Art of Listening

A few years ago I interviewed for a job that I thought was in the bag with only the requisite HR validation to seal the deal. And I failed the HR sniff test, with a cultural mismatch that could have leveled a Midwest city. Through the longer lens of time (and perhaps maturity, although I doubt that) I think I had proved that I wasn’t ready or able to listen, to learn their business, to understand the culture I was entering, and therefore I was creating my own impedance mismatch. It’s a mistake I have sworn to learn from.

I started my new job at Merck & Company on Monday. It’s a 35-minute commute each way when I have to go out to Whitehouse Station, which turns out to be a shade over an album side. I decided that I was going to spend that time in the car listening – just listening – to music. Not on conference calls, not thinking about a project, not mentally rehearsing for a staff meeting. Listening. Partly it’s because I have found that I’m using music as a Paul Lanksy-inspired soundtrack for whatever destination is in mind (Godsmack pre-hockey; Phish on the way to the shore; Rush on the way to pick up the Bubba) and partly it’s because I am going to be in full-on, aggressive listening mode for a few months while I learn the basics of the health care business, and then in serious listening mode for another two to three years until I understand it to some level of detail.

The best and only way to develop a skill is to practice it. And I’ve already found my mind wandering during the drive, thinking about a project or a to do item, rather than picking out a bass line or guessing the effects (tremolo or slow phaser) used on the guitar. I’ve discovered some new truths already: I don’t yell at other drivers nearly as much. A half hour in the car flies by with the right accompaniment. I really like driving my car (a hybrid that accelerates nicely and has reasonably good sound for a small passenger cabin).

I’ve been too quick to shuffle through music, rather than listening to albums the way they were conceived and meant to be experienced. Exhibit A: The new Queens of the Stone Age “Like Clockwork” took a few songs to get going, but it’s worth an extended and intense sit down. Take a mental floss break during Yes’ “To Be Over” and you miss some of Steve Howe’s most varied and intense guitar work (pedal steel, ES-135 and maybe one more in there).

And playing air cymbals during the bridge, stopped at a light on Route 508, gave pause to the driver next to me so I could pass him without any other exhortation of my own, besides a fine Alan White impersonation.

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