Mailbag: Milk of the Moon

Philip Morgan

(Readin' time: 5m 2s)

At some point I'm just going to have to give in to the obvious: the true subtitle of this email list is clearly: "How music helps you become a better consultant".

Along those lines and in response to a recent email about Greg Brown, learning to sing, and the cocoon of competence, Morgan sent (and gave me permission to share) this:

Hey Philip,

Thanks for sharing this...

I know the following is a bit tangential to your actual point here, but thought it might be of use if you are ever thinking about picking up the 6- (or 12-) string and getting on stage :

I related to your "playing guitar again" story, and wanted to relay that I went through something similar a couple years back. I learned to play guitar in high school and thought I was pretty good. But a few years ago I wondered, was I actually good? I got together with an old friend of my mom's who I knew could sing. We started jamming and performing covers at a local venue; it was kind of like doing an open mic except a bit more formal as we were announced.

Anyway the big insights that came from the experiences were:

  1. I thought she would let me get away with just playing rhythm guitar, but no, she forced me to learn to sing. Not from her, but from her personal voice coach. I thought I knew what was coming, but man I was wrong. The stuff this guy knew was beyond what I could imagine; I was still very amateurish at the end, but it probably saved me years of bumping around trying to find the better techniques.

  2. Playing live and singing was about 10X more difficult that it is while practicing. But we only got better at that by actually doing the playing live part. The rehearsals prepared us to play live (and I would need to rehearse a single song probably at least 20 times). But only playing live prepared us for playing live well (or sorta well compared to when we first started).


Thanks again for letting me share this with my list, Morgan!

There are several important points in what Morgan said, and I want to highlight one of them:

But only playing live prepared us for playing live well .

A thousand times YES.

No one is born knowing the first thing about performing live, or advising clients on X, or anything else of economic value. And certainly we're not born being good at those things. So we have to learn and practice and get better over time.

That means we start out being not good at the thing we're practicing and trying to get better at. (Captain Obvious here, reporting for duty.) I've linked to it before, but again, this 5m20s clip of an interview with Ira Glass does a wonderful job of explaining what will happen to you if you try to get better at something.

If you are a child and get some encouragement as you try to get better at something, you will just do the work of getting better at that thing.

If you are an adult and try to get better at something, you will do battle with a horde of mental and emotional demons on top of doing the work of trying to get better at that thing. You will be fighting two battles. You will try to preserve or improve your social status, you will evaluate the risks of learning and trying and experimenting with a far more demanding lens than the child version of you.

I'm actually being polite in my description of what you'll face if you try to get better at something. Cormac McCarthy describes the actual horde of demons with the eye of a reporter and the tongue of a poet:

"A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses' ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse's whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.” (source: "Blood Meridian")

That's what you'll face if you try to get better at something.

My advice? Do your attempts at getting better mostly in public rather than in private, just like Morgan talked about with practicing to perform live.

I know it sounds crazy: Do the work of getting better and fight that legion of horribles in public. Maybe it is crazy, but it's also incredibly transformational.

Finally, a riff about pattern-matching. The person who contributed today's mailbag item has a first name of Morgan. My surname is Morgan. I noticed as I was writing and editing today's email that when I scanned across the sentences including "Morgan", for a very brief sub-second moment, I saw "Mr. Morgan" in places that actually only said "Morgan". After that moment passed I saw what was actually there on the screen, but during that moment, I saw something that wasn't there.

It's often said, at least in marketing circles, that the most beautiful words in the world are our own name. This is a recognition of how we are all naturally wired to be self-centered. Not selfish, but self-centered in our view of the world. If you want your marketing to work well, make it about the people you are trying to reach, not about yourself. Use their "name", not yours.

When you're looking for patterns, make sure you're also working hard to be objective, and aren't seeing "ghost patterns" that are really just you seeing what you want to see, or what you're naturally wired to see, which tends to include:

  • Ideas you're in love with
  • Reflections of yourself and your psyche
  • Things you're habituated into seeing more easily

All of those things exist in the world sometimes, but they're not always there. Sometimes we just see them because we want to see them, not because they're really there.