Different and better

Last Saturday afternoon was the monthly “leadership class” at the martial arts school, a special class about leadership and personal-development topics, for coaches and leaders at the school and anyone who has an interest in leadership or self-growth. It is nearly always a thought-provoking session, and this month’s class was even more so than most.

The topic this month was about what “success” is and means, and the guy in charge of the class and the school, Coach Jose, started with a hypothetical question: on the very very last day of your life, what would it mean if your life had been “successful”? What kinds of things would your life need to consist of, in order for you to be able to say at the very end that you had succeeded?

My answer is fairly simple and came very fairly fast. On my last day, my life will have been successful if the world is different and better because I was here, particularly because there are people who are different and better. That’s not complicated for me at all.

Coach Jose’s answer, however, really made me think. He said he will consider his life to have been successful if he got to do the things he wanted to do and enjoy all the things he enjoys.

I will confess that if a person I didn’t know at all gave that sort of answer, I would probably, secretly, think it at least a little bit selfish, and maybe more than a little bit selfish. But the answer really came from someone I know and highly respect. “Selfish” is in no way an appropriate word to apply to my coach. I’ve seen the work he does and the lengths he goes to in order to help other people grow and live better; I know that’s a strong motivation behind the work he does. So his selfward-pointed definition of success made me think, and it’s still making me think.

I don’t really appear in my own definition of success, not to myself. It’s about other people. But how am I going to help anyone become “different and better?” Don’t I increase my chances of being able to do so by continuing to learn new skills and becoming a stronger, better person?

But that’s not even it, because that’s still about other people. What if the world is different and better at the end of my life simply and only because I have made myself different and better? Would that not count, all on its own?

I struggle with legitimizing the investment of time and love in myself. If I ever do, it’s often via a dodge toward “being more useful to other people.” But seriously, do I not count, all on my own? And would it be necessarily selfish if I decided that I did?


3 comments so far

  1. wushupa on

    Glad to know our session made you think. I always fall back on the quote by Ghandi “become the change you wish to see in the world.” The art of loving yourself is to often taken to an extreme. It is either completely forgotten or blown up into the type of narcissism that would make the most egotistical celebrity blush. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth-how totally taiji.

  2. Dee Jenkins on

    I have been attempting to open up to the possibility that doing the things I love leads to positve energy: energy that enables me to take in as well as to project “good vibes” if you will pardon an expression from the past. It seems a risky prospect, as I was conditioned to think that being a worthwhile person meant denying myself the things I cared about the most and had the most natural response too, but slowly I am starting to see that a joyful participation in whatever it is I am doing seems to generate more good than a pissed off attitude would, and know as well, that a negative aura? both internally and externally, would inevitably accompany any acitivity I resented, as much as I might try to hide it.
    Still it is a risk and a challenge every day to attempt to do this. Taiji is helping me: Both the coach and the people in the class.
    Thank you all.

  3. Dee Jenkins on

    Critic’s Notebook
    New Pilots at the Keyboard
    Karsten Moran for The New York Times.

    This is part of an article on new jazz musicians that was recently published in The New York Times. It is the last paragraph of the article that pertains to some issues around selfishness.


    Next week the pianist Fabian Almazan, who is 27 and still unknown to most jazz listeners, will play his first headlining week at the Village Vanguard, opening the same day as the release of his first album, “Personalities.” He’s bringing a string quartet to play four pieces he’s arranged, as well as his trio, with the bassist Linda Oh and the drummer Henry Cole. That’s risky; it’s a lot at once. It’s not unlike him.

    If I were to hear “Personalities” blindfolded, I might not know that Mr. Almazan was Cuban, except for one track: a version of “Tres Lindas Cubanas,” a nearly century-old danzón standard by the Cuban composer Antonio María Romeu. Otherwise there’s a version of the Cuban singer-songwriter Carlos Varela’s “Bola de Nieve,” which in Mr. Almazan’s hands sounds as if it might have been written by Radiohead; a rearrangement of Shostakovich’s “String Quartet No. 10” for trio and string quartet with sounds altered by delay and distortion pedals; and his own music: pretty ballads, rapid and quickly turning pieces with rhythm and dynamics that could only come from this moment.

    Mr. Almazan, placid and serious, immersed in sound, the kind of musician who’s more fascinated by text than context, was born in Havana, the son of the bass player Rafael Almazán. His family moved briefly to Mexico when he was 9, then sought political asylum in the United States, settling in Miami. In Mexico he started piano lessons, and in Miami his parents bought a piano.

    He became aware of jazz in high school there, at the New World School of the Arts, where the drummer Obed Calvaire was also a student. “I remember walking by the room where he and some other musicians were playing, and I felt frustrated by classical music,” Mr. Almazan recalled this week. “If I felt a certain way, it couldn’t influence the way I played.” He graduated from the program as a classical pianist but had already changed over to jazz internally.

    From there he attended the Brubeck Institute, an undergraduate program in California, and then the Manhattan School of Music, where he took orchestration classes and studied with Mr. Moran, who gave him new challenges, like remodeling Scott Joplin’s “Entertainer” in 45 minutes. The trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, whom he’d met in passing, recommended him to Terence Blanchard in 2007, and touring with Mr. Blanchard — one of the most important cultivators of young musicians in America — has transformed him as a performer. Mr. Blanchard is also a film composer, and Mr. Almazan is moving in that direction too; he recently completed a fellowship at the Sundance Composer’s Lab.

    “I know there’s a lot of people who think that jazz is a community thing, and it keeps traditions going, and I understand that completely,” he said. “But for me it’s important not to feel like you’re doing it for someone else. So it’s selfish, but I’ve heard music that was created selfishly, and it created a big impact on me. It made my life better.”

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