Mindful Marketing, The Grateful Dead & Self-Actualization

Dead 2Some people are doomed to live in a bubble of their own making. Certain political parties and politicians might come to mind, as may some of your business and personal acquaintances. These are the great rationalizers, addicted to a perspective that generally has very little relation to real facts. True addicts provide the best examples. They justify dangerous behaviors like cigarette smoking by thinking that “pollution is going to kill me anyway,” or alcoholism as a positive trade-off for stress relief or a need for social lubrication. Rational discussion is impossible. The facts never matter.

We all imagine a narrative for our lives and careers when we start out, one that will never turn out the way we thought it would. For better and worse, probably in equal measure, my 22-year old self would have had a very hard time believing my life as it exists today.

And that’s a good thing. How boring to mindlessly follow some static, predestined path largely created from the expectations of others. Life is more like a Grateful Dead concert. Long, textured, more improvised than rehearsed. It does not go smoothly. There are moments of boredom and downright irritation where the band just seems to be making noise. But when the tedium of the interminable “Drums & Space” morphs into “Good Lovin” or “Sugar Magnolia,” it’s nothing but ecstatic.

There is no ecstasy in concerts or life without those long, uncomfortable moments that precede it. You got to suffer if you want to sing the blues. The journey is important. You try things, it doesn’t work, you try again. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you stumble on to something amazing.

This seems to be the model for nearly every project I work on, the nature of how I experience the creative process.

More than 50 years after they first played together, The Dead are more popular than ever. This, despite the fact that several band members, including their charismatic leader and virtuoso guitarist Jerry Garcia, aren’t in the Dead anymore because they’re actually dead. Fans include original Deadheads, saggy senior citizens who flock to concerts in their old tie-dyed t-shirts to dance, eyes closed, deep in their own cosmic trances, looking as foolish as they possibly can be without a hint of shame or self-awareness. But thousands of the old recordings (mostly taped by audience members but never deemed “bootleg” by the band) and live shows with reconfigured line-ups attract plenty of young people too. These are 20-, 30- and 40-somethings who might know the Dead from their parents’ obsessions with the band, by way of Dead-inspired “jam” musicians like Phish and Dave Matthews, or from their own You Tube explorations.

What they all seem to have in common, and what’s enhanced my own appreciation of the Dead over the years, is a certain mindfulness, a willingness to live in the moment and let thoughts evoked by the music to come and go. The good ones and bad ones. Things are always changing, but foundation of trust and well-being can always be found beyond the turmoil.

Yes, this drum solo, accompanied by feedback and other seemingly random noise, is annoying the hell out of me and will likely go on for another 20 minutes or more. Live with it, enjoy it, go with the flow. Don’t keep looking at your phone and hoping it will all be over soon. Recognize and accept those thoughts of conflict, boredom, impatience, confusion, anxiety and uncertainty. Embrace the moment and be curious about the thoughts and feelings rushing through your brain, uncomfortable as they may be.

Transcendence only comes from these moments, from the deeper, darker explorations. Jacob had to wrestle with an angel. Luke had to make a deep descent into a dark cave on a chaotic, swampy planet to face his worst fears and slay a vision of Darth Vader before he could become a Jedi knight. You’re off for a pleasant alpine sled ride at Disneyland when you’re suddenly thrust into the darkness, facing the great Yeti itself. Eek! It is only after going deep within ourselves to face our worst fears that can we breakthrough and see the light.

All of which may explain the predictable states of emotion I cycle through whenever working on a major project. I have marveled lately how this still happens, given my level of experience and confidence that’s built up over the years. It’s easy to phone it in, which much to my amazement, I continue to see so many client-side and marketing service people get away with. You know what I’m talking about – the $50,000 study that tells us “moms care about their kids and want to give them good tasting but healthy snacks,” or the even more expensive project that concludes “the brand needs a significant point of difference in a world of sameness.”

Great work– those moments of marketing ecstasy – are only possible with mindfulness, insatiable curiosity, an open mind and a capacity to “go deep.” A sound process will eventually help us identify a single-minded focus, but the “in-depth” thinking everyone seems to covet requires going places that will – that must – take us out of our comfort zone. Luke has to symbolically lop off the head of his father – which then takes the form of his own face! – in order to progress.

Out with the old and in with the new. It’s an age old story, ingrained in our myths and literature, one that marketers should always revisit in the constant struggle to evolve or reinvent their brands.

  • Bill
    Posted at 11:40h, 01 July Reply

    Nice! I’m sitting on a Norwegian Air flight between Copenhagen and Paris listening to Brent Mydland singing Tons of Steel when this comes through as a LinkedIn link.

    Totally agree on the drums/space thing.

  • Lisa Gagnon
    Posted at 10:48h, 25 September Reply

    What a back-handed slam! By the way, if you don’t understand “Drums”, you don’t understand life. Was the inclusion of the Grateful Dead no more than a pathetic attempt to get someone to actually read your muddled thoughts that you wrote down as a blog?

  • Mike Carlon
    Posted at 05:39h, 15 June Reply

    Very thoughtful piece, and the connection between The Dead and your POV is crystal clear to me. We all would be better served by embracing the risks (and thrills) that come with improvisation; living in the moment, collaborating with others, exposing ourselves to potential failure, etc. This is part of the reason I include improv games when running workshops/consumer groups-always brings me to new territories that traditional approaches tend not to visit.

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