Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Mastery for New Years?

In the Thanksgiving and Christmas posts I focused on optimism and mindfulness.   For New Years I want to focus on the complementary concept of mastery.  Together they operate like a “three legged stool” and can provide a balanced approach to almost any challenge.

Benny Goodman (1909-1986) was one of the all-time great clarinet players.  He was also a leader in the emergence of jazz as a respected and mainstream art form.  Beyond that he integrated his band in the 1930s more than 10 years before institutions like professional baseball or the U.S. military were integrated.  Underneath all of this innovation and personal excellence was an obsessive devotion to practicing the fundamentals of the clarinet.   In fact, during the 1950s at the height of his fame, Goodman started taking lessons again to improve elements of his playing so he could master classical music as well as jazz.  How many of us who are really skilled and famous at something would seek out a teacher or coach to branch out and get better in middle age?   One overriding lesson in all of this is that Goodman’s mastery of and focus on the basics served as a platform for him to break new ground and take chances in multiple arenas.

The clip below shows Goodman and his band playing “Sing, Sing, Sing” in the late 1930s as part of the movie “Hollywood Hotel”.   Note how relaxed he and the band are.  Note that he lets the great drummer Gene Krupa and trumpet player Harry James get plenty of attention.  At the end of the clip he is playing with the equally gifted Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson who were black which would have been inconceivable pre-Goodman.


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Are there larger lessons from Benny Goodman?   It seems to me that we have entered into a world of mindless standardization and metrics that inhibit change in the name of stability and predictability.   Our ability to measure all sorts of things that might be called outcomes and then manage the world in an effort to get more of the “desired” outcomes in a sort of linear way has never been greater.   However, life is unpredictable and perhaps what is missing in all of these metrics is the recognition that improvisation and novel solutions are what move our messy world forward.   So, do we mindlessly focus on metrics or do we use metrics as a way to ensure we have mastered the fundamentals of whatever we are doing?  We can then use our mastery as a platform to innovate and take chances like Goodman did.

Perhaps the best example of metrics gone bad comes from the Vietnam War when things like body counts were used by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as a substitute for insight about the nature of the war.   If you want to see a chilling example of a leader who does not understand the importance of culture and the non-rational elements of life, the documentary film “Fog of War” by Errol Morris is an extended interview with McNamara at the end of his life.   He went to his grave not getting it and thinking that everything could be subject to metric driven analysis and decision making.

On the flip side is the W.L. Gore Company that makes Gore-Tex and other interesting products.   Gore has rejected the top-down metric driven world view and things like economies of scale.  Instead they focus on a few key values and trust their employees to move the company forward.   They keep their work units small (less than 200 people) and intimate on purpose.  One size rarely fits all and this idea is now getting more play by the people who study long term organizational success.  Mindless adoption of best practices merely accelerates the arrival organizational monocultures and dogma that limit our ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.   In medicine many of the key guidelines and best practices I learned in the 1980s and 90s have been turned on their head.   Best practices are only best for now.


What would Benny say?  The clip below is from an interview Goodman did late in life with Diane Sawyer……my take on what he said is that it is all about mastering the fundamentals to do unique and challenging things.  Being a slave to metrics and standardization are easy and tempting ways to limit your ability or the ability of your organization to move forward.   The next time you hear someone tell you they are managing to metrics, ask them what they might be missing!


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