Dancing on the ceiling…and learning to relax along the way

A few weeks ago I was at the music conference South By South West (or South By for short). The conference is renowned for drawing musicians from all over the world to play showcases at live music venues in Austin, Texas. Yet despite the plethora of live music, South By is not a traditional music festival; at any given moment you might find yourself standing shoulder to shoulder with a new or well known musician, or an industry insider or maybe a native Austinite who’s stepped into their local bar in the hope of hearing the best of the cream of the international music crop. South by also attracts established industry names, with world famous musicians like Youssou N’Dour and Stevie Wonder on hand as conference panelists sharing their sage insight and advice with the up and comers.

As I walked around Austin these past few days sampling everything from experimental Jazz to Norwegian heavy metal, I was struck with a thought- the business media talks at length about the need for cross pollination, an entrepreneurial mindset and opportunistic hunger in our corporations to ensure they stay competitive. Firms invest millions in executive education to help their star performers develop a more nimble mindset in the hope of identifying the next big opportunity or threat. As I walked between venues and chatted with artists, industry insiders and fans alike, I realized that musicians have been doing organically for years what corporations are trying to help their high potentials learn: innovation, creativity, passion and fearlessness (and check out the link above for a truly passionate and fearless performance at SXSW by The Joy Formidable).

I saw multiple displays of these three behaviors throughout the week at the conference, like the young British guitar band creatively using metal household objects as instruments when their sound system failed, to the unsigned and un-venued bands fearlessly busking mid-6th street until they were moved on by the police, to my most favorite and deeply unlikely example of innovation, cross pollination and risk taking from the whole week- soul/R&B legend Lionel Richie dueting with country mega-star Kenny Rogers. In addition to my insight around natural innovation in the music industry as I watched this unlikely union, I also found my own mindset challenged as was forced to adopt a risk tolerant perspective when it came to this particular show: Although I have a very deep respect for his music longevity in a notoriously tough field, I am not a big Lionel Richie fan. In fact, his set went up against an exceptionally hot Swedish band I’d partially made the pilgrimage to South By for.

However, my good friend and host wanted badly to see his show, so I set aside my own wants and broadened my horizons to join her at the concert. When we first arrived at the venue I was antsy- I felt deeply uncool and annoyed that I would miss the Swedish band I’d been excited to see for weeks, I was expecting an over- produced show from a name that didn’t need the exposure and was frustrated at having to deviate from my carefully planned schedule. As the lights dimmed and Lionel Richie came on stage I did some mental mathematics to assess how quickly I could run out and not offend, but also not miss my show. And then, as the familiar bars of a Commodores song I’d grown-up with, loved, but forgotten about filtered into the room, I instantly realized that the times when you least expect to have insight are often the most memorable. As Lionel Richie worked through his set taking us from the Commodores classic “Easy”, up to the 80’s disco stable “Dancing on the Ceiling” I loosened up and decided to enjoy myself, dancing along with the fans around me and seriously enjoying their enthusiasm for the music.

I also quickly understood that the performer on stage was a true professional who put on an amazing show, reminding me that passion, talent and deliberate practice make for stunning display of expertise. But Kenny Rogers unexpectedly joining the performers on stage brought the deepest insight as I realized that musicians are practicing the very traits that global brand names are trying to emulate. It was innovative as both artists are stadium fillers in their own right, neither needs to play with the other to draw a crowd, yet they saw the opportunity to flex and reflect their star power by teaming up to duet. It was risky- Lionel Richie is known for his slick R&B production and LA sensibility. Kenny Rogers is a true country star with the Southern affiliations to match- they are not two artists one would automatically think of as likely partners. Their choice to perform together created a truly unique and memorable new version of a classic song as Kenny Rogers brought his country twang to the soulful Richie ballad “Lady”. It was an opportunistic pairing as Richie and his team seized the chance to have some fun for themselves but also with the audience by trading on Austin’s country roots and inviting Kenny Rogers along.

As for me, the whole experience reminded me to be more open for the rest of the week and step into venues by following my instinct rather than being a slave to the meticulously planned, Williamsburg endorsed schedule. By choosing to focus on experiences that would bring me and the people important to me joy rather than the experiences I felt I “should” be having because they sounded impressive, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Austin and felt inspired to bring my learning and new found enthusiasm back to work. So next time you step into a coaching session or workshop with North of Neutral, don’t be too surprised if we have you dancing on the ceiling by the end of your time with us in an attempt to bring you to enlightenment.