May 10, 2016 Carole Levy

So What?

A few weeks ago, I watched a short video of the jazz musician Herbie Hancock telling a story about Miles Davis. I paraphrase:

 “Right in the middle of Miles’ solo, when he was playing one of his amazing solos, I played the wrong chord, completely wrong. It sounded like a big mistake. And Miles paused for a second. Then he played some notes that made my chord right. He made it “correct.” Miles didn’t hear my chord as a mistake. He heard it as something that happened, just an event, part of the reality of what was happening at the moment. And he dealt with it. Since he didn’t hear the sound as a mistake, he felt it was his responsibility to find something that fit. That taught me a very big lesson about not only music, but about life.” Watch the story here:

miles davis-draft 3

The wisdom of the story hit me and reminded me that  Miles Davis’ So What? is not only one of the greatest Jazz pieces in the world (and definitively one of my favorites), but for those who are connected to a passionate creative process, So What? is also a radical expression about accepting what is happening (reality) without drama – which includes making mistakes. Herbie Hancock didn’t mention the concept of So What? but he beautifully illustrated its meaning in the story telling.

The person I know who explicitly applied the So What? principle was Claire Nuer, co-founder of Learning as Leadership. She turned So What? into a concrete concept to help people surrender to reality and transform challenging life circumstances.

Born in Paris in 1933, Jewish, she was a hidden child during World War II. Her father died in Auschwitz. After the war, she was part of an uninhibited generation seeking freedom, social justice and out-of-the box ideas through politics, philosophy and activism. At 49, as if it wasn’t enough to have suffered through the Holocaust, she was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and given a few months to live. This event dramatically accelerated her personal journey of introspection, but, as she said: “Despite all my degrees of Eastern philosophy, I was just terrified of dying.” Every morning, she struggled with the fear that she had only 20 minutes left to live. She experienced the same terror for three years, until one morning when something broke through. While churning her usual fear of dying in 20 minutes, all of a sudden, it clicked: “Okay, you are going to die in 20 minutes… So What?” Though she only spoke French, she used the expression So What? in English, when she had this epiphany. “If you only have 20 minutes to live, what do you want?!” And at that moment, the only thing she wanted was to hug her children .

claire-so what?

Claire stopped fighting against her fears. And because she had nothing left in her mind that she could worry about, she was free to connect with what was most important in her life – her children, who gave her a deep sense of purpose.

As a thoughtful but neurotic Western woman, I spend a lot of time fighting my mental state. Sometimes, as you well know, despite my best intentions, I keep playing my worst anger songs, feeling alone and hopeless. In these dark moments, I forget that I’m sitting on the shoulders of those who struggled before me, and opened the path toward personal transformation.

Therefore, the next time I go downstairs to the garage and bump into the bag of old winter clothes that I asked my husband to give away three months ago, I won’t throw a fit. Instead, I will remember that I still have one powerful piece to play in my repertoire: So What?

boiling milk garage2

Epilogue: When our nervous system can’t be soothed by ideas anymore, there is still music. For my husband and myself, listening to Miles Davis’ So What? is like watching San Francisco at night across the Bay from Sausalito. We never get tired of the beauty. Each time, our hearts open again. Here it is:

What is your So What? What helps you to surrender? What helps you to open your heart? I’d love to hear your piece of music!

Comments (20)

  1. Adrienne

    This just makes so much sense!
    What liberation to be able to get freedom from saying “so what” to separate yourself from the drama and be able to respond responsibly and with real connection.
    Very cool!

  2. Two Words with such a powerful punch. Carole, you illuminate the potency of “So What “with genius and grace. And as usual, a charming touch of humor! Thanks again for an inspiring post.

  3. Jean-Pierre Guilhaume

    This is an other great piece, Carole!
    So simple and so deep. An other reminder that solutions are very often at hand.

    Embracing reality and expanding perspectives; this is my practice for this week.

    Thanks again

    • Thank you Jean-Pierre for right away translating this blog into practice! Your spouse must be thrilled!

  4. Tami Patterson Trussell

    Instead of making someone wrong, make something new. Such a wonderful idea! Thank you Carole…again!

  5. Jerri Stone

    In the middle of the night, I may awaken. Thoughts may run around, like a cat that gets out in the night, digging up my gardens, sneaking up on my birds. It scares things up in my mind. It finds things that I have used, against my own dignity, to shame myself. “Remember how you forgot….you ignored…you did not do…were too homely, too slow…” says the smug cat. I have learned to thank the cat for cleaning up some old thoughts. I then throw them in the bin with a simple “so what” and return sleep.

    • There is a whole illustrated book to write just about your beautiful comment, Jerri. It gave me goosebumps – I love your mental cat!

  6. Filaree Radich

    Thank you for this moving reminder. I too often forget this simple and profound concept.

    Love the story about Miles Davis!!

    – Filaree

  7. Carole – I look so forward to your posts…and this one is particularly elegant. Your combination of drawings, words, and you-tube has something to offer all different learning styles – it touched my heart and mind, the best combination. Thanks for sharing your authentic self and many gifts.

    • Thank you Linda for your comment and appreciation; it is (always) useful and encouraging to hear what touches readers.

  8. Bill Moon

    What a great post Carole! So What? A compact reminder of experiencing reality as it happens and a gentle nudge of how we can bring our best (not our righteous, judgmental, or smarty pants) selves to that experience.

    • I like how you reframed it “experiencing reality as it happens and bring our selves to that experiences”. It makes it even clearer! Thank you Bill!

  9. Ross Peterson-Veatch

    This is a great piece, Carole – it’s so clear, it’s so “Carole”! Thanks for making it and posting it.

  10. Rouxel

    Hello ma belle, nous venons de lire tes chroniques avec Lucie, et quelle plongée dans les souvenirs de Claire et de son So What Paulo? quand elle s’adressait à mon père…entre autre.
    Je peux dire qu’aujourd’hui Claire est plus que là, quand je suis plongé dans mes peurs et mes doutes, ils tombent à la seconde quand je me dit, “et après”, “que se passe t’il”. Finalement rien.
    Alors l’étape de trouble passé la vie s’engage à nouveau à toute berzingue.
    C’est d’ailleurs peut être la force que j’ai gardé de toute ses années ACC.
    Toucher ses peurs droit dans les yeux, les regarder en face, aller au bout de la sensation, sans sourciller. Et finalement se rendre compte que ce n’était qu’une vu de l’esprit. On n’en meure pas pour autant. Tout s’allège à nouveau et l’énergie revient au centuple.
    Merci pour ton partage et à très vite.
    On t’embrasse
    Lucie et Laurent

    • Quel beau partage! Merci Laurent – “Toucher ses peurs droit dans les yeux” (ou avoir “l’oeil au vent”) – j’adore l’expression! J’espère vous voir cet été!

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