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Thelonious Monk and the Search for Value

Thelonious Monk and the Search for Value

A long time ago, I was a jazz musician. I listened to Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. I loved what they had done for the jazz world, and for the joy of music in general.

If only I practiced or memorized enough, I thought, I might not be an original, but I could at least reproduce what they had done. (At least in this case, I decided, individuality is overrated. If I could be like one of them, I’d be happy.)

But no matter how much I practiced, I could never be Monk. There was something about the technique, the choice of notes, phrases, and syncopation that couldn’t be imitated. I got the feeling that even if the imitation was perfect—mine certainly wasn’t—something would be missing.

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A good artist, regardless of their profession, does something that is useful, enjoyable, or otherwise beneficial to other people. Sometimes we think we have to be very good at one thing—and indeed, that’s often how ends up… eventually.

But value is a combination of skills and deliverables that make your work unique. A quote from Scott Adams illustrates this principle well:

It’s unlikely that any average student can develop a world-class skill in one particular area. But it’s easy to learn how to do several different things fairly well.

I succeeded as a cartoonist with negligible art talent, some basic writing skills, an ordinary sense of humor and a bit of experience in the business world. The “Dilbert” comic is a combination of all four skills. The world has plenty of better artists, smarter writers, funnier humorists and more experienced business people. The rare part is that each of those modest skills is collected in one person. That’s how value is created.

Like Adams, I feel the same way in my current career—many people do each aspect of my work better than I do. I learned early on that I’m not a good travel writer, so I left that for other people. I don’t want to hire people or outsource undesired tasks. I also don’t offer coaching or consulting at all. I try to do a good job on the projects I pursue, but there are many left by the wayside as I move to other things.

The times when I’ve tried to improve various undeveloped skills usually result in only modest gains—like trying to be Thelonious Monk. In fact, more often than not it results in frustration as I force myself to attempt something for which I have no talent or aptitude.

It’s funny, if you make a list of all the things you don’t do well, you may wonder how you’ve even made it this far. But those things don’t matter—as Adams says, you can be average or even mediocre in many ways as long as you craft everything together in a way that gives other people something to care about.

The danger of imitation is not that you’ll completely fail; it’s that you’ll succeed a little. You’ll get by and do OK—but getting by and doing OK does not produce real value. Even if it were possible to be a perfect imitation, the combination of skills that results in your own contribution is so much better.

There’s only one Monk, only one Scott Adams, only one of you and me.

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Image: Exquisitur