The Liberation of Listening
Reflecting and listening will bring new perspectives. But don't be afraid to ask for help too.
We recently reflected on silence and tranquility, and what we can do with time without distractions. The reaction to that was universally positive (which didn't surprise me).
Taken to an extreme though, there’s another side to it too: isolation.
Now, I’m not talking about physical isolation. Think of this more as mental isolation. It can come about by not being present — “zoning out,” if you will — or simply by refusing to take other points of view into account.
When we’re lost in our own thoughts, or willfully ensconced in our own bubbles, we’re in danger of missing what’s happening outside of ourselves.
It’s at this intersection of disinterest and ego that we find Ludwig van Beethoven.
Widely recognized as one of the greatest composers of all time, his accomplishments are even more impressive when we consider he wrote some of the world’s most beautiful and soulful music while he was deaf.
In 1798, when he was twenty-eight years old, he experienced brief deafness, only to regain his hearing, but with a cruel twist: “a maddening chorus of squealing, buzzing, and humming that roared in his ears all day and night.”
I suffer from the same malady that afflicted Beethoven: tinnitus.
By the time Beethoven composed and premiered his Symphony No. 9 in D. Minor (Op. 125) in 1824 — widely considered to be one of the greatest compositions in history — he was completely deaf.
Think about that. One of the most sublime pieces of music ever written was composed by a man who would never hear it performed.
The reason he could create music that touches our very soul is that he realized that his craft required broader knowledge. His teacher instructed him:
“You need ‘a meticulous acquaintance with the various characters [of men] … with the passions … One observes the nuances of feelings, or the point where one passion changes into another.’” — Jan Swofford, 2014 (Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph)
And yet, by 1822, the aristocracy considered Beethoven to be crazy and misanthropic, claiming that “his misery is his own doing.”
What they didn’t realize is how isolated his deafness made him.
You’re Not Alone
The idea of isolation, of hearing things (or not hearing things) that others hear — this made me think about leadership.
In certain roles as leaders, we find ourselves alone.
Whether you’re a CEO, or a ground-breaking specialist at your company who is the only one who does what you do — there are certain situations you find yourself in where you probably feel like you’re completely and utterly alone.
Like there’s no one else who can understand what you’re going through. Or no one to whom you can turn for empathy or advice. Well, let me just dispel that notion right now.
You are surrounded by people who want to help. As the statesman-philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, “we came into the world for the sake of one another.”
People are generally quite helpful, given the chance. And while you may not have a corresponding peer at your company, odds are, with 7 billion people in the world, there’s at least one other person who can relate to what you’re going through.
The problem is that our culture has taught us not to ask for help — asking for help makes us seem weak. We’re not supposed to appear to be less than perfect. To confess a failure, loneliness, confusion, or any other roadblock is seen as anathema to leadership.
Leaders are supposed to be strong, resilient, and all-knowing. Right?
But we’re not. We’re just like most other human beings. And so, being a leader can be a lonely pursuit at times.
Beethoven knew what he wanted to accomplish with his 9th Symphony, even if no one else did. But he knew he had to communicate his plan.
He innovated: For the very first time, a chorus was present; no one knew what might happen because there had never been vocals in a symphony before.
He repeated things in context: The fourth movement consisted of snippets of each of the previous three movements, restated in context.
He inspired his team to help: Throughout the performance, Beethoven stood in front of the conductor, “sunk in thought,” beating time, and hearing nothing. At the conclusion, the soloist Karoline Unger had to turn him around to see the five ovations that he could not hear.
This scene is portrayed beautifully in Immortal Beloved:
So instead of suffering in silence, instead of sitting there alone, wondering if you’re supposed to be hearing something when you’re not, take a moment to look around and ask questions. Invite others into your sanctum. Admit your shortcomings.
You may be surprised at how liberating that is, both for you and the people who want to help.
More on the topic of listening, from our archives:
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