Paul MacAlindin shares his business wisdom learned from years as an Orchestra Conductor.
As an artist, the quality of my life is tied to how deeply I dive into the creation of a work of art, in this case my concerts with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, as their Music Director and conductor.
We started in 2008, on a gung-ho adventure to create the orchestra’s first ever summer course in Suleymaniyah, Kurdish Iraq, in August of 2009. I intended to find out who these wonderful young Iraqi musicians were, and how I could help them. As a conductor of 25 years’ experience, I’ve learnt how to take greater, more complex and astute risks over the years; essential to my idea of creative masculinity.
Because my own family had been torn apart by my mother’s untreated schizophrenia, mental health has been on my radar since childhood, especially at times of great and prolonged stress, and Iraq certainly provided plenty of that. Every day until the invasion of ISIL finally crippled our operations, I was plunged into a maelstrom of high-risk project management with major stakeholders from around then world, trying to keep the orchestra alive. My professionalism and experience may well have carried me through, but three other aspects held me together during those 6 years:
We shouldn’t need to experience miserable or unfortunate circumstances in order to develop resilience. Becoming a man, and deciding this means surviving and flourishing in tough situations, can be built up in considered ways that lead to resilient wisdom rather than weak bitterness.
All too often, we find the latter path easiest to take; we are not required to think, feel, work though or gain insight from our trials and tribulations. But with guidance from elders, who themselves are not so bitter or threatened that they feel compelled, consciously or otherwise, to sabotage us, we can ready ourselves to bear harder times and bigger challenges ahead.
I would likely not have been ready for the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq ten years before it came my way. Why is the development of wisdom in adversity important? Because learnt, rather than received wisdom, can only be acquired through taking adversity the right way, and choosing one’s battles wisely. As they say, the difference between school and life is that in life, the lesson comes after the test.
For years, I’ve practiced trying to get this one right. My mind, when locked like a Rottweiler onto my goals, is anything but receptive to calm and reflection.
Throughout my time with the orchestra, I felt safest on my meditation cushion; here, my body and mind could align themselves. I could not only observe the dynamics of my mind’s chatter, but realize it was not me and it wasn’t doing me a whole lot of good.
Clearing a silent space in myself to ask the important questions of the moment, questions about my well being and best interests; waiting for the answer from within, and acting surely but gently. Opening up that space required enormous patience and what social entrepreneurs now discuss as fierce compassion.
3.Come back up for oxygen.
The way in which artists work, think and feel is a whole topic outside of this article, but, referring to my opening metaphor, it’s like diving. I can dive shallow and enjoy the delights of a rich and colourful coral reef, or I can dive deep. The further down I go, the more under pressure I become, the more difficult it is to get back to the surface, and the more likely I am to lose myself or meet danger. But without these risks, I can never discover the amazing, innovative and bizarre solutions to my work.
Like the deep-sea diver, the question is never just how to get down there; it’s how to get safely back up. That is the art of the master entrepreneur. When it’s time to replenish our oxygen, we need to return to the surface where we belong with new treasures, answers, experiences. We may resurface in a different place, or return to our boat forever changed. Either way, we must be as strategic with our mental health and the pressure we put it under as the professional diver is with his oxygen tank. The alternative is burn-out, failing organs, including our brains, wrecked families and friendships, negative return on investment. We must understand that we are not strategically running a business. We are the business strategy.
Whilst I happily explain how tough and resourceful I can be, as an artist and leader, I am also grateful that I have no shame opening up about my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Without these, and consequent reflection, I would never learn to take wiser, more exciting risks. I would stay untouched, sanitized from opportunity and protected by dull myths of happiness and stability.
In 2014, losing the orchestra in the worst way imaginable left me unprepared for the devastation and loss ahead of me. 2015 was my chance to explore what we’d achieved together, reflect on our story and extract whatever nuggets of insight I could for the next phase of my life. And therein lies the power of loss. One can never go back to who one was before. Like ritual circumcision, it’s an initiation, a new beginning. Moving forward, weak, vulnerable and held together by the love and support of friends, I found my way slowly back to the surface of life richer, deeper, more humble, and honored to share these thoughts with you, here in the Good Men Project.
The hero’s journey of the wonderful young people of Iraq, the fruits of last year’s vulnerability, loss and reflection, is told in my new book, UPBEAT: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, out September 27th.
Photos by woodleywonderworks and Barbara Frommann