WANT TO be the best?
Yeah you do. And where do you go for advice? Your family, your best friend, Malcolm Gladwell, Simon Cowell, Twitter, a mirror?
How about taking tips from a notoriously temperamental, argumentative, sometimes clinically depressed, now deceased jazz musician?
Interested? Read on.
For much of my life I’ve believed (part of me still does) that outright competition with others, be they people, circumstances, history, expectations, is the only way to achieve success.
Over time it occurred to me that there might be another route. Instead of contesting with outside factors why didn’t I start competing with myself?
Now this could be a lengthy post on self-awareness, struggle, triumph and failure, the middle ground between the two, the endless search for contentment while always competing.
But you’re in luck – it’s more of a rimshot than a symphony.
Faster, better, sharper, more – this was speeding, breathless music for a racing, atomic era.
Later in life Mingus described those early years. “For a while I concentrated on speed and techniques almost as ends in themselves. I aimed at scaring all the other bass players,” he told an interviewer.
Until, out of the blue one evening, the bassist had an epiphany. “One night, when I was 18 or 19, all this changed. I began playing and didn’t stop for a long time. It was suddenly me, I wasn’t the bass anymore.
He went on: “I don’t dig any longer thinking in terms of whether one man is a ‘better’ bassist than another. Actually you’re up there – everyone is – trying to express yourself.”
Mingus took his battle inwards, competing with and against himself. This led to some of the finest music of the century.
I’m not Mingus. Neither are you. But maybe it’s time to ignore the external, get up there and express yourself.
Self improvement? Better get it in your soul.
All quotes are from an interview with Nat Hentoff, published in the liner notes to Charlie Mingus, Blues and Roots (Atlantic, 2002).