Inflexibility is one of the worst human failings. You can learn to check impetuosity, overcome fear with confidence, and laziness with discipline. But for rigidity of mind there is no antidote. It carries the seeds of its own destruction.
Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.
A BEBOP MIND
His friends call him Q. He has become a legend in the entertainment industry. He has worked with the best in the business, starting in the bebop era: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, and the list goes on. He produced the bestselling music single of all time: “We Are the World.” He produced the best-selling album of all time: Michael Jackson’s Thriller. He has been nominated for more Grammy Awards than any other person, and as of today, he has won a total of twenty-seven. The person I’m talking about is Quincy Jones.
Quincy Jones was born in 1933 in Chicago and spent his first decade in one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods. By his own admission, Jones says that he and his brother got into a lot of trouble in those early days. Then his family moved to Bremerton, Washington.
Soon afterward Jones discovered his love for music. At age eleven, he decided that he wanted to play an instrument. So he started with percussion. Even back then he showed signs of a quality that would mark him as a professional—his adaptability. He began staying after school and trying out a variety of other instruments. He tried the clarinet and violin, but ultimately he was attracted to brass. So he tried out all the brass instruments: baritone, French horn, sousaphone, and trombone. Finally he landed on the trumpet, and he excelled.
By age fourteen, he had his first paying job as a musician. As a teenager, he became friends with Ray Charles, who is just a few years older than he. Jones began to compose music and to learn how to do arrangements. And when the best bands and singers came through Seattle, he either went to hear them play or played with them. At age eighteen, he was on the road touring with Lionel Hampton.
Jones has always displayed a strong hunger to learn—which he calls an “obsessive curiosity”—and an amazing adaptability. Through the years, he has easily transitioned from musician to arranger to band leader. In the 1950s, he worked with many of the greatest jazz performers. In 1957, when he thought he could use more education, he moved to Paris and studied under Nadia Boulanger, who had tutored Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.
At that time, Jones took a position with Mercury Records to make ends meet. That’s where he learned the business side of the music industry. He was so good at it that in 1964 the company made him a vice president. (He was the first African-American to hold an executive position at a major record company.) It was also in the sixties that Jones decided to tackle a new challenge: scoring movies. He has gone on to write music for more than thirty movies and numerous television programs.
Throughout his career, Jones has worked with the best singers and musicians in the world. Because he spent so much time in the jazz community, when he worked with Michael Jackson in 1982, some of his colleagues accused him of selling out. Jones thought that was ridiculous, as he explained:
When I was twelve to thirteen years old, we played everything—strip music, rhythm and blues. We played pop music, schottisches [similar to polkas], and Sousa . . . We played every club in town—black, white, tennis clubs. So, I’ve always had a range of styles to draw from. Working with Michael Jackson or Frank Sinatra has never been a stretch. Bebop was one thing I was deeply involved with musically, and bebop does affect your thinking. It takes you away from being rigid and helps you always keep your mind wide open.1
His flexibility and creativity have served Jones well. They have not only enabled him to work with all kinds of musicians—from Latin to pop and from jazz to rap—but they have also made it possible for him to bring the best out of any person he works with. He adapts to the person and the situation to create a win for everyone. “Everyone has a different way of relating to people,” observed Jones. “I take everybody one-on-one, and I’m happy I do because I’ve had some great relationships that transcend show business.”2
Jones himself has transcended professionally. He has used his adaptability to branch out into other industries. He broke into filmmaking when he coproduced The Color Purple. Then he took on television, producing several hit shows including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Jones and several partners launched Qwest Broadcasting, and he is also the founder and chairman of Vibe magazine.
To Jones, being able to adjust or stretch himself is not a big thing; it’s just who he is. Currently he’s working on writing a Broadway show based on the life of Sammy Davis Jr. He says it makes him feel like he’s fifteen years old. Jones has never been afraid of a new idea, a new team, a new industry. Challenges have been no problem to him because he is so incredibly adaptable.
FLESHING IT OUT
Teamwork and personal rigidity just don’t mix. If you want to work well with others and be a good team player, you have to be willing to adapt yourself to your team. Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter observed, “The individuals who will succeed and flourish will also be masters of change: adept at reorienting their own and others’ activities in untried directions to bring about higher levels of achievement.”
Teamwork and personal rigidity just don’t mix.
Team players who exhibit adaptability have certain characteristics. Adaptable people are . . .
Diana Nyad said, “I am willing to put myself through anything; temporary pain or discomfort means nothing to me as long as I can see that the experience will take me to a new level. I am interested in the unknown, and the only path to the unknown is through breaking barriers.” Adaptable people always place a high priority on breaking new ground. They are highly teachable.
Look at Quincy Jones and you see someone who is always learning. His belief is that if a person works hard and becomes highly skilled in one area, he can transfer that ability to new endeavors. That approach can work for anyone who’s teachable. On the other hand, unteachable people have a difficult time with change, and as a result they never adapt well.
2. Emotionally Secure
Another characteristic of adaptable people is security. People who are not emotionally secure see almost everything as a challenge or a threat. They meet with rigidity or suspicion the addition of another talented person to the team, an alteration in their position or title, or a change in the way things are done. But secure people aren’t made nervous by change itself. They evaluate a new situation or a change in their responsibilities based on its merit.
A person’s age can be determined by the degree of pain he experiences when he comes in contact with a new idea.
Creativity is another quality you find in adaptable people. When difficult times come, they find a way. Quincy Jones remarked,
There’s an expression that says a person’s age can be determined by the degree of pain he experiences when he comes in contact with a new idea. Somebody might say, “Let’s try it this new way.” You can actually see the pain. These people will grab their heads. It physically hurts to think of doing something different. The ones who don’t react with fear are the really creative people. “Let’s try it,” they’ll say. “Let’s go there even if we blow it.”3
Creativity fosters adaptability.
4. Service Minded
People who are focused on themselves are less likely to make changes for the team than people focused on serving others. Educator and college president Horace Mann stated, “Doing nothing for others is the undoing of one’s self.” If your goal is to serve the team, adapting to accomplish that goal isn’t difficult.