A new intern here recently asked me, "What's the one item that you can't work without?"
Can't is too strong a word, but I did get something a few months ago that is helping my work more than I expected: an acoustic grand piano with a robot crammed into it, the Yamaha Disklavier E3.
Am I a musician? No. Do I know how to play the piano? Not exactly. Do I use the Disklavier at the office? No way. So how does it help me work? Well, here's the thing: It's an acoustic grand piano. With a robot crammed into it.
I spend about an hour a day sitting in front of the piano, teaching myself music theory and trying to play the sad theme from the end of the Incredible Hulk '80s TV series. Trying to learn a big new skill, at the age of 41, is exhausting. And astonishingly brain stretching.
The Disklavier presents a completely new axis of learning. You can play, see your mistakes played back, download lessons and videos, play again. You can feel synapses firing and new connections being made. The best part is being completely stymied by a particular segment, giving up in frustration, and then coming back the next day and playing it through on the first try.
When you learn a new skill, you learn new patterns. And then you start seeing these patterns interwoven into the familiar world. The impenetrable becomes less so. Things you always knew, you now know better.
For instance, many musical pieces follow a common structure: a short preamble to set the stage, followed by a tonal phrase or "tonic," then elaboration of a theme, and finally a return to the tonic at the very end. That return makes the piece feel psychologically complete. It provides a satisfying finish.
I never really grokked this until I started fiddling around on the piano. Now I see it everywhere: in speeches, in magazine articles, in successful software design, in compelling presentations, in a well-planned dinner menu. And now that I see it, I can make use of it. A small increase in my musical ability--from nonexistent to imperceptible--has given me a bigger lever with which to try to move the world.
Plus, I feel the effects at the office. I'm smarter than I was a few months ago, with new ways of seeing things, a new mental vocabulary, and greater cognitive dexterity. I feel more creative than ever, and I get more done every day.
For example, one of our products uses audio tones to send information to nearby mobile phones. We thought, If our software is going to make sound, why shouldn't it be musically correct? So, one day, a bunch of Evernote employees sat around the piano to shape the tones into a pleasing melody. It's a tiny improvement, but we wouldn't have thought of it before. And your life's work is built up one tiny improvement at a time.
My parents are both classical musicians, and my father has been tuning and repairing pianos for the past 30 years, so I grew up completely surrounded by pianos (well, mostly piano parts) and music but never learned to play. My parents tried to teach me but gave up when I was 4. They claim it was because I was surprisingly stern and persuasive about how much I hated piano lessons, even at that age. I claim that they shouldn't have been daunted by a 4-year-old. We digress.
I think everyone can benefit from having something simple and elegant and beautiful occasionally lift the mind out of daily routine, massage and stretch it a little, and then put it back. It could be a favorite pen or a nice view or a crossword puzzle or a well-worn set of juggling clubs.
Or an acoustic grand piano. With a robot crammed into it.