Commencement Address by Herbie Hancock: "Is We the New Me?"

May 24, 2013


Believe that the impossible can be made possible. You’re born with imagination. Use it to spread ideas that move us forward.

I am deeply honored to be here this afternoon. My heartfelt thanks to President Habuki, members of the Board of Trustees, family, friends, esteemed guests, and most significantly, I offer my gratitude and congratulations to the 2013 Soka University graduates who represent our future–our destiny–and to your teachers and mentors who have fostered the principles of respect, leadership, humanism, pacifism, and the creative coexistence between nature and humanity. It’s an extraordinary privilege for me to be invited to speak to you on one of the most momentous days of your lives.

I’d like to share a few of my experiences and some conclusions I’ve drawn over the past six decades–either by karma or through intention and planning–ideas and concepts that have helped me succeed in facets of my life. But first, I’d like to tell you why I stand so humbly before you this afternoon.

When I first learned of your invitation to deliver this address, I literally flipped with joy, surprise, and gratitude because the founder of Soka University, Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, the brilliant Buddhist philosopher who is also my life mentor, is instrumental in re-building the foundation, and encouraging the evolution of my life toward faith. So, as you can imagine, I want to do my very best to respond to Dr. Ikeda and the commitment to life that we both share. Dr. Ikeda’s vision of personal transformation as the driving force for social change, referred to as “human revolution” has molded my approach to decision making and has served me well, not only as a musician, but as a spouse, father, teacher, friend, Buddhist, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz–and ultimately as a human being. I’ve learned that each of us possesses limitless potential and as a result of observing and practicing the same ethics, beliefs, and principles as Dr. Ikeda, instead of wondering “how I can make more money or help only myself,” I ask, “How can I help others improve their lives as a direct result of pursuing my dreams by focusing more on who and what I am rather than what I do.”

I have met Soka University’s founder, Dr. Ikeda, on several occasions. The first time was back in the early 1970s when I had a band called Headhunters. Exhausted after hours of traveling, just seeing Dr. Ikeda pop up seemingly out of nowhere energized and rejuvenated our spirits as we headed to one of his favorite spots, Mangetsu, a sushi restaurant, which had opened especially for him and us that night. Although he conversed with us through an interpreter, it didn’t seem like a translator was between us–it felt like we were all speaking the same language, had the identical goals, and basically were on the same page. That is the essence–the moral heart of the relationship between a mentor and disciple. It was a natural, unforced union–a confluence of souls.

Very basic issues are involved in our solidarity:

  • A profound respect for human life;
  • The aim to establish peace within the individual, the group, and humanity as a whole;
  • The goal to initiate an unbreakable eternal happiness;
  • The belief that everyone has the capacity to become enlightened; and
  • All of these elements are within life itself and within every individual.

In Buddhism we don’t tell people what to do, rather we show them how to use their practice to uncover answers within themselves and make decisions on their own.

So, as you go out into the world, don’t shy away from your personal crucibles, because that is how you learn, grow, and develop strong convictions. And while you meet these challenges, make sure to encourage this behavior in others because, as I say to myself, it’s not just about Me, it’s about We.

Please don’t have preconceived notions about your career. Make sure to first question yourself, become informed, listen to the wise, and then follow your heart.

In other words, it’s okay to struggle. Struggle can be your best friend.

There will be bills to pay, responsibilities to family and friends, but do not lose sight of your goals. Remember, a paycheck is important, is essential, but it isn’t the one thing that will make you ultimately happy. You cannot purchase courage, empathy, tolerance, wisdom, or the recognition of the importance of purpose, yet these abstract qualities once uncovered and absorbed, add value and meaning to one’s life.

Here’s a quote that I want to pass along to you, expressed by the late brilliant writer, David Foster Wallace. He said, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people, and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

It’s often a challenge to be positive while the news and media are overflowing with traumatizing stories that pack a wallop–natural disasters, war, economic recession, random violence, and financial hardships, to name a few … so how do we cope, how do we solve our personal problems and lead a meaningful life?

Let’s take a look at intention.

An early Buddhist teaching says: “What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow. Our life is the creation of our mind.”

We are asked to be benevolent, to be non-judgmental, to be sympathetic in our lives. It is likely we may flounder and will often fail, but we must hold on to the core, the foundational intention for kindness in our life or else we can never have that experience of compassion, a powerful miraculous device for your toolbox.

As a practicing Buddhist for four decades, I’m finding peace in this world–a world that doesn’t always make that easy. By being open-minded and focusing on benevolence and generosity I’ve uncovered practical lessons and learned that the essential values in jazz and the values of Buddhism are similar and apply to my life on every level:

  • Respect yourself and others;
  • Be considerate and have the courage to be nonjudgmental;
  • Think of a situation from all points of view and value diversity;
  • Be willing to be vulnerable, ethical, and honest;
  • Travel down and explore the side streets;
  • And, of great importance,
  • Take responsibility for your actions.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and I know this from my life as a jazz musician. Jazz is cooperative, not competitive, and revolves around the mentor-apprentice model of sharing. A key to my advancement in music was learning from the experience my mentors had amassed and graciously passed on to me. Quite often the lessons spilled out of the musical realm, piqued my curiosity, and helped me flourish in other arenas.

So, I’d now like to tell you about another exceptional teacher who was a major influence in my life–Miles Davis–who invited me to join his band in 1963. A consummate musician and great leader who saw my potential, he helped me find ways to alter my habits and routines, and his only requirement was that I explore new territory.

He said, “I pay you to practice on the bandstand not in your room.” This ultimately gave us a platform to really be in the moment. His principles of honoring the elegance of the music, embracing spontaneity, creativity, and experimentation inspired a passion in my gut that was so intense, so deep, so genuine–his genius had a profound effect on the music I composed and continue to create even now (to this very day).

Every one of our performances offered a wealth of interesting opportunities to create an inspired new piece of art–and of great significance to you today–challenges or what seemed like dreadful mistakes at the time could actually result in a composition that was even stronger than the original endeavor.

To illustrate, I’ll tell you about an incident many, many years ago when Miles noticed I was thoroughly frustrated with my own piano playing and as a result, I was feeling downright/utterly depressed. At the time, I was in a vexing, creative rut, something many of you have probably experienced with your own projects. Discouraging, yes?

Well, Miles leaned over to me during one of our performances and said, “Don’t play the butter notes.”

“The butter notes”? Hmmm … I had no idea what he meant. But I knew that since Miles said it, it must mean something important. I came to the conclusion that he meant don’t play the obvious notes because I believed butter meant fat and fat meant obvious.

The most obvious notes in a chord are the third and the seventh—the notes that clearly define the nature of a chord. So, I decided to think outside the box, and I began leaving out the third and the seventh in my chords and in my soloing.

At first it felt awkward and sounded erratic–however–interestingly enough, the audience started giving me more applause than I had had all week. I think they felt my sincerity, my courage, my openness, and my desire to explore something new. This gave me a fresh perspective on how I could create sonically during a performance. For me this was a groundbreaking experience and affected my style of playing and performing throughout the rest of my life.

Miles didn’t dictate specifically what to play or what not to play. And of utmost importance, I was able to eventually draw my own conclusions and discover my own answers.

Miles could feel my frustration and through his compassion for me and his respect for my feelings he made the wisest of comments. Only a great master can provide a path to finding your own true answers.

So, always remember, “Don’t play the butter notes.”

Over the course of my life I have learned that failure is not your enemy, it’s your friend. Perhaps it’s your most important one because through failure you meet one of life’s challenges. Are you going to get up again or stay down? Actually, there is no alternative–you have to get up. Use that as an impetus for winning the next battle, because you can loose a battle but you don’t want to loose the war, and who is the war really against?

(It’s against) Yourself.

Your only real enemy is your negative side. You also have a positive side. You can turn your shortcomings and weaknesses into something good by getting back up again. Because of that effort you become stronger. Nichiren Daishonin, a 13th-century monk and the founder of my religion, said, “a person who has fallen to the ground, uses the ground to get back up again.”

For example, let me tell you about my relationship with the late Donald Byrd, a remarkably talented and beloved jazz trumpeter, and how he played an influential role in my early career. He was also responsible for my first recording contract, was an astute business man who helped me start my own publishing company, and he revealed a secret to help me play fast, a former stumbling block for me.

When I was 20 I graduated from college and returned to my former summer job as a mailman and, although I was able to get a few gigs around Chicago, I was still living with my parents. Around Christmas time, a local club owner asked me if I would like to play a gig with Donald Byrd’s band, because a blizzard had stranded his piano player back east. I could not believe my good luck! So, I put on my maroon jacket, the only sport coat I owned, and set off for the performance by driving to Milwaukee with Donald and his co-leader Pepper Adams. But, the storm stopped us in our tracks, and we had to return to Chicago. However, since Donald and Pepper wanted to hear me play we headed to a neighborhood jam session where I sat in with a local group, and I was … absolutely terrible!! In my mind it was a disaster of epic proportions.

The short walk back to Donald’s table felt like a hike up Mount Everest because I was convinced he didn’t want me. So I thanked him for the opportunity and was ready to head home, but to my utter surprise he invited me to play the Milwaukee gig, saying he factored in that my nerves had gotten the best of me. I was thrilled beyond words to get a second chance! After a few challenging nights playing with the band I was invited to join as a permanent member but, first I had to tell Donald, “you have to ask my mother.” And after Donald got my parent’s permission I headed off to New York City and what, in retrospect, was the beginning of my career.

My temporary failure did not mean absolute defeat because I chose to use this soul crushing incident to my advantage. Instead of totally freaking out I chose to muster up all my courage, walk over to the table, and thank Donald and Pepper for their time. I turned this devastating experience around and I like to think that perhaps my attitude may have influenced their positive feelings about giving me a second chance.

Donald, one of my mentors, encouraged and helped me find my way and shared his experience with me as an aid to my development.

By the way, it is not too soon for you to start thinking about the kind of mentor you want to become because this will begin a journey that will influence your actions towards others and form a solid foundation for the rest of your life.

Who is that special teacher and what qualities does he or she possess?

I have respectfully invited mentors into my life and as a result am uncovering wisdom and strength. It can be difficult and humbling to ask for help, but I’ve found that it is crucial to value someone who can provide guidance to help you uncover the answers.

There is no “How to live your life, have a successful career, be a crackerjack parent, enjoy a happy marriage, and live to be 100” manual I can suggest that covers all bases. We extemporize throughout our lives, from minute to minute, year to year, decade to decade–in a sense we are all winging it–and since my career as a jazz musician and educator revolves around improvisation, I would like to share some of the core values I have gleaned from working in a jazz band situation.

First, feel comfortable with yourself. Take some time to get to know who you really are, embrace the child and the adult within, and uncover and discover confidence, appreciation, and admiration for yourself–the one and only person you are with throughout your lifetime. Then you will be able to interact and begin to forge relationships that are meaningful and sincere. If you can’t be a friend to yourself, you can’t be a good friend to anybody.

Second, you must be brave enough to challenge and break the rules and think outside the box. Maybe walk alongside the main stream, or run off into the meadow. Improvise–don’t let yourself get in your way.

Third, it is a fallacy and downright dangerous to think that the only way you can win is if the other person loses.

For example, when I’m performing in a band I don’t think about playing better than the drummer, the bass player, or the saxophonist. The truth is, if the drummer is playing a great solo, that gives a lift to the entire band and functions as great inspiration for the creative spirit of each band member. Not only does the drummer win, the rest of the band triumphs.

There is no real competition in jazz. Each musician expresses his or her individual self. And, ultimately the only competition is within you.

Fourth, things that are different, new, or unusual are interesting, not the same old same old. The meeting and mating of ideas creates magnificent music.

Fifth, believe that the impossible can be made possible. You’re born with imagination. Use it to spread ideas that move us forward.

Sixth, looking inside yourself is crucial to creativity and a stepping stone to self-knowledge. It encourages you to ask thought provoking often painful questions.

You will find that even in silence there is music all around us–the sounds and melodies that accompany our lives–the rhythms we take for granted:

  • the beat of a ticking clock;
  • the thumps and throbs of our heart echoing in our eardrums;
  • the resonance of our breathing in and out;
  • or the soundscapes of Mother Nature–
  • the hum and whoosh and roar of the wind that evokes the slow roll of a drum or a train rushing on its journey;
  • a babbling brook sounding like a group of people speaking softly;
  • the counterpoint between morning bird songs and hissing insects reminiscent of Mozart’s later compositions–
  • The rhythm of life.

All of this magical wonderland is free and if you turn off your phones, remove the ear buds, unplug your computers and iPads–which I have a hard time doing–and take the time to reflect and ponder, the rewards will flow, new pathways in your brain will light up–like lightning in a bottle–and creativity will blossom.

Then, have the courage, the audacity, to engage and “join the band”–share–stitch the riches in your head together with friends and colleagues and I guarantee that interesting, compelling, innovative new possibilities will flourish. You’ll have exciting conversations, make fresh connections, hurl around new ideas, and find that the whispers, those former tiny inklings, are now roaring and ready to be uncovered. Don’t relegate yourselves to the sidelines.

And then … then keep the process open for innovation. Allow each band member to shine so the tune becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.

I recently watched a TED talk given by Louie Schwartzberg, a world-renowned cinematographer who is working on a project called “Happiness Revealed” and I want to share a snippet of his presentation that resonated with me.

Here are an elderly man’s thoughts about happiness–and they are very appropriate for this special day:

“You think this is just another day in your life–it’s not just another day. It’s the one day that is given to you today. It’s a gift. It’s the only gift that you have right now, and the only appropriate response is gratefulness. If you do nothing else but to cultivate that response to the great gift that this unique day is, if you learn to respond as if it were the first day in your life, and the very last day, then you will have spent this day very well.”

In closing, I want to thank the Soka University family for allowing me to celebrate with you today. To the Class of 2013–congratulations on this milestone in your lives! Tears will be shed but find the rainbow among the droplets and pursue your dreams.

I welcome you with open arms to the next chapter of your lives–your story continues and the plot thickens.

And as you leave the security of Soka University, make sure to be gracious, celebrate your special gifts, never take no for an answer yet welcome criticism, embrace your enemies, and forge new friendships but keep in contact with your school cronies.

Smile … for no reason. Laugh every day, be funny, tell a joke, find the humor in adversity but not at the expense of others. Mirth changes brain chemistry! So go forth and be mirthful.

Help a stranger. Espouse forgiveness … it will make you glow. Remember a time you were let off the hook and pass on this remarkable gift.

Start a cultural revolution–take chances, jump off a cliff and give it your all but remember perfection is a fairy tale that keeps you from being present–challenges are critical to your development. It can lead to winning.

Travel safely, enjoy the ride and all the myriad adventures that lie ahead. You will make mistakes but soldier on. You will explode with possibilities if you don’t give up.

Listen to the music within.

Continue to cultivate and encourage respect, leadership, and the synchronicity between nature and humanity.

Never stop creating, playing, writing, dancing, inventing, experimenting–and please use your imaginations, passions, and exceptional talents to protect this magnificent, majestic, endangered world; promote peace; create beauty; and develop original ideas that will move humankind forward.