IN music, there are only 12 notes. It’s how you play them that matters. In 12 Notes on Life and Creativity, Quincy Jones shares how he played his.
This is an autobiography that serves to highlight teachable moments. His biographical stories make each of these lessons come alive. It’s not a formula for success but a conversation about the “lessons he’s learned, the advice he’s received, and the conclusions that he has come to about life and creativity that have allowed him to live an enriched life, full of highs and lows.” His words will enrich you.
Note A: Recycle Your Pain into Purpose
Having lived almost 90 years, Quincy says that the best part is being able to “look back on each stage of life and see the visible threads that held it all together.”
With the inevitability of hardship in this often broken world, it’s important to understand what fills your voids and also where you are projecting yours. The moment you slip into a victim mentality, not only are you faced with having to deal with external problems, but you’ve also given yourself a whole new set of internal problems that will only stunt your growth as both a human and a creative being.
Note A#: If You Can See It, You Can Be It
Quincy didn’t grow up in the best of circumstances, but he relentlessly pursued hope. It’s easy to believe that you are stuck wherever you are and nothing will change, but you can outgrow your circumstances—the pollution of your surroundings.
Growth is just a journey from mind pollution to mind solution. In other words, you have to sift through the dirt of whatever situation it is that you find yourself in, so that your future isn’t polluted before you’ve even had a chance to create it.
Quincy says survival is an act of creativity. “It’s a matter of seeking out new ways to stay inspired, and creating paths that lead to a better future for yourself, and in turn, others.”
Note B: You Gota Go to Know
Step outside your comfort zone—you gotta go to know. But to go, you have to know your history—personal and national. History is important.
You’ve got to know where you come from in order to get where you want to go. Without that foundation, you won’t know who you are, and you sure can’t expect to create truthfully without knowing the truth.
Everything we do is an extension of the history that came before us, and if we don’t recognize it, we’re in danger of repeating some of the same nonsense that went down in the past. It’s a beautiful thing to reflect and learn, rather than to reject and repeat.
Note C: Establish Your Guideposts
Guideposts create a foundation for you to build a life on. They define who you are. “Set up guideposts that routinely remind you of who you are, apart from the distraction of life.”
With a general understanding that our thoughts play an important role in the direction of our paths, it’s essential to remain proactive in training those thoughts to continue pointing north, with the assistance of guideposts, whatever form they may come in for you.
Note C#: Always Be Prepared for a Great Opportunity
If you prepare in advance, you will be ready when the call comes without thinking it over. Practice so you will be ready for the right opportunities that will come your way. Always do your best.
Everything in your life is a chain reaction, and your ability to deliver will usually be judged based on your last encounter.
It doesn’t matter what job title you have, or if you feel as though the work you do is insignificant; do it to the best of your ability.
Note D: Sharpen Your Left Brain
Learn the science behind your craft. Go deep. It will change the way you create. “Without taking the time to fine-tune your skills, your efforts will be built on a foundation that is bound to crumble once it is put to the test.”
Quincy says, “Once I learned how to properly notate music, or sync music to picture when I began film scoring, or produce compelling live shows using scientific methods, I was able to take my artistry to the next level. Learning how to sharpen my left brain has been largely influential in how I’ve approached every creative endeavor.” It gave him credibility, too. He mixes “science with soul.”
Note D#: Avoid Paralysis from Analysis
How quickly can you get unstuck? That’s what matters. Quincy offers four practices to help with this.
We so often dismiss our greatest ideas, thinking they’re supposed to make some type of grand entrance when, in reality, they may often just present themselves in the form of a whisper.
Note E: The Power of Being Underestimated
Don’t focus on what other people think of you. There will always be people who will diminish you. Instead, focus on your goals and what you are capable of. “If people overestimate you, they get in your way, but if they underestimate you, they get out.”
Instead of chasing fame, lean into your time of obscurity, or position of unexpected greatness, to plan and prepare for your next endeavor.
Note F: Do What’s Never Been Done Before
Don’t compare yourself to others. “It’s easy to look at others and justify why they can and you can’t.” Think big. “I’ve found beauty in the unknown by simply giving my mind freedom to explore.”
I have to warn you though: Big dreams don’t come without big failures. Things get tough and you will make mistakes. Repeatedly. We’re human and we’re going to flounder, but it’s what you do to get back up that matters. If I allowed myself to stay in the downward swings, then I’d still be there.
Success is a cumulative process; it’s not a one-time event.
The more opportunities you have to win, lose, or barely make, the more chances you’ll have to convert those experiences into fuel. You don’t learn as much just from winning or playing it safe.
Note F#: Understand the Value of Relationships
This lesson is profound and largely lost on too many today:
If you do everything correctly, but don’t take heed to this next lesson I’m about to share, then it will all go to waste. So, please hear me when I say that you need to work on yourself just as much as you work on your art. As my former music teacher Nadia Boulanger always used to tell me, “Quincy, your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being.” It doesn’t matter how talented you are—or how many number-one hits you get—if you don’t work on who you are first.
Your personal life and your professional life are linked. What you do in private impacts what you do in public.
You must have humility with your creativity, and grace with your success.
Everything in this business, and life, revolves around relationships—the people you meet, and most important, how you treat them.
Bandleader and pianist Count Basie taught him a great lesson about integrity, recounted in this Note that you have to read. He also told him, “Learn to deal with the valleys, because the hills will take of themselves.”
Note G: Share What You Know
As recounted on the pages of this book, Quincy benefited from the lessons taught to him by the musical greats. Mentors that took the time with him to give him confidence and develop his potential. We all need mentors and can be mentors.
There really would be no such thing as a generation gap, if we only had enough people willing to lift each other up, instead of tear each other down.
My mentors have undoubtedly shaped the person I am today, and without their love and guidance, I might still be stuck in the darkness of my past. So, may we all continue to keep the light on for ourselves and for others. As Clark Terry always used to quote from The Three Stooges, “If at first you don’t succeed, keep on suckin’ ‘till you do suck a seed!”
Note G#: Recognize the Value of Life
Quincy has had a few near-death experiences in his life. These near-endings became beginnings for him.
We often think of life as a series of events that happen to us. As a result, we neglect the fact that it’s often a series of actions that we do to ourselves.
I can assure you that simply being alive and present in your everyday life is the hights form of creativity.
How will you play your 12 notes?
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