John Coltrane was an incredibly hardworking jazz musician, driven by the creative process to continue to become a better saxophonist and leader, and to capture more emotion and truth in his music. His drive for challenge and excellence is a reminder that there is joy and satisfaction in the hard work that all business leaders much engage in.
When immersed in brand strategy and positioning, we’re constantly reaching for Windex and a fresh cloth to help companies see more clearly who they are, and who they can become.
To my benefit, I almost compulsively do the same “polishing” on myself and my business as much as I do it for others. And just like my own house, I only get a moment of satisfaction looking into a sparkling clean mirror before I turn back and notice it is already smudged again, ready for yet another refresh.
All of the mirror-cleaning I’ve been doing lately has left me exhausted, but dead-set on desmudging still. Several years of rapid change through the pandemic was fueled, for our business as it was for many others, by necessity and adrenaline. It led to exciting and positive changes, and it has also been incredibly draining.
As leaders, we have reinvented our businesses, and therefore ourselves, at least once or twice in rapid succession, and this pace of change persists. On top of it, with inflation and the threat of a recession, much of this innovation must happen even as profit margins keep shrinking.
So, as we enter the last month of the year, how do we gather strength for what’s next? Is there an industrial size solution or home-made vinegar blend that can help us gaze more clearly at this moment, and into our future? What do we give thanks for?
Is it possible to give thanks for the change and challenge itself?
Long before he got his big break playing saxophone with Miles Davis, John Coltrane served in World War II and used the GI Bill to take music classes. He then worked as a journeyman musician for nine years, taking any gigs he could get, and learning whatever he could.
Even once he was selected by Miles Davis to join his band, Coltrane referred to Davis as “Teacher” and spent years searching to find his voice on the saxophone. He then took a break for a summer-long collaboration with Thelonius Monk to learn even more before returning to Davis’ band.
From then on, Coltrane was on fire. He practiced incessantly. In less than 10 years, from 1957 up until his death in 1967 (at only 40 years old) he put out 25 albums, his style shifting and evolving in each one, including his best-known, the Grammy-nominated A Love Supreme.
Coltrane loved learning. He loved being challenged. In the last year of his life, his celebrity was at its peak, and yet he was in almost constant pain from liver cancer. Still, he did not let up. He continued to perform and record until only weeks before he died.
“The real risk is not changing. I have to feel that I’m after something. If I make money, fine. But I’d rather be striving. It’s the striving, man, it’s that I want.” -John Coltrane
When I am deep at work on my own business, or laser-focused with other leaders working on theirs, I am often reminded of Coltrane and his love of striving. Changing, learning, becoming better at our craft, and better versions of ourselves… for the best-led businesses, this is what it is all about. Profit is merely a proof-of-concept, a byproduct of the learning, not the end goal.
It may feel sometimes like nothing you do is enough. It may feel like that the crystal clear mirror you spent so much time and care polishing will quickly become foggy. And that is true. There is always more to learn, more to try, and more to become. Or to borrow Coltrane’s words once more, “There is never any end…there are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at.”
This Thanksgiving, I am going to try to embody that spirit of Coltrane. Instead of peace and restoration, I wish you even more change, challenge, struggle, and striving.
We are blessed with an opportunity to continue to clean our mirrors. With each attempt we see a step more clearly, and we become more whole and better in the process.