I was recently chatting with a friend about how it’s important when starting a business to get out of your comfort zone. As one of the few Singaporean entrepreneurs who’s had an exit in Silicon Valley, he truly brings a global mindset to his business and understands that perhaps the best thing for his company and his country is to leave the comforts of home and chase the big opportunity abroad. He’s still grappling with the specifics of his decision, but the conversation reminded me of an episode from my youth.
During high school I’d trek down to the New England Conservatory once or twice a week for violin lessons, music theory, ear training classes, chamber ensemble and practice for the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. Our conductor, Benjamin Zander was an early inspiration from whom I learned many lessons that stayed with me into adulthood. One weekend as we were about to head out for our yearly orchestra retreat to an island in the Boston Harbor, Mr Zander tasked us with an assignment.
“On the journey over I would like each of you to do one thing that you wouldn’t normally do.”
Upon arrival, we settled into our rooms and after a brief orientation, we convened for our first rehearsal. After we tuned our instruments, Mr Zander asked us to share some of the non-normal activities we had undertaken.
“I did a cartwheel in the aisle of the bus” said one of our violinists. One of our trumpet players said “I’m really shy normally but I struck up a conversation with someone I’d never spoken to.” And I can’t remember who but one person said “I punched someone really hard for no good reason.”
To which Mr Zander replied “well certainly I wouldn’t condone that last behavior, but the idea that I want to convey is that we as individuals all have a boundary where we stop. Inside the boundary are things we would normally do and outside the boundary lies the unknown and the realm of possibility.”
He then instructed us all to get up from our seats and park ourselves in another chair at random. As a violist I was used to having the winds and horns to my right, violins in front and cellos to the left of me. But in this new formation I had a cello to my right, a clarinet to my left, a flute in front of me and a tuba in front of her. We began to play Dvorak’s New World Symphony, which we each had played hundreds of times before but this time we experienced the piece in a totally different way. I noticed so much more of the detail in various melodies and the rich pallette of colors in each layered harmony. It was almost as if my black and white world had sprung into color.
After finishing the first movement Mr Zander sat with a satisfied grin and exclaimed in his usual jovial voice “see!? wasn’t that marvelous?” and indeed it was. Not only did each of us gain a fresh perspective on the piece and a new appreciation for the synthesis of our parts, but the experience also brought our consciousness to a higher level when we returned to our old formation.
Mr Zander continued “in order to bring our best to our music and to our life, we need to constantly push that boundary of where we stop.”
In the dynamic world we live in today, these words ring truer than they did back in the early 90’s when I first heard them. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or an artist, I’d suggest you try something today that you wouldn't normally do (but please refrain from acts of random violence :)
I'm sure I'll have more posts on Ben Zander but in the meantime you can check out his Ted Talk here.