key characteristics of jazz is improvisation. Artists devise their own melodies, creating signature patterns and phrasing that build and elaborate on a central theme and take the listener on an intriguing journey. Yet, they always know precisely where they will end up and their inspirational detours lead us to that point rather than taking us off track.
Similarly, what fuels success in other lines of work is an ability to respond to the needs of the moment in a way that expresses individual strengths and talents while still supporting the stated mission. To evolve an enterprise and keep yourself growing, it’s vital to come up with fresh ideas and experiment with new approaches while remembering the end goal. In this way, we can keep our eye on the objective while exploring a broader range of options that may help us achieve it.
3. Share the limelight and let others shine. When performing a composition, jazz musicians take turns playing solos on stage. This allows the audience to focus on the full measure of their virtuosity and the special sounds they create with their instruments. In addition, the band leader will introduce the individual artists at various points during the performance.
We should all take note of these jazz practices and adopt them in our own work environments. It’s important to figure out ways to harmonize as a team but also regularly call out and celebrate the individual contributions of employees at all levels, to thank them privately and publicly for what they do and make each worker feel valued and appreciated by managers and peers.
4. Take breaks in the midst of the action. A jazz band will often up- or downsize as a performance progresses, morphing, for example, into a trio or duo in accordance with the needs of the piece. When a musician does not need to play, he’ll frequently step off stage, which means the audience can give their undivided attention to the players who remain. This approach gives the performers a chance to rest and recharge for the next set of demands.
Similarly, all businesses should consider allowing and encouraging employees to take short breaks throughout the work day. Power naps, brisk walks and meditation sessions go a long way toward boosting stamina, well-being and creativity.
5. Give yourself fully to the task at hand and find the fun. From what I’ve seen, few artists are more engaged in their work than jazz musicians. They seem to go into a trance as they perform. But what is also evident among these artists is the sense of joy they derive from playing.
The combination of commitment, focus and fun that they apply is what enables them to pull off captivating, flawless performances. We’d all do well to follow their example. Immersing oneself in the nuances of complex responsibilities, facing challenges head on and finding pleasure in tackling them shape a surefire formula for success.