The Throw-Yourself-Off-The-Cliff mentality and leveling up

I have a mindset that I call “throw yourself off the cliff.”

When a scary but great opportunity arises, don’t overthink it. Just say yes to it, even if it is a stretch for you skill-wise, ability-wise, everything-wise.

If you weigh your options, taking precious stock of where you are and whether you can do it, you’ll not only waste time and energy, you’ll also most likely talk yourself out of it. You’ll get scared and say no.

Don’t do this.

Instead, just throw yourself off the cliff. Say yes. And figure out how to do the thing you fear.

The origin story of this phrase and way of being for me is this: I’m a bit scared of heights if I let myself be. But it was a deep, hot Wyoming summer and I had just hiked to a mountain lake and there was an enormous boulder on the shore that all the locals like to jump off of.

It’s definitely something I want to do too. It looks fun and I know hitting the cold mountain water is going to feel amazing. But I’m nervous and terrified. I watch my friend stand there, then take a running start and leap off the edge of the boulder. I count one second, two seconds and then hear a splash from down below and a second later he lets a thrilling “Yahoo!” as he pops up from underwater. He shouts encouragements and all the other glorious things humans shout in when we’ve hit a cold body of water from above.

I know I have to do it but I am petrified. I’m not doing and not doing and not doing it until I flip a switch in my mind and run toward the looming edge, thinking “fuck it” in my mind.

And yes, the fall through the air and the shockingly cold splash was 1000% worth it. But I had to throw myself off. If I stood around waiting any longer it wasn’t going to happen.

In your work or your career, when you throw yourself off the cliff, you’ll be in free fall but that fall is exactly what will force you into action. Your self-respect and and pride kicks in. You start taking the actions you need to take so as not to make a complete mess of the situation, so as not to hit the ground.

Saying yes to the TEDx talk was like this for me. I felt scared to do it, unsure of if I could even pull it off in the short amount of time I had to put it together. But as I was having these doubts and fears, I forced my mouth to shape the word “yes.” I’d thrown myself off enough cliffs by this point in my life that I knew it was the right thing to do. I had not clue HOW but I knew I could. The how would come later, as I was flying through the air.

What cliff do you want to throw yourself off of?

Caroline Brooks ... 1/3rd of the Good Lovelies

I don't even remember when I met the Good Lovelies, Caroline Brooks, Kerri Ough, and Sue Passmore.  It was definitely when I was living and making music in Canada, but where exactly in that great north country did I meet them?  Was it in the Royal City of Guelph?  Was it that circus-like February weekend in Montreal at Folk Alliance (when I also met Lori Cullen, Duane Andrews, Kurt Swinghammer, and Pat Boyle)?  Was it at the always-killer Hillside Festival?  The mist of time is thick and I am disoriented, pleasantly so.

No matter.  Allow me to introduce you to the sweet sound of the Good Lovelies (one of Canada's premier folk bands) and to one third of that power trio, Caroline Brooks.

Augusto Monk

Multi-instrumentalist Augusto Monk is one of my oldest musical friends.  He's been in the trenches with me since we first met at Berklee College of Music way back when.  We would meet in the school's shitty little practice rooms with the broken-down pianos at midnight almost every night of the semester to practice ear training together.  We'd stay until they kicked us out at 2am.

Originally from Argentina, he's lived in Boston, London, and now Toronto.  His music is equally as nomadic.  At any given time, I have no clue what instrument he is playing, what kind of music he is making, or if he is even making music at all -- sometimes he paints, draws cartoons, or makes films

(PS: watch the entire film; the password is Brass)

We go a long time without seeing or talking to each other, but when we do, we always fall into deep discussions about the nature of making music.  Invariably, we wonder: did those endless nights of ear training teach us anything? Anything at all?  Or were they just an exercise in stamina?  Or was that the point?

(This interview is part of the TENACITY series.  Read the FAQ here.)

Colin Stranahan

I've been wanting to ask Colin to be a part of the Tenacity series since I first met him, and I first met him through Facebook. 

He came to know my music in some mysterious way (who ever really knows how these things work) and he reached out.  We had a lot of musical friends in common, so it was only a matter of time before we met and played together.

And play together we did at one of the last gigs I had in NYC before my Mom got sick and I took two and a half years off from making music in public.  Colin brought his small kit, crammed himself into a corner at the Gershwin Hotel, and we played a set of tunes.  It was a magical, memorable night.

(This interview is part of the TENACITY series.  Read the FAQ here.)

Alan Ferber

Did I ever tell you that the trombone is my favorite instrument?

It's true.  My love of the trombone was instantaneous and forever.  It happened in a dark, sparsely attended memorial concert for the founder of Berklee, Lawrence Berk, during my first semester at Berklee.  Phil Wilson, the legendary trombonist and faculty member (whom I did not know at the time, but would come to know very, very well) got up and played a solo version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that literally stopped my heart, stopped time.  Frozen.  The sound coming out of his trombone had color to it.  It was  gold.  I swear.  There was nothing and nobody else in the world except for him, his shining playing, and the moment-by-moment unfolding of this familiar yet suddenly, achingly tragic song.

I was done.  Cooked.  Ever since then, I am a sucker for a trombone every single time.

Scott Colley

I first met Scott at one of the semi-regular Jim Hall Invitational Lunches that happened at the French Roast on 6th Ave in NYC. (R.I.P. Jim) The twinkle in his eye caught me.  I was shy and retiring but I knew that once Scott and I got a chance to spend a little more time together, we would be great friends.

Since then, Scott has introduced me to stand up comedy and I have introduced him to the world of women's ice hockey.  He travels all the time, but I managed to pin him down for a TENACITY interview.  Enjoy!  (For more info on the TENACITY series, read the FAQ here.)


From his bio: Scott Colley is the bassist of choice for such jazz legends as Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall, and Michael Brecker. His remarkably empathetic skills, strong melodic sense and improvisational abilities have served him well on the more than 200 albums on which he has played.  He has worked with everyone from guitarists Bill Frissell and Pat Metheny to drummers Brian Blade and Roy Haynes.  In recent years, Scott has flourished as a composer and bandleader.  His writing is strong and melodic (see 2010-release, "Empire" on the CAM jazz label).

What made a difference for you along the way?  Tell me a story about that moment.
I have always thought that the most important moments in the creative process for any artist are not the moments that others actually get to see.  Most have heard of “flow” in relation to art and sports – referring to the moments when time seems to stop, and one has complete focus.  There are no thoughts, no decisions to make; we just do without trying.

As artists, we work towards those flow moments.  But the hardest and most crucial times are when we are stuck.  Those difficult moments are when we must confront the unknown and learn new ways of seeing. It also means we may need to learn new skills, which we resist because of the work involved.  So I remind myself of the importance of pushing through, and working on my instrument or writing, even when I would rather do just about anything else.

When I was studying at Cal Arts, I remember a teacher talking about the creative process using the image of a wheel.  At the top of the wheel you are the most productive and the ideas simply come out.  The bottom of the wheel represents the challenge of looking at things in a new way and pushing yourself back to the place where new concepts and ideas flow.  Every part of the process is equally important.  But you have to work through every turn of the wheel or else you become stagnate.  Sometimes when I have created something I think is worthwhile, it’s because I love making music.  Sometimes I think it is because I have a high threshold for pain.  Ultimately it is probably both.

To whom would you like to ask this same question and why?  Living or dead.  What do you think their answer would be?

When you mention tenacity, I immediately think of my father, who passed away a few years ago. I remember him waking each day to go to work at 5:30am. (My mother said he never missed a day of work in 35 years) I remember him clearly, putting on his work shoes in the darkness of our kitchen and driving 45 minutes to his job as a machinist. Although I think he did enjoy his job, it was definitely not his first choice. He had worked as a rancher during college and that was what he planned to do as a career. But over time, I guess life took over. So I would like to ask him if he was truly happy. Your question “what do you think his answer would be?”: I think he probably would have several reasons, but I imagine the primary reason would be that he did it for us.