The Man Who Taught Me Unlearning
One of the greatest learning experiences in my life came from a man named Phil Cohen who was the Artistic Director of Concordia University’s Leonardo Project. This past Sunday, Phil passed away and leaves behind him thousands of lives that were deeply touched by his brilliance, compassion and fierce commitment towards our growth.
I met him in my late 20’s when I was devoted to becoming a jazz recording artist. I had been a classically trained musician who ultimately rebelled against playing the music of the past. But, I was dogged by conditioning that seemed to be baked into my cells. A rock singer arranged for me to meet Phil.
He worked with artists like Russ Ferrante from Yellowjackets and Al Jarreau. When he was in LA, I got a session with him. Phil was wearing a Heisenberg Fedora and sunglasses, sitting in the corner of a recording artist’s living room. He motioned to me,
I performed a tortured little ballad that I was quite proud of. When I was finished, he asked,
“You understand you studied with Daniel Pollack at USC? Did you play the Russian exercises for hours? Even on the floor?” After several affirmative answers, he continued, “You need an emotional enema. If you hope to play one living note of music you are going to have to forget everything you have ever been taught.”
It was one of the single most frightening moments in my life. In essence, I agreed to give up what I had been taught for 20 years.
He had this acute radar in zeroing in on thinking and behaviors that blocked the parts of me that had yet to come out. Over the years, Phil gave me the skill of unlearning, of forgetting, of letting go of conditioning and the “right way” to play or think or behave. I had the nicest piano of his LA clients so he moved everyone to my home. I used to sit in the hall and peek through the slats in the door stunned as one icon after another sat at my piano. Phil didn’t impose a “technique” on his clients, he identified whatever was blocking their gifts and helped them let go.
His work informs all that I do. It is behind my writing, how I facilitate our group programs and the respect that everyone is divinely gifted. It is my responsibility to help that flourish and shine and become clear. Earlier this week, my colleague Mary Campbell and I were editing our book. She read two chapter summaries that reduced me to tears. I gasped, “You forgot the script!” Immediately, I thought of Phil.
What could this story have to do with you?
We have entered an era of such rapid and transformative change that helping others develop the skill of unlearning is one of my big missions in life. What we learn has a way of turning into what we believe and then tidal waves of change turn the world upside down. Futurist Alvin Toffler predicted that those of us who thrive in the 21st century will be the active learners who learn, unlearn, relearn and unlearn again. Does that sound like hard work? It is at first and the experience leads to greater freedoms again, again and again.
Just like Jazz, accelerating technology is offering all of us new freedoms. And yet, many of us are so afraid to let go of the past that about half of our citizens view themselves as “underemployed.”
We cannot define our worth in the future when we are fixated on the past. We cannot pursue fulfillment in our work when are still settling for the obsolete work standards of predictability and survival. We cannot define what to do with our freedom when we are chaining ourselves to tasks.
I always love watching the faces of our participants. There are those magic moments where they realize that something they believe is no longer true. I love to watch them when they get insight a working solution. The only way that solution can flourish is the make room for it!
About ten years ago, an executive from one of the world’s leading training organizations walked into my home. She exclaimed, “I didn’t know you played the piano.” I offered to play for her. When I was finished, she said, “For the first time, I know where this thing called Inspired Work comes from.”
For me, hearing someone “get it” with their purpose and to find their life’s work is…music.
I will always honor and remember what Phil Cohen gave to me and hence through everyone that I touch.