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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-vItf0G05M
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 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?
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylXk1LBvIqU
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!