In The End – Life (and IT) Lessons from Rush
This past weekend I took a break from client work and writing the book to fly out to Los Angeles. The main reason I was going out there was to see Rush perform at the Forum in what may very well be their last live show ever. It’s no secret that Rush is one of my favorite bands (look at my blog post from 2011 Fun With Naming Conventions).
August 1st was the last night of their R40 tour. I got my ticket in the presale many months ago, and was very psyched – no way was I going to pass this up. I was lucky enough to see them in Boston back in June. Originally that was not looking like it would be possible due to my work travel schedule. I was actually supposed to see Rush in Newark but wound up not being able to, so everything works out “in the end” (yeah yeah Rush geeks …).
There were a lot of rumors swirling around if this would be their last tour and they may retire after it was over. R40 was billed as the last one of this magnitude, but let’s face it, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart (Dirk, Lerxst, and Pratt to some of us) are all in their 60s. To do what they do – and no offense to the Stones, but they are not the Rolling Stones belting out glorified blues and bar music – is punishing. Neil has tendonitis and Alex soriatic arthritis. Alex is on record as his arthritis affects his overall movement moreso than his playing, but still. As a bass player who has had an injury or two to his hand (one of which happened in London in 2014 getting out of a cab), playing with pain sucks. About a year or so later my left hand finally feels normal playing. Neil has also suffered some well documented tragedies and come through – it’s pretty apparent if you look at what he has said and written over the years that he has a love/hate relationship with the road. To do what they do requires them to be physically in good shape and to perform at a high level. You cannot half ass playing Rush songs, which makes what they do all the more impressive. Try to get your average band to play a song like “La Villa Strangiato” well – I double dog dare ya!
The show itself was easily the best Rush show I’ve been to (and I’ve seen every tour at least once since the one for Hold Your Fire in December 1987 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia; Tommy Shaw from Styx opened and it was like a super-duper double bill for me), and definitely a Top 10 if not Top 5 or 3 concert for me. Yes, there was the odd mistake I noticed (example: Geddy flubbing a keyboard note in “Jacob’s Ladder”). That did not matter. They left it all out there on the stage and played better than arguably I have seen them do in quite some time. They were on fire all night. Neil, who has some of the best time in the business, was so into it he even sped up a bit during the solo section of the closer “Working Man”. That never happens.
I do believe that this may have marked the end of Rush as a proper touring live act, and possibly as a band (but I doubt the latter … time will tell). If so, they are going out at the top of their game and on a high note. I wish other bands would take notice. Why do I think this?
- Neil has a young daughter. After his tragedies, would you blame him for wanting to see her grow up?
- Neil not only took pics of the crowd at the end, but came out to bow with Geddy and Alex (he usually sprints off the stage). It has never before happened in any Rush show. Geddy was surprised (there’s video of this). Barely audible in the video, but was at the Forum, was when he acknowleged Pratt coming out which stopped him dead in his tracks (about 6:30 in the video). Neil also mouths goodbye around 6:36. Geddy has has also never thanked on behalf of the organization. Consipiracy theorists have at this one.
- Neil was happy all night. That is just a sign of the apocalypse. (If you know Rush at all, you know what I mean.)
- There was quite a bit of interaction between the three and bit more in a touching and/or jovial way. Some examples: at one point Geddy and Alex were back to back; Alex leaned his head back on Ged’s shoulders almost like a hug. Alex and Geddy’s interaction prior to starting the show. The three of them confabbing on the drum riser during the 2112 taped intro. Neil miming the violin to Jonathan Dinklage after “Losing It”. So many little things that if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t pick up on. It’s as if they knew something we don’t.
- The series of shows/residency idea is nice, but the guys in Rush openly talk about how they rehearse individually to then rehearse as a group for a tour. So they put in at least a month or two (or more) of preparation before they rehearse for a month together. Is that level of effort really going to happen for a handful of shows? It makes no sense.
- There’s also the cost of cranking the machine up for a few shows. Even with a higher price per ticket, would it pay to make pennies on the dollar for months of prep and a ton of crew? Again, I think it’s unlikely.
After some time away, I do think they may do something in some capacity – most likely an album (which sadly won’t sell – this isn’t the music industry of the 70s). People make money on touring, so they would be doing it because the want to, not because they have to. The sad thing is Geddy seems to be enjoying playing live more than ever and just got a whole bunch of new basses which he trotted out for this tour. I can’t imagine investing the money he has in instruments recently (I’ve done the mental math) and not using them. Donna Halpern (look up her history in Rush’s ascent if you don’t know) has a great take on all of this. A few last thoughts before I move onto why I’m talking about this:
- Assuming the worst, Rush is going out on their own terms. We should all be so lucky to have that option when we decide to retire (if that is what they are doing, of course).
- If what I saw is the end of Rush, a heartfelt thanks to Dirk, Lerxst, and Pratt for providing a big portion of the soundtrack to my life. I often work to Rush and sometimes have a bass handy to play along when the mood strikes.
- The Rush audience, like the SQL Server community, is a diverse one. The show at the Forum had people of all shapes, sizes, and colors. There were flags from Australia and Equador. There were people who flew in from Japan (one couple I saw – she was in a traditional robe holding up a facsimile of the Japan flag and on the back it said something like “Japan loves Rush”; they last played there in 1984 [their only time there, actually]). Insert jokes about guys and Rush bathroom lines – but that is true. That said, Rush has a pretty strong female fan base these days. The woman next to me was more into the show than her husband. Rush isn’t just for middle age white guys, and neither is the IT community.
Those are the quick things. There are broader ideas at play here with Rush and my IT/career consciousness. See if you can spot some of the Rush references below.
Enjoy what you do – be it work or for fun. Yes, we all need to put a roof over our head and food on the table, so there is a practical side to all of this. I know that. But if you are miserable day in and day out, it affects you. We all have different constraints in our personal and professional lives. Whether it is family, job duties, whatever … try to make it as gratifying as you can and have some sort of balance.
As an example, I love writing, but doing a book can be intense. I can’t just sit at the laptop 24 x 7 (I do need to eat and sleep!). Sure, I could type something all day long, but if it’s not flowing, you wind up spending more time trying to massage it to work or quite frankly, rewriting it. I know when I hit those mental blocks, I step back to refocus. Sometimes something simple – a planned trip, a nice meal with your spouse/significant other/family/alone, a night out on the town – clears that right up.
Be passionate about something in life – work related or not. Of the people I know in our community, everyone has diverse ideas of fun and what they like to do (and how they like to spend their money). Many of my passions generally revolve around music, be it playing it or seeing it live. I’ve seen shows by my favorite artists in Tokyo, Sydney, Toronto, London, Paris, and all over the United States. Sometimes this coincides when I am there for work making it a happy accident, other times, not. An example of the former was that I was in London, and Sting was playing Royal Albert Hall – arguably my favorite concert venue in the world. I’ve got my own bucket list of venues that I want to get to in my lifetime; I’ve been able to cross many off at this point (the Forum was one). Sure some hobbies and things we like to do cost money, and not everyone has tons of it. Improvise. Babies and young kids are often happy with a box and some wrapping paper – not the actual gift; if it were only that simple as an adult. Squashing your passion is to a degree extinguishing your inner fire. I think people can see when I talk I really am into it. That enthusiasm can be infectious. That brings me to …
Never phone it in and/or rest on your laurels. I have seen plenty of people do this over the years, especially when it comes to speaking. I’ve also seen some people build their careers on others’ backs and do not care in the least bit, nor do they ever thank the people who did their work for them. I get that it can be profitable to trade on your past or on others while doing very little work on your part. It’s not how I operate. I get my hands dirty.
Rush defintely did not rest on their laurels this tour and left it all out there both times I saw them. They could have easily just gotten through the set with an OK performance, but that isn’t who they are. With a diverse catalog of songs spanning over 40 years, it is hard to please every fan but I believe they struck a good balance ont R40. Would I have loved to hear something from Power Windows, Hold Your Fire, or Test for Echo? Sure. I wouldn’t have minded something from Presto as long as it was “Show Don’t Tell”. I have no complaints about either of the setlists I saw (they had three main ones with a few variants of those when they inserted “Losing It” into the set).
One of the reasons I keep doing new and different things when I speak is that it not only keeps topics fresh for me, I feel I also need to keep pushing the envelope and making it better for people who attend. Plus, I learn in the process, too. Win-win! It was a lot of work, but I had 100 people doing labs simultaneously at PASS Summit in 2014 and plan to do so again in 2015 (register now – seats are capped) with my preconference. I am not using someone else’s canned labs – I build and test all the VMs people use as well as put together the lab manual. Sometimes my grand experiments work (said precon), other times, not so much. I gain just as much from the things that are not as successful as I do the things that are. If you don’t take any risks in life, it’s a safer route, but have you lived at all? Without risk, there is no reward. “Roll the bones” indeed. If you never know failure, how can you measure success?
Strive to be better, even if you fall short sometimes. Continuously improve, because if you are not swinging for the fences every now and then, you’re doing it wrong. Rush’s career is that metaphor (and had to get another Geddy reference in since he loves baseball). After Caress of Steel, their label wanted a more straightforward album that they could market better. If that album was a dud, chances are they would be dropped. What did Rush do? They listened to their gut, told the record company what they wanted, and recorded 2112 – side one of which is yet another side with only one song (and one of the most recognized in their career). The record company was not happy but it sold so well that Rush controlled their career from there on out. Caress of Steel was a commercial failure but an important stepping stone for the band. I have had moments like this in my career as well. Doing the right thing is never the easy thing or the one that gets you the most money, but it pays off long term. There’s a reason that in this day and age where the music industry is in freefall that Rush has survived for over 40 years.
I always look at my career as a long term investment with “grand designs”, not a short term payout. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had advice (mostly unsolicited) thrown my way which would have been horrible for me. I’ve turned down jobs and engagements which were a lot of money where things did not feel quite right to me – something was off. The blueprint for my career (or Rush for theirs) is not yours, but a career is a journey, not a destination. I am also learning new things every day. If you think you are the best and decide you never need to learn new things, you will be left behind. Technology moves too quick, but with solid fundamentals, you can always pick up the new stuff since to a degree, it is variations of what we do now in many cases.
At some point there will always be diminishing returns. If what I saw was the last Rush show ever (I hope not, but I think it’s clear where I stand on that), they knew when to get out. I know at times in my career, I trusted my gut to know when to move on from a job. Whether that was because I felt I plateaued (and since I like a challenge – see point two), or for some other reason, you know when you should probably “exit stage left”. It’s always better to be remembered as the cherry on an ice cream sundae rather than the gloopy mess at the bottom when you are almost done.
Sometimes it is better to be good at one or a few thing(s) than medoicre (if that) at many. We need general practitioners, but sometimes we need specialists. Would you rather have a cardiologist doing open heart surgery or the GP? I know my answer. In the consultant game, trying to be all things to all people often gets you in trouble and in over your heads. I mean, you don’t see Neil Peart trying to be keyboardist of the year, do you? He’s one of the best at what he does because of the years of skill and work he’s put into his craft. To be effective in IT we need to be good and even great at a few things; that’s possible. But an expert in everything? I only know a handful of people who I would even say come close to that, and I’m sure even they have their limitations. Knowing your limits and being honest about them makes you a better employee or consultant.
This also speaks to passion. Passionate people tend to really get fired up about something. That something may lead you down the rabbit hole. I fell into high availability, clustering, and mission critical work and never looked back. “You bet your life” I still love what I do. What makes you stand out is what makes you different, not the same, as everyone else.
There is no I in team. One of the reasons Rush works is that they are an effective team. You don’t last 40+ years together (continuously, not like other bands where members have come and gone) otherwise. With the stature each member of Rush has in the music community, it’d be easy to let one person’s desire to be in the “limelight” overcome the band. It hasn’t. A great example of another power trio whose egos can’t really be in the same room as coworkers is the Police. I listened to an interview with Stewart Copeland recently, and it’s clear that he and Sting could be friends, but never be bandmates again. The music industry is littered with fractured bands (and fanbases).
Finding people you work with and can trust is important in your career. I am fortunate to have Max as a business partner and friend. He’s someone I have known since my Microsoft days and I trust him explicitly. Sometimes you will wind up in situations where you have to work together as a team (be it in life, in business, or on a project) with some people, but someone in the mix just isn’t a team player or there is no “chemistry”. It happens. Put on your “bravest face”, get through it, “turn the page”, and laugh about it later.
Working together (be it as a FTE or consultant) takes good communication. Being able to bring diverse groups together is sometimes a part of the reason I am brought in to work with customers. The DBAs can’t talk to the infrastructure folks or vice versa. Teamwork takes effort.
Give back. Rush has a long history of philanthropy both as a band as well as each individual member doing things for those less fortunate than themselves. Less fortunate in the case of Rush is helping out charities. I give back in my own way to the SQL Server community. It’s essential.
The main reason I do things like SQL Saturdays, blog, the book, webcasts, etc., is that I started somewhere and feel I need to pay it forward where I can. In some (but not all) of my Mission Critical SQL Server classes that I deliver, SQLHA gives away a seat to one lucky student. People have to earn it by writing an essay. If I was purely “driven” by the almighty dollar, this would never happen. Training helps people move forward in their careers, and sometimes due to “circumstances”, some people cannot attend without a helping hand. I want to try to give people a chance when I am able, but keep it fair (and not bankrupt myself or the company, either). Max and I are proud to do this of our own “freewill”. It is the right thing to do.
Nearly every time I travel to deliver a session at a SQL Saturday, the costs are out of pocket for me. No one is funding me to go other than me, so I have to be selective since I am not made of “big money”, and I always feel bad turning down some speaking engagements. I do my share of remote speaking, but I would much rather be in the room. There is much more impact. The number of speaking engagements I do is not a sports score where more is considered winning, but I generally do anywhere from 10 – 20ish events a year which is quite a lot for one person who has to eat, sleep, work, and find some time to have that balance I talked about earlier.
And let’s face it: I have not earned my Microsoft Cluster MVP award every year since 2009 just for my good looks and sharp wardrobe, you know 😉 It’s a community-based award. I take that seriously.
It all comes down to this: life is too short to be miserable. If you are not happy in life (overall … we all have our moments, of course), it carries over into nearly every aspect of your daily existence. “We’re only immortal for a limited time”, so as best you can, seize your opportunities by the cojones and ride the wave because the dividends can be huge.