The Vampire Weekend song Harmony Hall was inspired by dissonance. “I was in Antigua,” Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig explained , “and there was a place there called Harmony Hall, [which] originally was a slave plantation.” He was struck by “that dissonance of a place called Harmony Hall—implying some sort of peaceful place—but was actually the opposite: a horrific place where people were literally dehumanized.” And as he looked into it more, “every time I would come across this name, Harmony Hall, there was always something dissonant about the history or the place.” So Koenig wrote a song full of dissonant lyrics and titled it, Harmony Hall.
Dissonance—that is the theme of this SIX at 6…
The Writer and the Reader
John Mayer was asked how he defines writer’s block. “Writer’s block,” he said , “is when the two people inside of you—the writer and the reader—when the reader doesn’t love the writer. Writer’s block is not a failure to write. It is a failure to catch the feedback loop of enjoying what you’re seeing and wanting to contribute more to it.”
The Education of John Adams
John Adams hated school. He often skipped to go fishing or hunting or to fly his kite. When his father pressed him on it, Adams said the teacher was a “churl.” “His father immediately took his side and wasted no time with further talk,” biographer David McCullough writes . “John was enrolled the next day in a private school down the road where, kindly treated by a schoolmaster named Joseph Marsh, he made a dramatic turn and began studying in earnest.” His interest in flying kites was replaced with reading books, and “in little more than a year, at age fifteen, he was pronounced ‘fitted for college.’” He was admitted to Harvard and granted a partial scholarship. His father sold ten acres of some land he had invested in to cover the rest.
Build The System Around The Players
Four months before he was hired as the Denver Broncos head coach, Sean Payton was asked what he would do if he was Nathaniel Hackett (then the head coach) to fix the struggling Broncos. To get better play out of quarterback Russell Wilson, Payton said , “I’d want to cut up all Russell’s pass plays of 30 or more yards, and I’d want to see some schemes that he felt very comfortable with…Then I’d want to look at another film of his red zone touchdown passes inside the 20. So what I’m asking for is some of [Wilson’s] greatest hits and to make sure that we have those song lyrics available, and if not, let’s put them in.” What he’s asking for is to fix the dissonance between the play calling and Wilson’s strengths. I sent this to a coach who was on Payton’s staff in New Orleans and is now back with him in Denver, and said, “it really is that simple, isn’t it?” He said, “Definitely. It’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned from Sean and the system we ran offensively in New Orleans—we built the system around the players and not the other way around. It’s so simple but because it takes constant work, most people don’t have the patience or creativity for it.”
Express Your Personality
Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy who was the subject of the book-turned-movie Searching For Bobby Fischer, stopped playing chess around the age of 18. “I was a naturally creative, aggressive chess player,” Waitzkin explained . “My style was to create chaos on the chessboard, and my strength lay in finding hidden harmonies.” With this style, Waitzkin won the U.S. Junior Chess Championship at the age of 11 and became an International Master at age 16. Then he got a coach who forced him to study world champions Anatoly Karpov and Tigran Petrosian—“the most positional, conservative chess players.” “Training and studying people whose style was so different from my own,” Waitzkin said, “and whose personalities were different from my own—gradually, I lost my love for the game.” Shortly after Waitzkin left his chess career behind, he got into martial arts. He trained for just two years before he won his first national championship in martial arts. Asked if he took anything from chess into the martial arts, Waitzkin said, “I expressed my personality…which, in my observation of competitors in any discipline, is a really fundamental idea. Those who succeed at the highest level, I think, basically manifest their unique character through their discipline.”
I was a ski instructor for a few winters, and ski instructors have a phrase—terrain fucked. If you see an instructor with a student struggling down on a run that is well beyond their abilities, you would say that instructor terrain fucked the student. The job of the instructor is to match—to find a harmony between—the terrain and the student’s abilities. It is no fun when there is a dissonance between the terrain and your abilities. It is no fun when there is a dissonance between the writer and the reader. Between the student and the teacher. Between your personality and your discipline. Between the players and the system.
In his book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance , Waitzkin writes, “I believe that one of the most critical factors in becoming a high performer is the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition.”