Getting to Zero

Revisiting a post from almost four years ago, after Shawn’s What It Takes columns reminded me that I’d visited Gladwell in the past, too.

Do you know “scat” music’s tipping point—that moment just before it started spreading like wildfire?

The short version is that, though artists had been experimenting for years with the form, scat’s explosion in popularity followed the release of Louis Armstrong’s Heebie Jeebies. In the book Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words, he explained:

The day we recorded “Heebie Jeebies,” I dropped the paper with the lyrics—right in the middle of the tune . . . And I did not want to stop and spoil the record which was moving along so wonderfully . . . So when I dropped the paper, I immediately turned back into the horn and started to Scatting . . . Just as nothing had happened . . . When I finished the record I just knew the recording people would throw it out . . . And to my surprise they all came running out of the controlling booth and said – “Leave that in.”

Look it up online and you’ll find doubters of the story, one theory being that Armstrong invented the story to explain his scatting when the form wasn’t yet widely embraced.

Whatever the truth is, end story is that he did it—he tried something that wasn’t widely accepted and continued on the same path the rest of his life. Whether the walls he faced were built on racial prejudices or on personal hardships, he plowed forward, leaving them crumbling in his path.

What drove him?

Weapons of the Spirit

Earlier this week I helped my son with his report about the book Who Was Louis Armstrong?, which got me asking the question above. The book was a good intro for a child, but left me wanting more.

Enter Malcolm Gladwell’s article “How I Discovered Faith” (h/t to the Swagmaster General for the head’s up), in which Gladwell shares the concept of “Weapons of the Spirit.”

Gladwell opens with a story about how Wilma and Cliff Derksen responded to a reporter’s question, after their murdered daughter’s body was found.

“How do you feel about whoever did this to Candace?” a reporter asked the Derksens.

“We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives,” Cliff said.

Wilma went next. “Our main concern was to find Candace. We’ve found her.” She went on: “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person,” but the stress was on the phrase at this point. “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.”

I wanted to know where the Derksens found the strength to say those things. A sexual predator had kidnapped and murdered their daughter, and Cliff Derksen could talk about sharing his love with the killer and Wilma could stand up and say, “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.” Where do two people find the power to forgive in a moment like that?

Later in the article, he shares the actions of the WWII-era townspeople of Le Chambon, France, and asks why they had the strength to openly defy the Nazis and shelter refugees, when so many others didn’t.

When the first refugee appeared at her door, in the bleakest part of the war during the long winter of 1941, Magda Trocmé said it never occurred to her to say no: “I did not know that it would be dangerous. Nobody thought of that.”

Nobody thought of that. It never occurred to her or anyone else in Le Chambon that they were at any disadvantage in a battle with the Nazi Army.

But here is the puzzle: The Huguenots of Le Chambon were not the only committed Christians in France in 1941. There were millions of committed believers in France in those years. They believed in God just as the people of Le Chambon did. So why did so few Christians follow the lead of the people in Le Chambon?

Nobody Thought of That

Like Magda Trocme, if asked why he kept moving forward, would Louis Armstrong have answered the same? Would “I didn’t think of that” have been his answer?

In his article, Gladwell wrote,

The way that story is often told, the people of Le Chambon are made out to be heroic figures. But they were no more heroic than the Derksens. They were simply people whose experience had taught them where true power lies.

The other Christians of France were not so fortunate. They made the mistake that so many of us make. They estimated the dangers of action by looking on outward appearances—when they needed to look on the heart.

Is looking at the heart for the Derksens and the townspeople of Le Chambon the same action that lead’s artists and entrepreneurs and so many others to take extraordinary actions, when so many others don’t?

Reducing Your Needs and Clutter

Brett and Kate McKay, the team behind The Art of Manliness, shared a new article this week, titled “John Boyd’s Roll Call: Do You Want to Be Someone or Do Something?

John Boyd was an innovator—a doer, someone who took one stand after another for what he believed was right, instead of what he believed would advance his career.  Within the piece is the question, “Which way will you go?” and:

There comes a point in every man’s life where he must decide if he will strive to be somebody important, or if he will work to do something important. Sometimes these pursuits go hand-in-hand; often they do not.

What makes someone do something important—whether as an artist or humanitarian or entrepreneur or …. ? Are they born that way or is it something they learn? If learned, why do they make a conscious decision one day instead of the next? Or is it not a conscious decision?

In Brett and Kate’s article, there’s also this quote from Boyd, via Robert Coram’s book Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War:

“. . . if a man can reduce his needs to zero, he is truly free: there is nothing that can be taken from him and nothing anyone can do to hurt him.”

Getting to Zero

Earlier this year, Steve did an interview with Joe Rogan. I’m paraphrasing here, but at one point Joe mentions how getting rid of “the clutter” affected his life. He was talking about the emotional clutter—those things that pull us away from what’s really important. From what he said, that clutter sounds a lot like “Resistance’s Greatest Hits,” which appear on pages 5 and 6 of Steve’s The War of Art. The list is of activities that often elicit Resistance. “In other words,” Steve wrote, “any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity.”

First on the list:

The pursuit of any calling in writing, painting, music, film, dance, or any creative art, however marginal or unconventional.

Last on the list:

The taking of any principled stand in the face of adversity.

When he eliminated the clutter,  Joe said (again, paraphrasing) doing so changed his life. It sounds like he found his way to Boyd’s zero.

My read on Boyd’s “zero” is that getting to zero best enables you to live the person you want to be. You don’t have to get rid of every need (such as food), but everything else. . . Getting to zero gets you to your heart. It could also be that place that allows you to zero in on what’s important to you.

Armstrong’s heart was music. He faced his share of personal drama in addition to other barriers, but he pushed through because he didn’t have needs strong enough to silence his heart.

Treating others as they would want to be treated led the people of Le Chambon. Their hearts cared more for others than the need for personal safety.  The Nazis couldn’t take that away from them.

The heart drove the Derksens, too.

How Do You Get to Zero?

I don’t know for certain, but I have an idea.

After almost ten years of working with Steve—and having just reread all 230+ of his Writing Wednesdays columns—I’ve learned a bit about Resistance and how it can pull you away from your heart. Though there are a few who’ve left me wondering if they were born at zero, there are a greater number who have had to fight to get there.

Often, it seems like something that just happened. Armstrong was placed in a boy’s home after shooting a gun into the air during a New Year Eve’s celebration. At the boy’s home, there was a professor who taught Louis to play the coronet, in addition to a number of other instruments. Music lived within him, but if he hadn’t been sent to the boy’s school, would he have worked his way through the same life? Maybe not. But on the other hand, not all the boys sent to the home became famous musicians. Why him? Something happened to him and—though he didn’t recognize it as a child—that something came with an opportunity. At a young age, he was at zero. He could see the trees from the forest, the difference between opportunity and clutter. And, though he was so young, I wonder if he saw a tipping point. Maybe not defined as such, but something in him knew, “This is it.”

I’m in that second category, of the ones fighting for zero. This past year, something changed. I can feel it like a deep stretch after and insane workout. Everything with which I’ve struggled in the past—from losing baby weight gained five years ago, to the daily battle to create—hasn’t been as difficult.

What changed? I’m a few months away from 40 and for the past ten years in particular, my heart has been torn between family, work, and outside drama. I need the first two, but the last? Minimized. Not gone, but not a daily visitor either. How? I started dropping the clutter. As it fell in one area of my life, a ripple effect occurred and it fell in others, too.

I don’t expect to ever stand as an equal, on the same footing as those mentioned above, but I have an idea of how they got there. Knowing, I’ve been told, is half the battle.

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  1. Mary on January 24, 2014 at 6:00 am

    Callie, I absolutely love this piece, both for the inspiration as well as for the reminder that getting to zero is a process. We need to take stock every so often and look behind us, just to remember that we have come farther than we realize. The ripple effect you describe is the unexpected bonus of clearing away the clutter and being in that place where you’re ready to do your work. No more excuses, no more drama. Resistance slinks into the corner and the effort to create is easier. I wrote to you a few months ago about this very thing, that when I started writing every day the weight I had been struggling to lose just fell away. Good habits in the form of eating well and exercising showed up in my life then too, as if to say “finally, you’re ready for us now.” Making up one’s mind is a powerful thing.

    • Callie Oettinger on January 24, 2014 at 6:12 am


      I thought of you and our earlier e-mails as I wrote this piece – especially those last few paragraphs. What you wrote, “finally, you’re ready for us now,” – there really is something to it. When you’re ready, it happens. It’s just getting to that point…

      Thanks, as ALWAYS, Mary!


    • Ellie on January 24, 2014 at 4:48 pm

      “resistance slinks into the corner” … love that visual, Mary!!

  2. Kent Faver on January 24, 2014 at 6:40 am

    Thank you Callie. Getting to zero is so elusive for those of us with unstructured, freelance professional lives.

    We fret when our in box gets close to zero – and begin worry-based marketing, or simply stalling our final project while we lament the lack of work. Then, when you’re snowed under – you play the mental game of “when I get less busy, I’ll write more”. I needed this today.

  3. Daniel Klein on January 24, 2014 at 6:46 am

    Another awesome post as usual Callie. In my current situation I have been working on getting to zero. I have an app on my cell phone that makes it free with wifi, took the T.V. out of my room and made it an area for meditation/reading, and have been giving plasma and do various odd jobs to pay for rent and groceries (working to live, not living to work, in the typical sense of the word work). Leaving me with the maximum amount of time to do my work. I’ve written, drawn, and made people laugh more in the past 6 months then I have in the past 6 years.

    Which coincidentally happens to be the amount of time I was in the National Guard. Steve and yourself have been a big inspiration to me with the power of your words. Please check out the blog post I just posted titled “Ignorance is Far From Bliss”. I haven’t really shared it with anyone until today. I am still trying to figure out the site and get some equipment together but there is much more to come.

  4. Barry on January 24, 2014 at 6:51 am

    Callie, thanks very much for this! I only recently discovered The War of Art and Do the Work… After 20 years of being a serial entrepreneur, I can finally point to what’s held me back… The Resistance. As you, I’m also in that second category of the ones who have to fight for zero. That’s also why Steve’s work, and your work now, too, is like a piercing laser cutting through a lifelong storm. Naming The Resistance and getting clear on it from different perspectives has brought clarity and resolve to doing the work, and to getting the clutter out of the way. Now I can add “getting to zero” and your examples above. The examples are so helpful and powerful… and for me strengthen the knowing of the clarity found in, and universal resonance of, the heart.
    With love and appreciation, -Barry

  5. jean on January 24, 2014 at 7:40 am

    I think you meant “affected”. #nitpickin’ #Gettingtozero. Great article, btw.

    • Callie Oettinger on January 24, 2014 at 7:45 am

      Thanks, Jean. Just made the change. Callie

  6. Rebecca Jean Downey on January 24, 2014 at 7:53 am

    Callie, I could read this post every morning. Thank you. As I am closing in on retirement, people often ask me what I want to do after that. Of course, besides writing, I tell them, “To live by the side of the road and be a friend to man.” Of course, once I read Foss’s poem as a child, I never forgot it, and strive to be someone who is here on earth to serve.

  7. David Y.B. Kaufmann on January 24, 2014 at 8:01 am

    It seems to me you’re interweaving several ideas here: tipping point, (weapons of the spirit), nobody thought of that, reducing clutter/getting to zero. Are you trying to find the connection, the nexus within which they all vibrate? Or, to switch metaphors, this essay strikes me as a tapestry (going back to the weaving). Does one need a tipping point before reducing clutter? Or does reducing clutter/getting to zero result in, or at least create the potential for, a tipping point? Does ‘nobody thought of that’ only work on the subconscious, impulse level? Does it turn into a spiritual weapon when it becomes conscious? (And let’s not forget that David had a very real physical weapon as well as very real – more real – spiritual one. Where’s the slingshot? (I think I’ll use that phrase in a story.)

    Lots to ruminate on. Thanks.

    • Paul C on January 24, 2014 at 8:09 am

      I think Napoleon described it as getting victory organized.

      • ilona fried on January 24, 2014 at 3:53 pm

        “victory organized” – great phrase and mantra as I’m in a process of decluttering physical objects (and their corresponding emotional vibrations). Thanks for sharing.

  8. Paul C on January 24, 2014 at 8:04 am

    This is one of the best posts that I’ve read here.

  9. Tesia Blackburn on January 24, 2014 at 9:05 am

    Wonderful post, thanks Callie. I used to call it the list of “shoulds” that ran me crazy. I should have a solo show at _____ . I should have _____ in the bank. I should work _____ hours a week in the studio. Then I realized it was a bunch of blanks that I was filling in…instead of filling UP myself. I gave up the list of shoulds and just followed my heart. Voila! A life full of art, teaching and joy. Who knew? Louis Armstrong knew, I’ll bet!

  10. Wes Roberts on January 24, 2014 at 10:40 am

    Callie, you’ve made my day! Thank you for this exceptional article. It is now posted on my Facebook site. Your creative wisdom and insights are needed. May we expect some more of that? I certainly hope so. As a leadership mentor, your article will be going out to all those I’ve the sacred privilege of mentoring. Again, thank you!!!

  11. Chip Polk on January 24, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    Callie, this was just great. You are definitely the coolest member of the Black Irish gang. This post was right one target. Loved it.

  12. Ellie on January 24, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    Callie, Between the timing and the relevance of this piece, I’m sitting here with chills right now. First, earlier in the week I stumbled across a quote from Louis Armstrong about how “music lives in him” so what a coincidence it is that you used him as an example this week. Secondly, in terms of important work, I know what I need to do, and just today I thought to myself, “Here you have a project that you know you need to do, a chance to make a difference to others, but you just can’t resist the Resistance.” I continued to feel almost somewhat reckless for carrying around my important work only as an intangible idea without seriously working to bring it to life. But, I do think there is also value in the incubation period as well. Finally, when you speak of de-cluttering and getting to zero, I can also relate to that because I noticed (just yesterday) that petty, shallow interactions (and relationships) drain and derail me. I’m very much at a point where I’m ready to declutter and just being aware is the first step. After reading this post, I truly think I need to strip my life down to the bare essentials and by doing so I’ll create space (time wise, emotionally and mentally) for my important work. Thank you for tying up all of these loose end for me!

  13. Joe Jansen on January 25, 2014 at 5:13 am

    I liked. Thanks, Callie.

  14. Reese on January 25, 2014 at 7:02 am

    Callie, what a wonderful and thought provoking piece. It underscores a philosophy of mine that two people, one-on-one, can see each other as human beings but, when presented with a larger collective, those same people become part of a thing. This so perfectly illustrates that concept. And, although the Derksens may not have yet confronted the man who murdered their daughter, they somehow had the strength to see him as a person as well.

    How do you get to zero? Perhaps it’s just the fact that we are willing to target that goal and work to achieve it that is what’s important.

    Again, thanks for sharing this beautiful insight.

  15. Kari on January 27, 2014 at 4:34 am

    Great article!

    Getting to zero is the most freeing experience one can undertake. My family and I moved from Las Vegas to a small village in the Black Forest region of Germany where my husband was born and raised. We were leaving a life of material success that felt emotionally shallow- I was terrified, but excited.

    When we arrived here we moved into a furnished two bedroom apartment. It was a transformational moment when I woke up the next morning, went to the cupboard to take out a coffee mug and realized-this isn’t even MY mug, I’m just renting it! We don’t own anything, but I’m so happy! How can that be?

    I think everyone has their own way of “Getting to Zero” Mine was leaving behind everything I thought I couldn’t live without, so more depth and the life I was meant to live could come in.

    This article just made me realize how grateful I am for taking the leap.

    Thank you!

  16. Chloe Okoli on January 30, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    What a really inspiring post Callie. I’m in the process of decluttering my house and also trying to create some space in my head for more creative work so reading this was a real boost. Thanks! 🙂

  17. Bruce Welton on November 17, 2017 at 7:54 am

    Very timely, helpful piece. Declutter- yes, please. Right where I am at- trying to get to zero. Thanks, Callie.

  18. Aiyana Stern on November 17, 2017 at 8:05 am

    What a moving article. Just what we need to remember in this country now. Fyi, the link to Malcolm Gladwell’s article should read, “How I Rediscovered my Faith,” rather than “Discovered.” I found the article when I made that change.

  19. Barbara Newton-Holmes on November 17, 2017 at 8:14 am

    Wow, Callie!! Thanks so much for this!! It’s a fabulous inspiration and teminder. I’m off to read it again.

  20. Dick Yaeger on November 17, 2017 at 9:12 am

    I know some who thrive on clutter, both physically and emotionally. They’re good at setting priorities, but never strive to reduce the clutter.

  21. Brian Nelson on November 17, 2017 at 9:48 am

    Great post. Don’t know how I missed a few years ago. Will also look through Joe Rogan Podcasts to find the episode with Steven. I wasn’t an early adopter with podcasts, have only found this delight in the past couple of years.

    Reducing the clutter, both physically and mentally/emotionally is, for me, not a one time deal. The clutter builds. Maintenance helps, but I continually find myself needing a significant ‘Spring Cleaning’ event as well.

  22. Julie Murphy on November 17, 2017 at 9:24 pm

    Good job,Callie. Got me thinking about zero-sum games…thanks.

  23. Elise Allan on November 18, 2017 at 3:09 pm

    Thank you – wonderful article. My ideas about what is the clutter in my life are changing, and it’s great to have these reference points!

  24. Mitchell Bossart on November 21, 2017 at 9:34 am

    Hey, Callie.

    Recently, a friend asked me how I was doing. She asked because she knew I was not doing well. Was it written all over my face? I guess. I thought I had the crowd fooled.

    After we chatted for a bit, she said: “Are you writing”?


    Who asks that? How did she know that writing makes me come alive? And, if I am not writing, I am not well.

    In the meantime, I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Kind of the female version of The Art of War. I needed reasons to write, and I found them.

    Yes, I am stuck on a second draft, and my mistake was abandoning it. I’ll get stuck again. But the Professional keeps going and maybe that’s where it starts to get even more interesting.

    In fact, I am working on a complete rewrite of the first scene. Why not? Why not experiment? Why not see where it goes? Worst that could happen? Uh, delete it. Print it and save for later.

    And part of my clutter was REAL clutter. That’s taken care of now.

    But the best part is I am writing again because a friend saw it on my face that I wasn’t.

    Life is amazing.

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