Nov 092012

When the little guy turns blue and starts eating his enemies, that's mojo.

It’s such a great thing when you’re unstoppable while doing your work. Everything feels right. You’re at an almost unconscious level of production. Even the distractions stay in the background without bugging you.

While this sounds like some mad fantasy, it does happen. The term I hear used for these moments is mojo.

I remember the old movie Crossroads. It had a cheesy story line — something about a young white blues guitarist (Ralph Macchio) who was mystified by the legend of his hero Robert Johnson. After a series of adventures with an aged-in-the-keg harmonica player (Joe Seneca) he ends up in a guitar duel with Stevie Vai. His soul is at stake (told you it was cheesy) and his harp player hands him his personal mojo bag. “It’s all the magic I can give you,” he said.

Dumb movie. Great soundtrack. But what’s this mojo?

Unpacking the bag

Blues legend has a mojo packed with all kinds of weird stuff. Maybe some John the Conqueror root, a black cat’s bone (don’t ask where that came from) and other things that are only found in hot dogs. It’s a lucky charm.

Myself, I don’t do luck. But I know good mojo when I see it. That’s when I am so entrenched in The Zone that a wrecking ball couldn’t knock me out.

I like how Steven Pressfield explains it. Mojo is that thing that kicked in when you set down to write 500 words and end up with a few thousand.

It’s rare. But you know it right away. You feel different physically. You’re hardly conscious of what you’re doing but you’re entirely aware.

It’s not quite the same thing as being inspired. Inspiration is mental, when the ideas keep coming and I have to write fast to keep up with everything. Mojo is more physical; for some reason the adrenalin starts pouring in and I can actually keep up.

Mojo is inspiration plus.

When your Pac-Man character suddenly turns blue, goes real fast through the maze and starts eating its enemies in that old-school video game, that’s what mojo is like.

Mojo on the job

I remember bowling with friends some years ago. Now, I’m a horrendous bowler, but even though I’m ultra-competitive by nature I was really in it for the social aspect.

Anyway, I selected my ball and got ready to throw. As I stared down the pins I became aware that something was happening.

I felt physically different.

All the bowling-alley noises dropped down to almost nothing.

My footwork is normally pretty bad, but all of a sudden I was as smooth as oiled glass.

When I laid that ball down it made no sound, and I didn’t even feel the bump of ball hitting wood. Just a smooth, unbelievably seamless throw.

The ball glided from hand to floor and rocketed down the alley, hit the triangle of pins right on the sweet spot, everything went down.

Time hung over the whole process, and in my mind the whole thing took about 15 minutes.

Such a weird feeling, from beginning to end.

Mojo at work.

I remember reading something Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his autobiography. Playoff game when he was with the Milwaukee Bucks. Closing seconds. He’s at the baseline, a teammate got him the ball, and he said time slowed down for him. Totally locked in. He put up his hook shot, and as soon as his shot swished through the cords everything went back to real time.

Mojo at work.

I’m pretty certain there was some serious mojo quotient when Paul Gonsalves took that incredible tenor sax solo with Duke Ellington’s band in the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. So far the band hadn’t sounded particularly special, the weather was bad, band members kept disappearing, and the audience just couldn’t get with it. So far a real bummer of a show; so much so that for the “live” album Duke opted to re-record some of the tracks later.

Duke must've looked like this after Gonsalves' solo.

That was until Duke had  called for Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue, one of his oldest songs. A get-me-over number.

Gonsalves’ solo seemed to develop on the fly, and by the end of it — 27 choruses and a bit over three minutes later — he’d touched awesomeness. The audience knew it, too. For the rest of the concert Duke had to calm the crowd down; they were so jacked up from what they’d just heard. Gonsalves’ solo almost caused a riot.

Serious, serious mojo. On the album the solo sounds a little muted, but that’s because he went up to the wrong microphone on stage. But there’s no question Gonsalves — and the whole band — played way above their normal levels, bent the boundaries of capability.

Mojo had better catch me working

These moments are rare. It’s not something I can call upon at will. Getting that mojo doesn’t change what I’m doing; only makes it better.

That last point is important. I have to be doing my work to derive any benefits from that mojo. If I’m screwing off, I only screw off better.

It needs to catch me while I’m writing. It’s just like inspiration in that I can’t wait for it to come upon me. It won’t come when I want. I have to be ready for it, standing at my desk or whiteboard or notebook, already working.

Ever find yourself totally in the zone? Tell me …


Jun 232012

A couple of friends and I were talking about operating within your so-called sweet spot yesterday, and this came to mind.

So what’s this sweet spot? It’s a little hard to describe it, but you know it when you’re in it. It’s that special feeling you get in your hands when you hit a golf ball right on the screws. When you lay down that bowling ball so silently and smoothly, just by the sound you know you’ve thrown down something special.

It’s not just being in the zone. This is even more special than that.

A few years ago I wrote a piece on Duke Ellington, and as I wrote it, I had his Live At Newport album playing. And I was listening to tenor sax player Paul Gonsalves’ incredible solo in one of the oldest songs in Duke’s book, “Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue.”

“It’s one of those moments that every human being should experience. It’s crunch time, and you’re called to perform at something — a job, dealing with family, facing the outside world. And you’re performing at a level that you didn’t know you had and you don’t remember how you did it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar described one of those moments during the closing seconds of a playoff game when he was at the baseline, in the corner, those seconds ticking away. Abdul-Jabbar said time just slowed down for him, kind of like you’re watching the world in slow motion. A teammate got him the ball, Kareem put up the hook shot, it went right in, and immediately the world went back to real time. I’m sure it was that kind of moment for Duke Ellington and his band.”

There’s no doubt Gonsalves was in his sweet spot then, and so was the Duke.

And you know what? Reading over that paragraph, I think perhaps I was operating in mine when I wrote it.

For the curious (and those who dig the Duke), here’s a link to the original piece.

For more on the sweet spot, check out Max Lucado’s Cure For The Common Life.