Of The Art Of Learning, Transformations and The Future Of Work
Slow is fast
People change people. On the bumpy rides that are personal journeys of growth and transformation, fellow men and women may nudge you into changing the course of your life with their examples, actions or words. For me, one of these men was my psychoanalyst Robert, without whom I would have drifted far away as I was struggling to stay afloat through my roaring forties.
I would be late for almost every session and would step into his office in a haste, hoping to draw him into compassion with a smile. He would remain kind and cordial, but unmoved by my manipulative ways. As a leadership consultant, a trainer or a coach, corporations were hiring me to help their managers deliver better results efficiently. It is no surprise, then, that I would regularly inquire into when I would be done with this process of finding peace. To this naive mark of impatience, Robert would respond with a gentle smile, and with a soft and caring voice, he would offer a few reassuring words that echoed like a mantra:
“Slow is fast.”
And there I was, left to go back into the outer world, the world in-between therapy sessions, having to familiarize myself with life in a space of paradox, hanging between knowing and not knowing, not knowing when the winds and the waves would calm down, not knowing what the next steps into the unknown would bring to me, and knowing – or holding onto the fragile belief – that all would be fine in the end, eventually, for Robert had said it would, because: “Slow is fast, Dominique.”
Years later, as I was learning the Portuguese language and to play the guitar to sing along with my Brazilian friends, it is a spiritual teacher from the Amazonian forest who reminded me of this universal wisdom:
“Com paciencia se vence tudo (All can be overcome with patience)”.
– Luiz Mendes
Another man who gifted me with words that changed me is my piano teacher Monsieur Laurent.
No faking joy
As I was looking to find my way through the hallways of the McGill University Conservatory of Music, I felt both happy and anxious. I had to take long and deep breaths to keep calm and focussed. It was my first time in the building. It was the day of my first piano exam. On a schedule taped on a door, there was my name. I sat on the bench waiting for my time to come and engaged in cordial small talk with a couple sitting next to me. Their fourteen-year-old son was in the auditorium, alone before the jury. Through the wall we could hear him play quite beautifully. He had been learning since the young age of four. His were proud parents. As he walked out, I stepped in.
I was nervous. I was very nervous. The breathing techniques I had been relying on earlier to stay peaceful were now of little help to calm my racing heart. After months of practice on a digital keyboard, striking the keys of the Steinway grand piano felt like riding a wild, untamed stallion. My mouth dried up. My fingers became irresponsive. I froze and choked many times. Once I was done, I left the Victorian building in a haste to grab a phone and call Monsieur Laurent: “I am so sorry, please forgive me for being unworthy of your time, efforts and attention. For sure, I failed.” A few weeks passed. I eventually got over the nagging feeling of disappointment.
The official transcripts from McGill University came much later in the mail. No. What a surprise. Not a fail. It was a pass. What a ride it had been. After eighteen months of practice, after so many years thinking that I was not fit for music, and starting from ground zero (I did not even know how to read scores), I had just passed the exam marking the completion of ten years of piano study at the McGill University Conservatory of Music.
Indeed, as I had been letting my deep connection to music reveal itself to me, I had, over the previous months, poured time and love into the practice. But the teachings came from the teacher. If unlocking my musical abilities came in ways that looked like some sort of a miracle, it is clear to me that all credit goes to Monsieur Laurent, for it is both his patience and his kind words of wisdom that allowed for the magic to unfold.
All had started a year and a half earlier. At that time, one of my roles in life was to be the chauffeur of my then nine-year-old daughter Chloé. For over a year I had been driving her to her weekly piano lessons at Monsieur Laurent’s, next to Saint Joseph’s Oratory over Mount Royal. Back in Georgia where he was from, Monsieur Laurent had been a classical piano soloist and the conductor of the National Jazz Orchestra. In Montreal where he and his wife had immigrated, he became a devoted teacher. With Christian Orthodox icons displayed on every wall, his piano room was filled with mystic. Every week I would sit on his couch and, like a fly on the wall, I would observe how he would skilfully teach Chloé. I soon became mesmerized by his pedagogical ways.
Chloé was keen and studious. She loved to play and was a gifted interpreter. As I was admiring how she was growing and blossoming into and through her musical practice, I started to feel a nascent sense of inspiration. One day over the Christmas Holidays, I timidly asked her if she would mind if I too would take piano lessons with her teacher Monsieur Laurent. She responded with a cheerful grin.
At the end of her lesson the following week, as she sensed that I was about to bail out, Chloé asked bluntly: “Monsieur Laurent, my dad has a question for you.” Then, looking at me with a mischievous smile, she added: “my dad would like to know if you would teach him how to play the piano”. Monsieur Laurent set his conditions: to learn with him, one had to study daily. I nodded. There was no turning back.
The day I sat down on the piano for my first lesson, Monsieur Laurent insisted on another rule to abide by: I could always slow down the playing as much as I needed to, but I could never allow myself, under any circumstances, to make any single mistake. With a rebel and type-A personality, I would soon be challenged by the inflexibility of Monsieur Laurent's golden rule. Often, I would look for ways to cut corners to speed up the learning process. This, inevitably, would make me stumble. But Monsieur Laurent remained patient and imperturbable: “Dominique, please, remember, one rule, one rule only, no mistakes.”
It took weeks to make it to the bottom of the one-page Menuet in d-minor by Leopold Mozart, an easy piece he had composed to teach his young son Wolfgang Amadeus, and many more before I could crank up the tempo and play in a way that would not sound like music for turtles. When I would close my eyes, I would hear my psychoanalyst whisper in my ear: “Slow is fast, Dominique.”
As Monsieur Laurent was starting to peal off the veneer and uncover facets of my personality, he followed his instinct to jazz things up a bit: my next piece to study would be the Brazilian bossa nova and jazz song “Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”) by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. I had my eyes on the prize: I loved this warm, sunny and merry tune. I had been humming it in Portuguese for years. Being able to pull it off on the piano would be such a treat.
My head would get dizzy as I was painfully progressing through the new scores, trying to decipher elaborate chords a few bars at a time. The fingering was tricky and my hands felt stretched beyond their natural abilities. I contortioned and pushed myself so much that I developed a shoulder pain that required physiotherapy to heal. Eventually, after a couple of months following Monsieur Laurent’s mantra “slow you can go, mistakes no go”, I managed to play the piece at a fairly jazzy tempo.
“Slow you can go, mistakes no go”
– Lawrence Djintcharadze
Every piano lesson would start with a review of the homework that had been assigned the week before. A recital of sorts, for Monsieur Laurent’s eyes and ears only. On occasions, when the learning of a piece had been completed, the audience would triple: Monsieur Laurent would invite his wife and daughter, both accomplished pianists, to the mini concert. When came the day to play The Girl from Ipanema in front of a gigantic audience of three, I was nervous but excited, and pulled off a passionate, expressive and somewhat theatrical performance.
Monsieur Laurent congratulated me and gently offered a bit of feedback: “this was a colorful and interesting performance, Dominique. But joy and happiness cannot be the product of a performance. If you want your audience to experience joy and the happiness with your music, you must be happy and joyful yourself, deep within, and let the bright feelings transpire through your playing. The true challenge is to find the joy within.”
What did Monsieur Laurent mean? Could people see my melancholy and despair right through me? Would this journey into the world of music finally mark be the beginning of the end of a life of acting happy?
I was starting to take Monsieur Laurent’s teachings very seriously.
The speed of joy
On the day of the Girl from Ipanema recital came a proposal: would I be willing, like Chloé, to align my study program with the program of the Conservatory of Music and possibly, within a year, take the official piano exam? I had enjoyed my first months of apprenticeship tremendously but welcomed the new challenge hesitantly. The learning curve had been quite steep. It would become steeper. Would I stick to the commitment? I went along tentatively and embarked on the slow study of two new pieces: one of Bach’s Inventions and one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words.
Interestingly, I rapidly learnt to enjoy the process of learning itself. After suppers, when my tired and lazy self could have easily gone straight into chilling mode and to the TV room, I would harness the little bit of will power left in me to sit in front of the piano and warm up with a few scales. As the practice would progress into the evening I would start to relax and re-energize. Time froze. The half-hour praticse expanded into hours. When I was done, I would feel rested, restored, happy and ready for a peaceful night of sound sleep and colorful dreams. Not at all the painful process that I had imagined. Under Monsieur Laurent's guidance, the learning journey was, in itself, both enjoyable and rewarding.
On weeks that work travels were few, I could log in the required hours of daily practice. When came the day of my lesson, I played with confidence before Monsieur Laurent . On weeks that work travels were many, the piano practice suffered and the mini recitals were, at times, a total disaster. On one of those occasions that I showed up ill-prepared but tried nevertheless to sustain a challenging tempo, Monsieur Laurent intervened to put an end to the fiasco. Speaking in an unusually solemn fashion, he insisted: “Dominique, please, please, stop, I must ask you a very important question, please stop, turn your chair around and listen to me.” Ashamed and puzzled, I went along and listened: “Dominique, tell me: why do we play music?”
I hoped to save face with a witty answer but could find none that seemed appropriate given the sense of gravity that was floating in the air. Monsieur Laurent broke the embarrassing silence: “Dominique, we play music to experience the feeling of joy. This is why we play music. And whether you are an accomplished pianist or an apprentice makes no difference. The purpose of playing is to experience deep joy within. For this, you need to attune yourself to the circumstances of your days. If on a particular day you are a slightly tired or a bit feverish, or if on a very rare occasion, because of a temporary lack of practice, you show up ill-prepared for your piano lesson, then your attempts to play a difficult piece at a challenging tempo will generate stress, anxiety and inevitable mistakes. Nothing could be further away from inner joy than stress and anxiety. Remember this: we play music to experience a deep feeling of joy, not to stuggle through stress and anxiety. So, on days that you are a little tired or ill-prepared, you must slow down as much as you need to, and play at the speed of your joy.”
“Play at the speed of your joy.”
– Lawrence Djintcharadze
From that particular moment forward, I made it a priority to refine my ability to experience and connect to the warm and fuzzy feeling of joy within. My inner “joy-meter” became the barometer of my learning, my playing, my doing and my being.
Years later, I understood that Monsieur Laurent had been much more to me than a brilliant piano instructor. He had been my first spiritual teacher and nudged me onto a new path in life, a path to explore at the speed of my joy. And then, fairly quickly, as I was taking my first and very slow steps on this new path, I started to experience life on a fast track.
Slow is fast.
Inspiring Leaders START WITH WHY.
For What's Next, We Ask: SO WHAT?
As we have lived through the first twenty percent of our twenty first century, we are left to ponder a plethora of daunting questions: What’s the way out of extreme polarization? Can we protect democracy? Will we ever revert the climate crisis? Is sustainable development a chimera? How can we reboot our economies anew and for the benefit of many, not just a few? In this anxiogenic context, merchants of hope brought the search for purpose back to the fore.
In 2020, the respected Harvard Business Review published a special issue titled “How to lead with purpose”, the French food and beverages multinational Danone amended its corporate bylaws to broaden its purpose to positive social impact, and in his victory speech, Joe Biden invited all Americans “to defeat despair [and] build a nation of prosperity and purpose”.
Far from being a fad, the search for purpose is foundational to our quest for a better future. In words that sing to our ears like a Chopin melody, French writer, poet, aviation pioneer and author of The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it beautifully: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
Following a series of encounters and conversations with CEO’s, entrepreneurs, social innovators, advocates, researchers, artists, adventurers, spiritual leaders and sometimes with himself, the author of The Book of So What takes us with wit on an iconoclastic journey beyond purpose to reveal some of our contemporary blind spots: purpose bloating, purpose washing and purpose myopia to name a few. As the stories of transformations and reconciliations he narrates take us from the Loire Valley in France, to both banks of the Saint Laurent River in North America and then to the Jordan Valley in the Middle East, he shares with us a few valuable keys to clear the way forward with courage and explores the liberative powers of the modern jester’s question:
“Inspiring leaders start with WHY. For what’s next, we ask: SO WHAT?”
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© Dominique Bel, 2020. All Rights Reserved in all Countries.