Good Enough to Get Out of Your Own Way

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Back in my lawyer days at the Securities & Exchange Commission, I got pretty good at taking investigative testimony. So, the powers that be started assigning me to the newbies to help them develop the “craft” of investigative conversation. Which was pretty funny, because at that point, I was only a few years in.

Now these conversations were a bit different than most. They happened in small, interior offices, often caked with decades of paint over cinderblock. Under the din of fluorescent lights and the click-clack of a court reporter, witnesses would come to bare their souls under the veil of secrecy.

Our invited guests were people about whom we were informally or sometimes formally “inquiring” and, if they had any smarts, even the ones who were innocent came with counsel.

Our job was to get to the truth. Fierce preparation, laser-focused listening and responsive questioning were the main tools of our craft. You couldn’t get to where we needed to get without all three.

But, one of the things I learned early on was the first item was the one you had to walk away from to allow the second two to work their magic.

One day, I ended up alongside a young enforcement attorney to whom I’d been assigned at the last minute. We’d taken a flight to Chicago to take testimony from the CEO of a public company. As I’d learn on the plane, she’d prepared for more than a month. Wonderful, I thought, this should be an easy day for me.

Two hours later, we sat in the confined box of a room. My colleague sat down opposite the witness and counsel, I to her side. She then proceded to whip out a monster 3-inch black binder that had been collated, coded, tabbed and annotated. An ode to OCD embodied. Fantastic I thought, not a stone left unturned.

On the record, came the call, and we were off. To which the black binder fell open…and the verbatim reading began.

Hello, I heard my colleague say, I’m So-and-So from the SEC, today we’ll be blah blah blah. Great, all the standard required language out of the way. Good that she read it, so we don’t have any weaknesses on the standard warnings.

What lovely weather we’re having in Chicago, she then shared. Huh? It was freezing cold and hailing. The next 15 minutes elicited the usual identification, job, background stuff. Then it was time to dive into the juicy part. Who did what, when, how, why and to whom.

But, something was off…

My colleague began asking questions, directly, word-for-word from the giant black ode-to-OCD binder. I glance at opposing counsel, who’s now chuckling. Realizing he had a newb sitting across, he dropped his shields, raised his copy of the Trib and allowed his client to ramble.

Minutes in, the witness dropped a bomb. My colleauge didn’t even notice. She’d become so wed to the script she prepared, she stopped actually listening and responding the moment we went on the record. I let it ride to see if maybe I was wrong and she’d planned to circle back. Didn’t happen.

Twenty minutes later, bomb number two. And, just like before, my colleague danced past it.

Off the record, I announced, letting the court reporter and other side know we’d be stepping out for a moment.

May I see your binder? I asked my colleague outside earshot. She offered it. Now, here’s a piece of paper, I said, please write down the 5 most important things you’d like to know about. She did. Now write down a single question to start the conversation around each point. Done.

Okay, I said, let’s go back into the room. Great, she replied, my binder please?




Take the piece of paper, ask the first question…then listen like you’ve never listened before.

Waves of panic. Anxiety. But off we went.

It was a bit of a rough start. But what began as a disaster turned into a brilliant, illuminating conversation. The truth was had.

So, why do you care?

Because preparation, intense study is important. But it’s equally important to release yourself from the rigid framework of that preparation when it comes time to dance. To go off-script. To listen like you’ve never listened before. To watch like your eyesight depended on catching every last flicker of light. And to respond not to what you’ve prepped for, but what’s in front of you.

Because that’s where the magic happens. When release yourself from the blinders of what you think will happen into the reality of what is happening. Then live into that.

Or, like Charlie Parker once said…

“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”

Curious, have you ever surrendered to the moment in this way?

If so, what happened?

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24 responses

24 responses to “Good Enough to Get Out of Your Own Way”

  1. paul says:

    as a touring musician i know this too well. it’s one thing to practice and things can be perfect at rehearsal. but then when you’re in stage in front of lots of people that goes out the window and you more “feel your way through” than anything else. some of the best shows i’ve played the whole band has “winged” whole parts of songs. there’s definitely magic in being absolutely present in the present..

  2. Well said. The quote I like to remember is, “I know what I know, but I can set it aside for what I have yet to learn.”

    Warm holiday greeting to you. You’ve given me hours and hours of enjoyment reading your blog posts. I don’t often respond, except inside. Thank you.

  3. Clay Hebert says:

    Love it.

    Our current public education system makes us crave the binder. Those that understand when it’s necessary (rarely) and when to toss it aside (like you do every day) are the real artists.

    Thanks and Happy Holidays.

  4. Denise says:

    Love this because it’s so true. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Lee says:

    Timely post for me, Jonathan, thank you. I’ve been reading a lot about Introversion lately … as an Introvert … attempting to reframe what I’ve been told is negative as being really positive, in fact needed, not only by myself but others … even the strongest of Extroverts. Your post reminded me of that Introvert/ Extrovert dance and how it plays out anywhere and everywhere … I recently was deposed as a plaintiff … and being able to focus on one intention of staying calm after a lot of study, finding a quiet center inside myself and slowing down with my breath … was very effective … and I thank the part of me that is Introverted for that.

  6. Michelle Currie says:

    I really enjoyed this post! I wouldn’t be able to drum, paint, or connect with my students if I didn’t surrender to the moment.

    What a wonderful reminder to let go, play, and trust inner wisdom. Thanks for sharing this with us, Jonathan.

  7. Joe says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I have to remind myself so many times to Trust my training and just let go. As an Actor myself…this is the best reminder of what Actors need to do in auditions I’ve ever read!!
    I know you’re not an Actor but I watch your interviews every week on the GOOD LIFE PROJECT and I can tell you practice what you preach. Thanks for writing this article(reminder). Happy Holidays.

    Los Angeles, CA.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Funny you mention that, Joe. THe GLP shows are all completely unscripted. I know my guest’s backgrounds and know general areas I want to explore, but beyond that, it’s all about what happens naturally. That approach also forces me to really listen. When guest ask for questions in advance I tell them I’m happy to provide them with a handful of model questions, but also assure them we’ll almost definitely leave them behind within the first few minutes.

  8. Often, so much depends on the mastery of a few simple things. Simple but not easy. Thank you for the great food for thought, Jonathan. Happy holidays – and here’s to a new year filled with growth for all seekers.

  9. Thanks JF,
    I have been told 🙂 that I can get too far into research mode and not enough into action mode. The truth is, all of that preparation can be paralyzing to me. The magic is in the “starting”, even if it’s not pretty at first or like you said: you got off to a rocky start.

    I’m moving into the mindset of just putting myself into the arena and the rest will take care of itself. Sort of like growing up in public – sometimes scary but so worth knowing that it moves us forward.

    Nice post. Happy holidays!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Kinda like they say in startup entrepreneurship – if nobody complains about what you’ve created, you launched to late. Rocky starts often lead to profound outcomes for those willing to see, hear and evolve. And that’s most definitely you.

  10. David Ross says:

    What a beautiful reminder. Thank you Jonathan.

    I’m a landscape photographer – a pretty good one, too. One of my strong points is that I really, really thoroughly research a location before I photograph it. I look at weather forecasts, sunrise times, the angle of the sun, the layout of the landscape, access points, every little detail I can to know exactly when to be at the site for the photo I have visualized.

    And yet. And yet. By far, by far my best photos have come when I’m simply there, waiting for that perfect moment that I have planned for – but I let go of my plans, throw my visualization out the window and respond with all my skill to what I *actually* see happening in front of me. To really, deeply see and experience what is really going on. And it is never quite what I had planned for, but so often is infinitely better, more satisfying, and more real. That letting go and being present with what is really happening is what makes the experience so incredibly rewarding.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Love it, David. And also love your work and your words on your site – “I don’t ‘take’ photos – I receive them with gratitude”

      • David Ross says:

        Thanks Jonathan, I appreciate that. I had an epiphany when I was setting up my website; I realised I could play it safe and present my work as any other ‘sensible’ photographer would do, certainly not make anyone think I was ‘odd’, or possibly some sort of quasi-religious nutcase – or I could tell the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. I’m so much more at peace that I chose to tell the truth. I don’t mind if someone finds the message over-the-top or it makes them uncomfortable – it’s real to me and reflects who I am, and I’m good with that!

  11. joann says:

    Hurtling across the southwest on the train to Geogia o keefes ghoat ranch where she seemed to live the sentiments above….She said, I dpnt see why we ever think of what others think of what we do….isnt it enoigh to just express yourself” Indeed. It is not even important about what WE think of ourselves.

  12. Jean Emery says:

    I learned to prepare deeply and then listen well years ago in Journalism school, working with school-of-hard-knocks newspaper editors. An important corollary to the lesson illustrated in your post that you didn’t mention is “He/She who speaks first, loses.” By that I mean, if you are interviewing someone or gathering information, when the interviewee pauses, don’t jump in and fill the silence (“dead air” we called it in broadcasting). As socialized individuals, we find that silence discomforting and try to restore the social norm by filling the empty space. But, and this is especially true if you are seeking information from someone, if you let the silence hang there, the someone who fills it will be your subject and they will amazingly often offer up something unexpected (even sometimes the “smoking gun”) or head down a path you could never have anticipated. Too often, journalists, lawyers, marketers start out asking questions, but are really less interested in hearing from the subject than voicing their own opinions, or displaying the fruits of their own research/preparation. They miss the gems or the “bomb” as you describe in your post as the door to discovering what the subject knows, thinks or feels has been slammed shut by the interviewer’s own agenda.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Great add, Jean.

      It’s something I’ve learned to do when we’re filming the Good Life Project interviews, especially since they’re all taped, so we can edit out any dead space it needed. But those moments where people feel the need to fill the space are the ones where the most interesting things almost always come out. And the most interesting lines of conversation emerge.

  13. Matt Maresca says:

    Jonathan, this happened twice to me in similar situations just last year. I gave my first two live musical performances, one in front of my voice class, another in front of friends and family. I was always a shy, quiet kid so I wanted people to see a different side of me, the real me. I prepared a great story for both shows, but I told myself to just remember the main points I wanted to convey. Since my goal was to show people the real me, me at my best, memorizing a script would diminish the authenticity. People ended up loving the stories and became really inspired by the performances. Some of the best moments were completely improvised, and I think that just added to the natural effect and authenticity of the shows. This changed my life forever and I cannot give this post enough praise for its powerful lessons.

  14. Andre Natta says:

    I’ve always approached it as letting the information “wash all over you” after hearing the phrase from a mentor.

    If you only rely on what you’ve prepared for instead of letting yourself pay attention to what’s happening, you miss so much and miss what other lessons may lie within.

  15. It’s funny how, sometimes, we need to forget the script and just go with the flow. I tell a lot of people who are starting up businesses to do the same thing. They get stuck in five year financial plans and getting everything just perfect.
    Then they either end up losing time and/or money. Even worse, they never get the thing off the ground to begin with.
    It’s good to forget the formalities and just get in and do the work. In your case, the work was listening to the witness.
    As an author, it’s important that I listen to my audience. If I were to write books that I thought people wanted without getting to know them, I’d lose readers or would never have had any to begin with.
    Thanks for sharing this story. I appreciate it.

  16. Jonathan,

    This really resonates with me. I prepare, overprepare and worry about remembering the details before giving a presentation.

    Once I begin, however, I can’t bear to cling to the script. It becomes a hindrance, especially because I encourage audience participation and like to even move around the room or stage. Once I get rolling, I’m able to hit those key points, with examples and audience engagement.

    The preparation is absolutely necessary, but there is nothing more enjoyable than the unexpected things that happen when you push aside the script and let the audience have a hand in the outcome.

    Thanks for reminding us of the magic that happens when we get out of our own way.

  17. This is how I approach every talk show, Jonathan.

    And you’ve highlighted my favorite part of having a plan — not following it!