Engineering is a field that requires systematic thinking, applied linearly, and methodologically to problems. The best compliment you can pay them is using the phrase “reduced to practice”. That means that you can actually show someone else exactly how to reproduce what you have uncovered. It is the basis of all patents and intellectual property – IP – the cornerstone of the tech world. Companies rise and fall based on the ability to find new ways of solving problems… but do it repeatedly the same way, every time. Those of you who know me realize this screams out for my talents… When people meet me, after a few minutes, they always say, “You are not like any engineer I have ever known…”
… and lucky for me, I learned that pretty early. While I love the discipline, mathematics, and difficulty of it, it was not the way my brain really worked. My Dad could tinker on something for hours as time would tick by, and things he designed and built were bulletproof if not beautiful. As I grew up, I learned to “think like him”, and can still do it, but not sustainably, and certainly not as he enjoyed it. So when our design came to life, I already knew it would likely be one of the last times that skill would be leveraged that way… as I transitioned into the people part of the job. Interfacing with customers, marketing people, product managers, salespeople – and building the bridges between those groups and engineers… that was easy for me… and as important as the other challenges, but often overlooked as “soft”….
Ackerman is well known for rarely using the same tuning for more than one song. In the entirety of his recorded output, 12 solo records in all, he says he has done so exactly twice. “I go into a different tuning on every song so that I don’t have the capacity to use intellect,” Ackerman explains, and adds that he is essentially music-theory illiterate. “It removes the frontal lobes entirely from the process. It then becomes solely a way to channel emotion.” Remember that he fell into recording because he wanted to share that creativity with his 80 closest friends, and never thought he would sell the other 220 of the 300 albums he pressed. With Winston’s emergence, and with acts like Liz Story, and Shadowfax, his carpentry business was quickly replaced by the fastest-growing label – ever.
Ackerman signed an international distribution deal with A&M Records shortly thereafter. For the next decade, the slowest annual growth rate for Windham Hill was “exactly 597 percent.” The label’s best years saw growth rates of 2,000 percent. Ackerman was a rock star, and he lived like one. He owned a mansion and drove fancy cars. He dated a string of beautiful women. He traveled the globe performing and schmoozing. He was making more money than he could ever spend. But something was wrong… in 1984, Ackerman began feeling ill. He saw doctors all over the world, but none could figure out what was ailing him. Finally, a psychiatrist diagnosed him with depression. “We had 70-some employees and big offices in Burbank…I got lost in it all, and the guy who used to sit around playing guitar wasn’t there anymore. It was just killing me.”
Saying it was easy is slightly misleading. As I grew, I learned the world really paid for execution – repeated, stable, and linear. They needed people with big ideas – those who took big risks… but the rewards were most often paid to the stable executors. Over and over I would see the pattern, even watching it happen with Steve Jobs up close… and then seeing him have the last laugh finally – but only after also figuring out how to appear linear and systematic, but in his own unique way. The turtlenecks, the demonstrations, the “oh one more thing” he stole from Columbo – his creative way of being predictable. I don’t know where you are in your own journey, or what “Pays” you vs. “Delights” you – but pay attention to that little voice. Tomorrow does have a happy ending, but for today, listen to the beautiful, and prescient song from only his 2nd album – or if you counting, probably the 16th guitar tuning – The impending death of the Virgin Spirit…