Career advice from a jazz musician

Last Sunday I attended a live, analogue, jazz performance. Yes that’s right, with real instruments (not sampled), zero synthetic bits. “So what?” I hear you ask, how’s that providing insights into how to be a better person in life and at work? Well as with all awesome experiences they can teach us lessons about how to live life fully, appreciating all the rawness of a real experience.

Read on to hear about how this jazz performance motivated me to go analogue (less digital) in my life (and why you should too); trust me you’ll be happier for it!

In this post I’ve made up a few words to explain my thoughts, sorry to all the English teachers out there…


Us humans love control and predictability and continually fool ourselves that we have everything sorted out and in order. Yes we need to strive for order but also accept the bits of life that do not (and never will) make sense to us. The Jazz musicians I listened to last Sunday improvised against the backdrop of the song’s structure, combining chaos and order together in what I think is a great metaphor for life. Yes it’s a paradox; all we can do is embrace its unsolvable-ness.

At work we need to appreciate and, where possible, embrace the messy bits that have no structure. Learning to accept what (for now) needs to remain chaotic in order to let new things emerge (hint: forcing things usually is counter-productive)


Nowadays we edit the things out of our life that “bore” us and are less than entertaining. We skim through news, articles, movie reviews, conversations looking for what is the most satisfying and stimulating. We curate life to remain satisfied. This is a result of living digitally where we can quickly edit out things that do not suit us. This (I reckon) leads to us never being satisfied/happy with what we have or what is going on at work and in life. The result is more and more ridiculous forms of entertainment (shocking news, silly, violent TV shows, obsessing on food, 1million beer brands, iphones/gadgets etc. etc.) as well as an urge to change jobs/roles or seek greener pastures.

I found myself listening to the Jazz and appreciating all the messy bits but at the same time “craving” for normal sounding bits, it was again a great lesson in accepting things as they are and not deleting out what “I” don’t like. Once I got over the urge to have negative thoughts about a piece in the performance suddenly I heard the whole instead only the bits I prefer. This ultimately was a lot more satisfying (ironic hey?!).


People are messy; my two young boys especially, but adults make mess too. Often we stir up a situation and then leave a mess behind us. We do this through our actions and words; it’s like a form of karma I suppose. Hopping from one thing to the next and multi-tasking are I think symptoms of us not being accountable to ourselves for the whole task and (really) completing it (starting, doing and finishing properly). This is due to our preference for the parts of a task that we prefer.

Listening to improvised jazz I wondered when a track was going to sound “normal” and/or come to a neat ending (not leave a mess behind). The leader of the band must coordinate this as he is the in charge of blending the improvised and non-improvised parts of a performance together; he is accountable to bring things to a satisfactory end. This requires great mindfulness (of the others, the sounds and the track) and attention to detail.

I think if we recognised our role in bringing together all parts of what we do (improvised bits and the planned bits) to a neat end point there would be a lot less dramas in the workplace. I challenge you to be like the jazz improvisor, introduce some constructive chaos into the structured workplace, blending it into a greater whole but also consider what it would mean to truly complete your tasks (start-middle-end) with minimal mess (karma) left behind (whoa, now that’s a challenge!)


Labels are what we all use to filter and categorise the things we encounter in life. This is a way of making sense of the world we live in but also creates a risk by way of our filters editing out parts of our perception.

Improvised jazz is whacky in that you can’t really call what you hear anything; it just is what it is. There is a Buddhist term for this: thusness or things as they are. Humans struggle with thusness because it is like drinking from a fire hose; it can be all too much. Due to our need to filter life we have a tendency to over edit, curate and digitise our life, taking out the bits we don’t like to suit ourselves. Again this is a paradox as we have to filter life and use labels to help navigate the world but run the risk of putting ourselves and everything into boxes to the point where there is no room for the organic/emergent aspects of life.

Being able to accept the thusness of a situation at work or home is a VERY useful skill. This allows you to be like a huge tree that is unperturbed in strong winds (are you seeing my metaphor to life here).

A jazz musicians career advice

I’ll finish this post with a quote from Tom (the jazz pianist) that sums up nicely what we all need to do when planning our career:

“Why don’t I shut up and play the piano”.

Tom is at his best when playing improvised jazz piano, what is it that you should “shut up and just do”?

Upcoming free webinar

If any of the above is useful to you then I encourage you to attend my next free webinar that will build on these and other ideas to help you enjoy work/life and stay on track.

p.s. I don’t sell anything at these events, so come along a learn something :-)

Social Share Toolbar
Tagged with: ,
Posted in Career
2 comments on “Career advice from a jazz musician
  1. Ron Parrello says:

    Niall, I really enjoy the conversational approach to your posts – you connect with me on this level as this is how I best receive the information; hey, there might be a blogg on this topic.

    I think the real lesson in my work life that comes through on your posts is ‘be real’. Don’t be something your not. Be yourself. Messy bits and all. If you love yourself for who you are, then there is no reason to change yourself for others.
    Keep up the posts mate as they reinforce for me what I need to keep doing – I do suffer from self-doubt on the odd occasion.

  2. Niall McShane says:

    Thank goodness for self-doubt ;-)

    And yes, most of what I blog about is reality, which is a slippery sucker!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>