By Julie Benezet:
Last week I heard the news about the discovery of a lost John Coltrane recording. The seven cut recording preceded by two years his 1965 album, “A Love Supreme,” that secured his reputation as a jazz giant. When I read the article about the discovery, something clicked, something that was long overdue.
I have lived a rather intense life. Okay, make that very intense, and for the most part, I chose it. It has been a good life, thus far, full of surprises, new people, and uncomfortable moments that taught me many things in my constant push to lead change and avoid burnout while doing that, or so I thought . . .
An Unexpected Turn in the Road
In my late 30’s I found myself in the unexpected place of becoming a single parent. It was hard, scary, and marvelous.
I have a beautiful, loving daughter who taught me much about what is important in life. Raising a human being with her own set of talents, insights, and endless love inspired a growth spurt I never thought possible. It also made the challenge of juggling parenthood, a demanding career, and hanging onto some modicum of personhood all worthwhile.
Aside from deep unconditional love of my daughter, what sustained me was our evenings. After long work days I’d gallop to the extended day care center before its closing bell to fetch my daughter and head home. Once we arrived, we’d talk, laugh, and fire up the music. Then I’d start to cook.
I am not a gourmet cook. I do enjoy experimenting with flavors and ingredients. In the background, John Coltrane played his saxophone, Bill Evans cruised across the piano keys, and Rosalind Russell belted out the lyrics of “Wonderful Town.” I confess to eclectic music taste, and my daughter signed on.
Julie and Jazz
As a former choir singer, I love classical music. I also love Broadway show tunes, “Talking Heads,” and Sixties rock and roll. But during my early single parent days I favored the visceral tunes of jazz and blues.
I didn’t realize how far I’d gone in that direction until one night when my then three-year-old daughter asked me, “Mom, are you going to marry again?”
I stared up at the ceiling to focus my thoughts, then replied, “Well, yes. I liked being married.”
Then she asked, “Who are you going to marry?”
“I don’t know.” I tried to hide my surprise.
“Miles Davis?” she asked.
“No, he’s dead.”
“Oh. Benny Goodman?”
“He’s also dead.”
I marveled at how she flawlessly pronounced his name. Then I thought, oh dear, I guess I do listen to a lot of jazz. I also had to answer her question.
“He’s also dead.”
She tilted her three-year-old head to the side as if to say, “Huh?”
“Jazz musicians lead a hard life,” I said.
She accepted my answer and we moved on.
We went on with our life full of friends, new experiences, and juggling multiple commitments.
The Career Acceleration
I continued with a career that accelerated when I became Amazon’s first global real estate executive. Starting in 1998, I had the E-ticket ride (i.e., The ticket that paid for the Matterhorn Mountain roller coaster ride in the early days of Disneyland) in tune with the company mantra, “work hard, have fun and make history.”
My personal life changed with the introduction of my second husband. Aside from his love and support, he also cooked, spectacularly. Prior to becoming a big firm lawyer, he supported himself by cooking in restaurants. Not only did he know what he was doing in the kitchen, he enjoyed it.
As with any family, the unit evolves as the members evolve. I listened to far less jazz and cooked, um, almost never. It suited us all. As my daughter (at age 8) accurately proclaimed at the dinner table one night, “Well, Mom, why would we eat your 5-minute stir fry special when we could have this,” passing her hand over yet another effortlessly produced gourmet meal. I got it.
Rebalancing the Equation: Returning Home
Fast forward many years.
My daughter has launched her own grownup life. I continue my overachieving work style and enjoy the day to day companionship of my second husband. I also have the benefit of his great cooking.
I still pursue the new, currently devoting my work life to building the careers of leaders. I like seeing them take chances in their quests for positive change.
At the same time, something was missing. Too much went the career way, with the burnout I thought I had avoided massing at the border. It was time to rebalance the equation.
When I read the article about the newly found John Coltrane recording, it hit me. I strolled across the living room and tossed onto the turntable (Yes, turntable. How else does one listen to classic jazz?) “Duke Ellington & John Coltrane.” While listening, I took over the stove from my husband and cooked dinner. Not stir fry, but something that my husband and foodie friends would happily eat. Disappearing into the dark notes of a tenor saxophone while breathing in the aroma of garlic heating in a pan was, forgive me, indescribably delicious.
The Power of Meaning
What happened and why do I bring this up? To say how shapeshifting it felt to pull from other dimensions. I have spent my career leading organizations and helping others to do the same. I get a charge from that. However, to do it in a way that works, I have to reboot my own operating system with personal things that matter to me.
John Coltrane helped me to remember that. Cooking and listening to his music infused me with a surge of renewed energy. It reminded me of all those evenings with my daughter, how much life has to offer, and, frankly, why we are here in the first place. While we lift up the lives of others we also have to live ourselves.
In your own lives, don’t forget to find and protect what gives you meaning. To take care of others you must first to take care of yourself. Not a single-minded selfish mission, but one that respects who you are as a person, independent of others. By embracing your own uniqueness, you can shift the engine into gear to make change happen and inspire others to come along.
Thank you, Mr. Coltrane.