Several years ago I read an interview with award-winning broadcast journalist Bill Moyers and poet James Autry, who was also CEO of CEO of Meredith Corporation's magazine group, a $500 million operation with almost 1,000 employees. Autry was among thirty-four poets that Moyers was interviewing as part of a PBS Series on The Language of Life through exploring commentaries on poets and poetry.
During the interview, Moyers seemed puzzled as he tried to understand how Autry could cross over from celebrating his poetry at public festivals to reading it to his supervisors and staff in the competitive and often tough-minded world of the publishing business.
Autry’s reply was illuminating. “It’s crucially important for business people to feel that what they’re doing in business is life,” he said. “There is only life and business is part of that.”
Business is ‘an enterprise of humanity’ he added, and art gives leaders permission to express a range of human emotions including pain, sorrow, fear and joy that they may not feel otherwise. Business is people, and when we focus on the taking care of the feeling life and the humanity in the people in the enterprise, business will take care of itself.
When I shared this perspective with a group of business leaders, one asked, “I am curious, what is life?”
Following a spirited discussion, I replied that for me as an artist, to serve life is to be open to how the patterns and energy of life flow in and out of our awareness. This involves a very particular and dedicated quality of attention to how we see and sense of the world around us and respond in ways that reflect this full surround and inspire us to something fresh and new each time.
To demonstrate this I told them I was going to play some music at the piano that come from memory and then invite them to listen closely for the moment when a shift occurs and… ‘life enters in’. Afterwards, we would all talk about when this occurred.
Some resisted saying that they were not musicians. I replied that life is universal; it is a human feeling that we all experience whether we are poets or musician or not.
As I started to play, I also relived a brief moment from childhood.
I remembered the day I received the gift of a box of beautiful toy soldiers carefully painted in immaculate detail with shiny black boots, a brilliant red tunic and white trousers. I remembered how my friends and I arranged these replicas on a rug for ‘war games’ and how I sat poised on the piano bench ready to create the soundtrack for it all.
I remembered how, as soon as one friend called out, my fingers dropped into the high notes, the trumpet fanfare setting the action into play. Then I played the drum in the low notes and the marching began. Then there was a cannon shot and answering fire - and with the growing intensity of noise on the battlefield - and at the piano - I was no longer watching the battle, I was in it - and I was no longer playing the piano. It was playing me.
In what Poet TS Eliot describes as “the exhilaration and terror of the one moment’s surrender,” something changed in my playing. I was being played. Life had slipped in.
And as quickly as my guarded mind took notice, life slipped out again.
But for one moment in time the awkwardness in my young fingers had been replaced with an ease and fluidity of movement that surpassed anything I could usually perform even on my most inspired of days.
After I finished playing for the group, we were all surprised to learn how accurate they were in identifying when the shift had occurred. One told me, “I experienced more feeling and you suddenly felt more present and engaged… and the music felt more graceful, dynamic and free flowing … there was more feeling and expression, your sense of touch was more sensitive…and your playing was more exciting and less predictable.” Another said, “I have a sense that when you play this way the music is never the same.”
And I also shared with them how they had changed. It was as if the music had awakened their cells. When I started I could sense that they were like independent particles - individualistic independent, distinct and separate from one another. But as I played it was as if a wave had passed through the room and they had become one. They felt more transparent and connected together in community in some remarkable way.
James Autry says that some poems - usually the best ones - arrive by dictation and in almost their final and finished form. And he also said that when he became a president of a large company and wanted to create a place where this heightened attention for life was possible, he stopped using the word ‘team’.
His issue with ‘team’ is that it conjured up too many associations with the competitive language of battle and sports and so subliminally affected how they did business. In its place he emphasized the language of neighborhood, including the sense of fellowship and being in community together. Because it is in community - as I was with the group after my playing that day - that we connect with our deeper humanity and also with this innate intuitive capacity to co-create together.
So when business serves life, business also serves community, it serves art, it serves nature and our common life together. And when we grow the ‘enterprise of humanity’, it is possible that our work will generate results greater than anything we could have imagined.