The Yes Factor

Say Yes Texaco 1932
Creative Commons License photo credit: dlofink

Two heads are better than one…

I’ve heard a few people say that there’s nothing like getting interviewed to let you know what you’re really all about, and I’ve recently had occasion to discover that there’s a lot of truth to that. There’s something about the format, just replying to questions from an interested person and trying to make some sort of sense about things you normally take for granted… it seems to bring out unexpected insights.

I mean, as a professional musician and someone who’s had it in mind to be one since childhood, I’ve thought over the kinds of things I might say in an interview many times, though opportunities to deploy these musings have been thin on the ground thus far. And of course it’s not exactly the same, because the things you think someone might ask are often the things you already have in mind, whereas the things someone’s actually likely to ask might be completely different.

So it’s with some pleasure that I can now send you to an audio interview I did recently for a new series called ‘Mix and Master‘, where my new friend and colleague Oleg Mokhov will be talking to a variety of independent musicians about how they make it work, what makes it worthwhile, and probably many other things as well. I was honored to be his first guest, and I hope you’ll find the resulting conversation worth listening in on; it was definitely a lot of fun and an interesting experience for me. (There are a few audio dropouts and glitches here and there, but most of the essential points come through).

Sounds great, when do we start?

I went into the interview with basically nothing planned at all, and I didn’t really know what Oleg was going to want to talk about either – whether it would be tech-talk or have a philosophical slant, focus on the economic side or the creative process… it turned out to be a kind of exploration of my rather strange and eclectic career, and what has made it so rewarding despite not having made me a million dollars, or even a reasonable fraction thereof.

What came out of this, and I’m working from memory here since I haven’t actually heard the recording yet myself, was the rather unexpected revelation that basically I’ve made my way in the world by saying yes to just about everything, and especially to things that are new or unfamiliar or that I’m not absolutely certain that I’ll able to do (sometimes it’s a bit of a long shot!) and figuring our the details once the ball is rolling.

This attitude and philosophy has led me to some pretty crazy places. Besides the big one of ‘running away to join the circus’ as previously described… I played for what I’m told was in the region of 1,000,000 people at the re-opening of the historic Brandenburg Gate here in 2003… lived and played piano for 4 months in the Burj Al’Arab hotel in Dubai (the one that looks like a giant sail, you’ve seen pictures)… did New Years’ Eve at the Ritz Carlton in Bahrain one year with an Elvis impersonator… played keyboards with house legend Robert Owens and with an Egyptian belly-dance ensemble… french horn and piano in a completely improvised worldbeat group called ‘Spirit Gate’… like I say, life takes some funny turns when you stay open to unexpected possibilities.

Learning by Doing

Perhaps this sounds unprofessional or even irresponsible, a bit like the hero of that Catch Me If You Can film from a few years back (or the less well-known but brilliant ‘Chameleon Street‘ from a few years before that), but I’ll stress here that I wasn’t saying yes to flying planes or performing surgery. It was all more or less in my field, just not always entirely within my existing skillset. And I guess that’s kind of the crux of what I’m saying here.

I’ve touched on this before in these pages (Fearless Problem Solving) but during this interview I kind of realized it went a bit deeper than just an attitude towards acquiring skills. It’s really a kind of philosophy… when the phone rings, say yes and figure out the details later. It’s generally easier to get out of something you regret getting into than to get back into something you regret turning down. Err on the side of positivity – Just Say Yes!

The reality is that most skills can be learned relatively quickly by diving in feet-first – faster than by studying and trying to attain ‘expertise’ before really doing anything – and as long as no-one’s life or safety is at risk things generally work out OK. In most cases the worst that can happen is you learn something about failure and take on the next challenge with a bit more maturity. But the best that can happen is… well, you won’t know that until you try, will you?

And the more you do this, in my experience, the more unusual, interesting and rewarding opportunities will present themselves – because you’ll develop a reputation as someone who is up for a challenge and some fun and can handle the unpredictable.

Sowing the Seeds…

The more I think about this, the more I suspect that this ‘Just Say Yes’ attitude is not just a way to make your life and career more interesting, but is in fact at the very heart of the creative experience and mindset, at least for me. After all, what is creativity but saying ‘Yes!’ to a new idea, to what it might hold, to where the exploration of it might take you? If you say no, you’ll never know.

To be creative is to be an explorer, with an insatiable curiosity to find out what’s behind each door, where a path you never noticed before might lead, what a simple germ of an idea could become if you plant it in fertile soil and give it some water and sunlight. And doing this regularly is the best way I know of to build up that fertile soil. It’s kind of like composting, except not as smelly!

I’m going to leave the rest of the story for the interview, which again you can listen to here – and I hope you’ll check out some of the later episodes as well, I’m certainly looking forward to them!