Show up and Play

Years ago I was talking to a good friend of mine over lunch. A professional musician, he was telling me about being asked to sit in with the local symphony orchestra at a summer performance. I was immediately intrigued and started asking questions. How long have you been practicing? What is the music like? Are you doing a technical rehearsal? He looked at me with a confused expression and said, “I’m getting there a bit before the show and we might go through some of the pieces once.” Some? Once? I was stunned and my face telegraphed it.

“Mel,” he said, “It’s no big deal, I just show up and play.”

When I graduated with my MBA in my mid-20’s I came out brainwashed. I thought I was capable of doing just about any job and my early experiences reinforced my thoughts. I would go into the assignment knowing exactly nothing about what needed to be done and come out understanding the critical tasks and risks. Years passed and the data points added up, each one confirming my simplistic view that I could make any job work.

I’m not so sure anymore.

Yes, I still believe in the power of the learning generalist. I would still pick leadership skills over deep technical knowledge every time. But while I’ve been dodging from one business and function to another other people have made their craft a lifetime journey. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point I started sitting across from those folks in meetings. I started listening closely to their clear articulation, started hearing the obvious depth of knowledge within their words. Over time my thinking shifted from, “Hell, I could do that!” to “Holy crap, how do they do that?” I am not sure when it happened, I only know it happened.

In fact, yesterday I listened to an executive peer present to a large group. She spoke simply and easily about a technically complex topic. She talked in a way that made it clear that the task she had taken on was hard and the pitfalls serious, but that the success was predictable. Ten years ago I would have listened with a hint of envy, envisioning how I might have tackled that challenge and what it would be like to stand there having been successful. Five years ago I might have said, “That could be me.” But in that moment I felt only two things: a certainty that I would not have been prepared to take it on and an appreciation that someone I deeply respected was.

Maybe my younger self didn’t realize it, but my today self knows that there is something affirming in recognizing that not every job is possible, that even as a smart and capable person you would struggle to be successful in some situations. Does it mean that I have given up on the big dreams? Does it mean that I am giving into limitations, that I am becoming practical and risk averse? No, it doesn’t. It means that although I am capable of many things in some situations other people are more capable than me. I don’t find that upsetting; I find it awesome.

If I stood on the same stage and talked about a topic that was framed seamlessly in my own experience, I suppose others might feel the same way that I did listening to my colleague. As crazy as it sounds, some people might listen stunned thinking, “Wow, she really knows her stuff. I could never do what she does.” And maybe, if I find myself answering mundane questions about my work across the lunch table I will be confused by their stunned expressions. Thankfully, I already know what to say.

“It’s no big deal, I just show up and play.”

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