The Soloist: Creating a Sound Distinctly Yours

Steve Lopez’s magnificent story (a book and now a movie) about his friendship with Nathaniel Ayers — the homeless cellist stricken with schizophrenia — provides powerful lessons about leading change that instruct and inspire. As I read the story, I found myself coming back to three themes that resonated with my own teaching on creating sustainable change in all aspects of life:

1. Reduce fear to enable change.

Imagine being so afraid of losing what you value that you don’t want to have anything worth caring about. At one point in this can’t-stop-reading narrative, we find Ayers struggling with a choice about whether to move from the streets of LA into a protective group home. As the wise counselor of this home recognizes, despite its terrors the “advantage of life on the street is that you have nothing to lose.”

There’s an awful kind of safety in taking no risks to make things better. This is one of the great challenges you face as a leader intent on getting others to do things differently. Lopez learns through a series of heartbreaking fits and starts that he must patiently grasp Ayers’ worldview — characterized by fear — before he can help Ayers feel safe enough to take small steps to a better place.

Once Lopez understands this about Ayers he becomes more creative, and hence more effective, in cajoling Ayers to try something new. It’s a great example of how you have to persistently adjust your approach until you find a way to get the people you’re trying to move in a new direction see how change is something they can and want to do, for themselves.

2. Ennoble your work through service.

In his heroic attempts to help the tragically crippled, majestically talented Ayers find a safer and more fruitful life, Lopez found inspiration. He realized previously untapped potential for meaning as well as a renewed sense of purpose — salvation, really — for his journalistic pursuits.

He became a greater and more influential writer, and he reported that his family life too was enriched as a result of his passionate commitment to supporting Ayers. By unselfishly heeding this call to serve through his work, the number of people who were compelled to help Lopez in his support of Ayers and others similarly afflicted multiplied rapidly.

I see this time and again, in organizations and groups of all sizes and types, in the US and around the world: The more you serve the needs of others, the more likely it is that you will find others supporting you, and the better you’ll feel about yourself.

3. Express what’s real to you.

One of Ayers’ former teachers is quoted in the book as saying that “if you put your very existence into it, your sensitivity and your humanity, it makes for a sound distinctly yours.” When you muster the will and the courage to do this — to find your voice and let it ring — people will respond to that sound. They will follow your lead.

Lopez’s grand insight was to feel the power of Ayers’ full immersion in his inner vision — his unabashed love for the music, his spiritual embrace of it — and to know that he, too, could aspire to his own such expression. Indeed, Lopez found it in this remarkable book, and its achievement is a wonderful demonstration of how the best and most important work we do springs from that which is deep inside.


Read the book. See the movie. Share your thoughts on its most important messages.
Lopez’s work inspires us to focus more attention on mental illness as a critical social and economic issue. Leaders in all sectors of society must increasingly be prepared to deal with its many ramifications. As one example, in a post last year I wrote about how the costs of mental illness are a greater health care problem than those of physical illness.

But the primary source of my motivation is that a member of my own family suffers from a similar syndrome as Ayers. I know firsthand what it’s like to feel the joys and sorrows of dearly loving someone who has immense native talent that’s inhibited by terrible anxieties, hallucinations, and depression. Let me direct you to an invaluable resource for useful information: the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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