This is a chapter from my upcoming book, Productivity Is For Robots.
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Miles Davis was only 18 years old when he first sat in on trumpet with his bebop heroes, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. From the first phrase that left his trumpet, jazz fans knew he was different. There was a feeling, watching him play, that he could hear the future. Or, that he was inventing it right then and there. No matter what people thought about his sound, everyone knew Miles was a true blue original.
But before Miles played the future, he studied the past. He’d go to the library when he was young and memorize hundreds of compositions from past composers. When he wasn’t there, he’d take his trumpet into the woods and play along with the sounds of the birds and the breeze. At Julliard, Miles studied traditional jazz in the day and went to 52nd street at night, where new jazz played until blue morning.
Despite his years of dedication, however, Miles struggled to master his instrument. His tone remained cracked and restrained, often out of tune with what was happening around him. He had a tendency to miss notes and his dexterity was considered feeble. Much like his personality, Miles played with a shyness that lacked the wailing confidence and vibrato of his heroes and peers. But over time, these mechanical limitations became his greatest assets. Unable to wail on the high-end, he was forced to play with vulnerability. Soft-tones gave him little to hide behind, and his missed notes created emptiness and tension. His playing created drama. The imperfections and quirks of his playing forced him to experiment with new harmonies and pacing, resulting in a style that was his and his alone.
Critics have always had a hard time with Miles Davis because, while his shortcomings as a player are glaring, his impact on jazz is undeniable. There is no conversation about jazz or the trumpet without mention of Miles Davis. Over and over again, throughout his career, he reinvented what jazz was and what it could be.
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In today’s data-driven world, we love to analyze success and failure. Success leaves clues, but data tells a story. And there’s more data on what works and what doesn’t than ever before. You too can have an algorithm for greatness for just a few monthly payments. But living outside the proven formulas and paint-by-number guides are the personal quirks and ticks that make us unique.
The Japanese call it wabi-sabi—the beauty found in the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It’s our wabi-sabi that points us toward the things only we can do, in the way only we can do them. And more important to our productivity than doing the good, the great, or the perfect, is pursuing the things that only we can do.
In the bestselling book, Blue Ocean Strategy, authors W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne explain the difference between companies that create new categories and companies that compete in existing markets. They call it Red Oceans vs. Blue Oceans.
Red Oceans are all the industries or categories that already exist in the market. Companies that live in Red Oceans are forced to compete with rivals over existing market share. Nike vs. Adidas. Pepsi vs. Coke.
Blue Oceans, on the other hand, are new markets where there is no competition. In a Blue Ocean, demand is created, not fought over. Companies in a Blue Ocean find rapid growth because, by simply existing, they create a new category. Airbnb. iTunes. Cirque du Soleil.
There is success and meaning to be found in both Red and Blue Oceans. But to get the most out of our productivity, we’d do well to discover ways to separate ourselves from the pack. This isn’t easy. When it comes to discovering what makes us special or different, we’re often the last to know. This is yet another reason that having a group of allies can be so powerful. The good news is that no one has to put extra work into being different. You’re already you. You already have the quirks and a unique set of fingerprints. The key, like so much in life, is becoming aware.
The writer Zora Neale Hurston once said, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” To tune in and turn your wabi-sabi into a compass, start with this question: “How am I different?” Not, better, just different. It’s once you can answer that question that you’re free to ask, “How can I be different AND better?”
If you struggle to answer either of those questions right now, don’t worry. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rewritten this chapter (rewritten this book) in an effort to sound like myself. What matters is that you ask the question. Keep it in your back pocket. Miles Davis—the true blue original—said it best: “Man, it can take a long time to sound like yourself.”
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Tom Waits is another musician who has turned his wabi-sabi into a Blue Ocean. His raspy voice and off-putting poetry have given him an unmistakable, signature style. To hear Tom Waits for the first time is to do a double-take. First jarring, then magical. And it’s his off-putting magic that’s helped his music endure throughout the years and become meaningful to millions of listeners.
In an interview, Waits told a story about the time his kids asked him why he isn’t like the “other dads” in the neighborhood:
“My kids are starting to notice I’m a little different from the other dads. ‘Why don’t you have a straight job like everyone else?’ they asked me the other day. I told them this story: In the forest, there was a crooked tree and a straight tree. Every day, the straight tree would say to the crooked tree, ‘Look at me…I’m tall, and I’m straight, and I’m handsome. Look at you…you’re all crooked and bent over. No one wants to look at you.’ And they grew up in that forest together. And then one day the loggers came, and they saw the crooked tree and the straight tree, and they said, ‘Just cut the straight trees and leave the rest.’ So the loggers turned all the straight trees into lumber and toothpicks and paper. And the crooked tree is still there, growing stronger and stranger every day.”
Nothing lends itself to a life of flow better than only doing things you can do. And nothing lights the fuse on burnout more than trying to conform into something you’re not. If you’re searching for purpose, your wabi-sabi is an excellent guide.
It might not be clear right now how you can turn yourself, or your work, into a Blue Ocean, but avoiding the call to conformity is as good a start as any. Investigate the quirks that might disqualify you for one thing, because chances are, it makes you a shoo-in for another. Like Miles Davis, study the greats, learn the formulas, and try different styles on for size. But do so with the intention of becoming yourself. Discover the gifts that are uniquely yours and then share them unapologetically.
Stay you. Stay weird. And keep growing stronger and stranger each day.