I love to see a musician at rest, away from his or her instrument, just acting like an ordinary person. I like this because I know that once he or she picks up their instrument and begins to play, something magical will happen. Music will happen, in a way that it wouldn’t if a non-musician took over the instrument. A musician at rest and a musician in action seem to me to be analogous to the concepts of potential energy and kinetic energy.
Potential energy is force that is stored in an object or system by virtue of its position or configuration, such as a wrecking ball at its highest elevation or a spring-loaded mousetrap that has been set. Kinetic energy is the force in motion, when the wrecking ball swings down at its target or the mousetrap bar spells doom for its prey. The way I like to think of it, a musician’s potential energy is the skill and knowledge they possess to make music, and the kinetic energy is the release of that skill and knowledge through their instrument in the actual making of music.
This isn’t just true of musicians. Consider David Ortiz in the batter’s box with his bat cocked (potential energy), then imagine him swinging and watching the ball he has swatted sail into the seats at Fenway (kinetic energy, and a standing ovation). Not to put myself in the same category as Big Papi, but another example would be me sitting at the computer reading an email versus me sitting at the computer writing something for a client. In the first moment, I merely have the capacity (potential) to create content; in the second moment, I am doing so (kinetic).
Once I volunteered to help build a playground at my daughter’s school. As parents from diverse backgrounds and vocations, we were certainly not uniquely qualified to build a playground, but we did what we could do, from hauling to painting to raking. There was some hammering to do, as well, a task I assumed I possessed sufficient skill to do without endangering myself and others. So I volunteered to drive huge nails (perhaps six inches long) into railroad ties that would form the border of the playground.
As it turns out, members of a local carpenters union had also volunteered to help. I was amazed at how quickly and easily these hunky tradesmen submerged those nails into the wood. Two or three major smacks with their hammers and then onto the next one. I was taking about 20 hits to sink them, occasionally missing the nail altogether. Clearly, these professional carpenters had potential energy that I did not possess at all. We could make the same kinetic motions, but the results were different because of what they had that no one could see: talent, skill, and experience.
At Libretto, I meet many exceptionally talented people who are my clients: professors and physicians, inventors and innovators, researchers and leaders whom I get to sit with and learn from. I interview them so I can write about their business strategy, their discoveries, or their products. They sit with me and through our discussion I get to “see” their skill and knowledge. The way they think, the scope of their interests, the training and commitment that have qualified them to serve in their current roles, all of it comes through in their words and ideas. I get to witness their potential energy – the stuff that is inside of them that makes them special – and very rarely get to see their kinetic energy: I don’t typically see them teach or conduct experiments or treat people or lead board meetings or secure a six-figure donation. I would love to be able to witness all those things, but their kinetic work goes on out of my sight, as mine does out of theirs. I take the information I have heard and go back to my computer and make content of it.
For the past few months, I’ve been participating in a weekly blues jam at a local pub. I am surrounded by musicians who alternate all night long between sitting in the audience with their potential energy and standing on the stage with their kinetic energy (actually, as a drummer I sit with my kinetic energy as well). When musicians are at rest, you can’t tell who’s really good and who’s just competent (I’ll give you a hint: I’m just competent). Only when they get up to play do you know who’s a real player.
One of the regulars is a kid who just recently turned 17. Looking at him as he sits, he seems like just another teen with his face in his phone, drinking a Coke with one hand while pinching and scrolling with the other. But then his name gets called, he removes his guitar from the case, heads up to the stage, plugs into the amplifier, tunes up, and waits for the count. When the music begins, you soon realize this young kid is a prodigious talent. With his fingers flying up and down and across the fretboard, his remarkable chops are in full kinetic display. And when the set is over, he goes back to his seat, puts his guitar away, and again becomes a phone-obsessed teen.
Which is all to say, I guess, that you can’t tell what talents a person may possess until you see them in action. It can be surprising. Even energizing.