Success in Doing Less

What often leads to success is not what you DO do, but what you don’t do.

I played in a band for a while, and it was awesome. I was at or near the bottom of the talent tree in the group of five (or six for a period), meaning I couldn’t play bass as well as the other guys could play their respective instruments (guitar, violin, drums, vocals). My strong point was not in my playing but in my listening. I developed a feel for how a song should unfold, and I used that to partner with some of the other guys in the band to write, re-write and re-re-write many of our songs. In a band, that at its peak had a five-instrument line up, the challenge was not writing awesome parts to songs. The challenge was not writing parts to songs.

Everyone had ideas. We could layer a song with ideas and it could punch you hard right from the top and never stop as the song plays (like Jellybelly). By the end of the song, you’ll be breathing hard, but after a listen or two, you might be exhausted. Instead, we tried to focus on what we weren’t playing and eliciting emotion with a song’s dynamics. It led to my mantra, “It’s usually not what you do play that makes a song, but what you don’t.” This led to another, previously discussed maxim for music, “To make good music, your musicality is more important than your technicality.” You can be the most technical player ever, and your music could be boring if you don’t focus on the musicality (ahem, Dragonforce). This is why Hendrix’s Little Wing is about a billion (perhaps a trillion) times better than Steve Vai’s. Also, Steve, the fan blowing your hair back on stage and the glitter make-up? Seriously?

When .HEREtoday. called it quits, I started playing with two of the guys in a three-piece. It was awesome. Simple. Clean. We couldn’t make the song busy because we only had six hands between us.

Currently, I’m leading a worship band that changes line-ups week to week but usually averages out at about a six-piece. Everyone in the band is super talented, most of them more so than me, but a struggle we have is knowing when NOT to play. Knowing when to cut and knowing when silence accomplishes more than sound is the piece of the puzzle that would complete the picture. Sometimes we nail it. Often, I wish cuts were cleaner, noodling more pointed and dynamic shifts more pronounced, but we’re getting there.

Outside of music, I still hold my motto tight. Success is often defined by what you don’t do as much or more than by what you do. This could swing both ways. If you fail to do something you should due to laziness or ignorance, you will not be successful. Likewise, if you are doing something that adds at best insignificant value, you are impinging on your success by cultivating waste.

The next time you set to a task, be it writing a song, writing a paper or creating a global business strategy evaluate what you are doing and ask yourself if it really creates value. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should. Don’t noodle just to noodle. Don’t create subprojects just because.

Matthew F Murphy
23 Jan 2013

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