Taking Lessons from the Jazz of Nature

Gitaar-2 By Wouter Kersten

Nature has been around for a while. People have been around for a considerably shorter time. It is not strange to notice that calls are increasing for humanity to learn from how nature works. Here I want to give a new twist to that call. In particular, I would like to zoom in on the analogies between the world of jazz music and the compositions that nature has in store for us.

Many authors have provided ample evidence of what nature does well and how we would benefit from humanity mimicking it. Since we are the allegedly most intelligent species on this planet, as I stated last year in another blog post, we would look very bad if we cannot manage to do that. In this post I will explore more possible connections between nature’s mechanisms and human endeavors.

Let’s start jamming: Nature provides a combination of slow processes of mastering life’s skills with relatively more short cyclic adaptation to circumstances. That combination of a solid basis complemented with more dynamic adjustments has turned our natural environment into a most formidable development engine. Proficiency in being a living planet takes time, but that does not exclude the option to introduce new variations. This is done as part of an autonomous process or forced by circumstances, say an increasingly thick blanket caused by one of its species. Earth has a lot of experience to fall back on to venture in an adjusted direction, provided it is allowed the opportunity to do so.

Now let’s see what jazz, and especially improvisation, has in store for us. As explained in this video, it is a misconception that improvisation strikes as lightning. In fact, it is anything but an act of randomness. It has serious grounding in some fundamental and recognizable components: base tunes, rhythm, melody, harmony, internal consistency. This grounding takes time. According to the famous statement in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” becoming proficient in anything takes 10,000 hours. Let’s not discuss the exact number. The point seems to be: Before you can aspire to do something special you need to have the basics covered. Jazz experts often compare it to learning to speak or write: You can’t say or write anything meaningful if you don’t know any words.

So here is the analogy: You need experience to be able to change things. Oh yes. This goes against notions that tell us that relying on experience from the past in general blinds you how things could be done differently. What I think is closer to the truth is this: you may need “inexperience” to suggest very new elements, say ideas or even more importantly make new connections. But you need experience to see how these might fit, be developed further and actually lead to something that makes sense. As long as you are open minded enough to blend the new with the more mature. Just like in nature, old and new generations can best work together. A young animal benefits from the experience of the group it lives in, even if it also has to find out things on its own.  And the older generation might then help to channel new experiences into benefits for the group. Perhaps a tropical forest is an even better metaphor than a group of animals, so feel free to apply these thoughts on that example.

What might we learn from all these musings? I hope it is this: Do not discount the past, cherish solid skill building, introduce novelty by playing with variations to tunes and create new compositions by jamming in new combinations, age and background wise.

Most of all: Don’t rush through life doing “new things” and making changes all the time just for the sake of “moving forward.” If you appreciate the notes you will get more enjoyment out of creating new songs.

Wouter Kersten is amongst other jobs working as an Innovation manager at Enviu, which basically means making a job out of establishing new connections, in particular in the field of social entrepreneurship. He can be reached at Wouter@enviu.org or you can follow him on Twitter.

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