Always Do It Again Like the First Time…

Is the secret to life and professionalism finding the ability to lead, love, and perform with the fervor you once had?

Remember the first time you had to really perform in a meeting? Or the first time you had to give a subordinate a performance review? Or maybe the first time you were responsible for the sales call?

How about the first time you said “I love you” to a significant other and meant it?

Maybe you remember the first time you tried really hard to master a sport, or an art, or a language. You found a link between passion and performance. You went through pain or anguish or nervous uncertainty to get there.

Maybe these things don’t resonate for you, but still, there’s a first time for everything. And for those things we very much want to do well on, we do the work, we deliver with feeling. We, in short, find a way. The first time is hard won.

Unfortunately, for a lot of the things I just listed, there’s also a one hundredth time. For some performances, there is a ten thousandth time.

The Professional’s Call

This weekend, I had the opportunity to witness the performance of a virtuoso jazz musician in an intimate setting. I was able to see and hear the music flow from someplace within him that I couldn’t see. As is sometimes the case when we witness amazing talent in action, I struggled to understand how perfect the performance seemed, even when almost all of it was improvised (it was, after all, jazz).

During an intermission, the musician–acting as our host–told those of us in the audience an interesting anecdote about the great performer Burt Bacharach.

Bacharach is known for his performance of the song Alfie, a somber, meaningful song about life. Here it is:

Through some mental math, our host related that Bacharach, over his career, has likely performed Alfie more than 10,000 times. That’s 10,000 instances of a performer’s finding the same passion and emotion in an activity that he had the very first time. Our host explained that being able to perform every time with the passion of the first is, in a lot of ways, a secret to life.

A Lesson for Life and Work

The anecdote is a profound illustration of what it means to be a professional. It’s also, I think, a profound illustration of what it means to maintain curiosity, wonder, and passion within a world of banality and repetition.

Think about it. Can you imagine being able to experience the joy and wonder you felt during your first kiss during the goodnight kiss on your 30th anniversary? Can you imagine being able to say “I love you” today to your spouse with the same trepidation and sense of the future you had the first time?

What a rush!

A friend and mentor of mine once related to me that she knew she was doing well as a professional when she no longer felt nervous walking into meetings with senior executives; the act of leading meetings had become a rote exercise. I respect this point of view. I’ve lived through the maturation that she mentioned, and I’ve delivered the same insight to others. But while the maturity of professionalism is important, so is the passion.

I’ve witnessed countless professionals “going through the motions.”  They do endless meetings with no soul and no passion for vision or values. They work to their incentives like coin-operated machines. They look elsewhere for their passion and in the meantime demolish the hopes of their audiences. Except that their audiences are the people in their organizations or, in the worst cases, their potential business partners and customers.

We professionals, like the performers we really all are, must remember to go back to the passion (if not the nerves) of the first time if we are to deliver our own virtuosic performance on the hundredth or the thousandth time. If we seek to move others, we have to break out of the professional monotony that comes to us and deliver with feeling, and this matters whether you are a jazz pianist or a financial analyst.

Find an insight. Find something new in every repetition. Rediscover the first time you did it. Find the passion that comes with the first time—the hard-won first time—every time, and I do think that you’ll find at least one secret to life.

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