Business lessons from Rak

Occasionally I have sudden recollections of long-forgotten incidents in my life, usually from the time I played music for a living.

I reinvented myself so completely as a management consultant over the years that these memories seemed to vanish along with my rock & roll persona!

Today, however, I awoke with a surprisingly vivid memory of a jam session I had with a neighbor in Venice, California, many decades ago. One warm summer evening, toting a cheap pair of bongo drums, I invited myself into a party across the street and quickly found myself trading hand-drum riffs with an affable Indian gentleman. Little did I know that this diminutive but big-hearted fellow sitting next to me on the floor was considered by many to be the #1 percussionist in the world. I found out later it was Alla Rakha, the renowned tabla player who had played Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival with Ravi Shakar—events that introduced a generation of young Americans to classical Indian music.

But in the moment I only knew I was trading licks with a kindly old dude with amazing chops. I remember thinking, “What friggin’ time signature is this guy playing in?” (As a rock drummer, anything outside of the usual 4/4 or 6/8 time was virgin territory for me.) This fellow was gleefully breaking the boundaries of time, with a mischievous gleam in his eye. Yet he came across as exceedingly humble—and apologetic that he was a little buzzed, which apparently was a no-no given his teetotaling spiritual practice! (This was the only time I ever heard a musician apologize for being high.)

I'd like to think the master learned a few things from this 22-year old cracker. (I was about to call myself a "hacker," but in the spirit of a previous post on that subject, I'd have to say Alla Rakha was the true hacker, and I was the wannabe.) In the end I got schooled—by his mastery of time and technique and by his intensity and passion.

Alla Rakha moved out soon after that, and our paths never crossed again. He passed away in 2000 in Mumbai, India. What I was left with—from that brief musical encounter a lifetime ago—was an appreciation of a man totally engaged in his craft. The guy was doing the thing he loved the most. In fact, he made it a spiritual practice and his life’s work.

(Business lesson alert!) Anytime you can make a living doing that, it's going to win you fans, i.e. customers. And if you're able to put together a team of folks doing what they love the most, that's a pretty good recipe for success. That was clearly the case with Alla Rakha and Ravi Shankar.

Mickey Hart, the drummer of the Grateful Dead—a serious student of World Music and someone who knows a thing or two about percussion—once said, “Alla Rakha is the Einstein, the Picasso; he is the highest form of rhythmic development on this planet.”

Whoa. If that’s the case, I got to jam with Picasso—one on one, baby.

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  1. 'sudden recollections of forgotten incidents'? also known as acid flashbacks?

    putting together a team of workers who are all happily doing their life's work is a tall order, yes?

    1. Naw, I don't think I've had any of those flashbacks. I'm just talking about the sudden recall of old events, frequently of the happy variety.

      Re a team of folks who are all doing what they love the most: that WAS my experience of being in bands, especially once I went professional. At the time it was all ANY of us wanted to do. Then I decided I wanted to do more.

      In my business experience I find the same phenomenon with many successful teams and organizations, especially in the technology space. It's one of the pleasures of working with high tech startups.

  2. I can't say that many coworkers I know are "in love" with the work they do. May be true in very small businesses, and certainly true in many high tech start ups. But it's a rare sighting in a large bureaucratized organization where many of us still work.

    1. It is true that large orgs pose a greater challenge for workforce engagement. Says a Harris survey: "People who work in small organizations have much more positive attitudes toward their jobs, their employers and their top managers than people working for large employers." But many larger companies like Southwest Airlines, Google, and Whole Foods have high employee satisfaction, so that's no excuse. Maybe I'll do a future post on that. Thanks for the thought.

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