Innovating yourself - lessons from jazz for a flourishing life

Guest writer

I’ve been hard-wired to wallow in my weaknesses. I get manic about my mistakes far too often for far too long. These patterns mute and, at times, silence my flourishing.

But I’ve discovered a way to change that. I’m currently practicing it. I’m getting better at breaking out of those negative patterns more quickly and living in positive patterns for longer periods of time. I think what I’ve discovered is a key to wellbeing, to enjoying a flourishing life.

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What I’ve discovered is the power of thinking in jazz. I’ve found in jazz a fascinating and provocative model for engaging life wholeheartedly, for living well and completely, for enjoying a meaningful and beneficial life. For me, this is the way I innovate myself, one conversation after another.

Jazz is an art form that was forged in the adversity of discrimination and poverty. Jazz musicians refused to allow that adversity to define them. In spite of all the social pressure, especially in the American South in the early twentieth century, they looked deeper into their souls and found a God-given dignity and worth that flowed through the communal and creative energy of their music. That was the source of flourishing from which they innovated themselves.

And we can do the same as we compose and perform our lives. I believe that we are all jazz musicians. You see, the most common form of jazz in human experience is ordinary conversation. There’s structure – grammar and vocabulary – but every time you use that structure, you improvise, you innovate. You innovate yourself in your conversations, one conversation after another.

There are four essential practices in jazz that help us live into positive patterns more fully on a daily basis, one conversation after another:

1.     Collaborate – remember that you are not alone, but accompanied by companions who can encourage and challenge you, as Miles Davis said, “to play your best, then play above that” – flourishing life is a communal activity

2.     Observe – pay attention to what’s going on – listen and learn – discover how best to contribute – flourishing life is an examined life

3.     Originate – break the patterns – try new things that might just enhance your flourishing – dare to err in your pursuit of your best self – rest a while to enjoy the feel, then explore and experiment some more – flourishing life is grounded in innovative growth

4.     Lead – sustain positive influential relationships in safe spaces that nourish souls to flourish – model, inspire, challenge, enable, and encourage – from wherever you may be in the system – flourishing life is expressed in positive influence

You may already have caught the acronym in that list of practices – COOL – Collaborate, Observe, Originate, Lead. That’s a chord chart (a jazz term for a musical score) that I am playing from and finding inspiring these days. By paying attention to these practices more and more consistently, I flourish.

What are the practices that you can imagine to innovate a flourishing life? They may look a bit like mine. They may be completely different. But they will be designed to unmute your voice, so that its vibe can generate value in your circles of influence.

Brian FraserBrian Fraser  is lead provocateur of Jazzthink and minister with Brentwood Presbyterian Church in Burnaby, BC.  He works primarily with not-for-profit staffs and boards convening COOL conversations for SMARTer leadership.  You can find out more and

You can read more articles from our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking HERE

*This article was published in the print edition of the TImes Colonist on Saturday. November 26 2016

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