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.
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.