The Piano and the Presidency

Legend has it that after a late night concert at New York’s famed Blue Note Club, the great jazz musician Duke Ellington was approached by a much younger aspiring pianist. The pianist asked, “How do you master everything you play, Mr. Ellington?” to which he replied, “Actually son, I only play what I’ve mastered.”

When I heard this story I had to pause. It made sense. When we see someone performing at unusually high levels, it is easy to assume everything they touch will turn to gold. In reality, they’ve only mastered a few things, and those things they frequently put on display.

I’ve heard people say Bill Gates should run for president, obviously for his dominance in technology. I’m not sure if computer programming would translate into good foreign policy or skill at managing the politics of the Senate. Not saying it doesn’t, but it is a stretch. What does this mean?

First, the more difficult your areas of expertise, the more people assume you can do other difficult things. Second, the more you seem to have no interest in those other things, the more people want you to try them. Third, the more you ignore the temptation to do what you haven’t mastered, the better you’ll be at what you actually do best.

Thanks to Duke Ellington, I view greatness a little differently. Greatness is all about discipline. Discipline is more valuable than talent. Discipline teaches you to perform only what you’ve mastered.

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