Maynard James Keenan on Creativity, Storytelling, and Staying One Step Ahead of Yourself

I just finished reading the book “A Perfect Union of Contrary Things” written by Sarah Jensen, which is a biography about the life of Maynard James Keenan. In case you didn’t know, Keenan has been on my list of “top 5 people I’d like to meet” since at least the year 1998 when I was living in L.A., just discovering his band Tool, and slowly catching on that there was something deeply intriguing about this group. At this rate, I think I need to accept that I’ll probably never meet him, but at least I got to read his book, right?

Back in early 2012 I wrote a post about all of the reasons why I think Keenan is an amazing musician a marketing genius. To build on that post, I wanted to share some additional insights as to why I think he’s such an inspiration and a perpetual wellspring of creativity.

Here’s what we can learn from Keenan as it applies to marketing:

  1. Know Your Why: Most people can tell you what they do, few can explain why. Throughout the book, Keenan always had a good idea for where he was headed next, but it took looking within himself to arrive at those answers. Whether it be walking 800 miles from Massachusetts to Michigan, paying attention to his recurring dreams, taking part in an Indian ritual, or simply creating a relaxing atmosphere in his own backyard, he consistently found ways to reconnect with his true self and operate according to his own wisdom as opposed to caving into the unquestioning norms of others.
  2. Always Stay One Step Ahead of Yourself: Upon finishing the book, the one sentence that stood out to be above all others was this:

    He was determined to stay ahead of the thing that pursued him, the echo of dismissal and underestimation, as if the mediocrity he must outdistance were his own.

    Individuals or companies that focus on outdistancing their own mediocrity by always considering how they can keep one step ahead of themselves will surely prosper.

  3. Keep Creating: Initiative is what propels us to create, and keep moving forward. Without initiative, we have boring, run-of-the mill, complacency, which inevitably leads to mediocrity and stagnation. Whether it be art school, writing song lyrics, drawing, making wine, opening restaurants … Keenan is always creating. In the book the author talked about how his mother suffered a stroke when he was young. This experience helped (even if subconsciously) to always remind him to take advantage of being able to see, speak, hear, and touch. So why not create? Action eliminates doubt.
  4. Tell the Story the Right Way: Stories help you to move your cause, your mission, your product or service further, faster, by helping your customers intertwine their story with your story. And telling stories well gets the job done faster. Below follow some selected quotes from the book having to do with the magic of storytelling:

    The L.A. youth of 1991 might not have been threatened by fire-breathing dragons, but they had their own monsters to slay, and they hungered for stories that would resonate with their fears and anger and healing quest. ‘Every step of the journey is an entire story in and of itself,’ Maynard would explain. ‘Every five minutes of life is a story if you tap into the archetype that transcends the individual and connects to everybody.’ And songs could do that, he knew, distill a story to its metaphorical essence, provide a useful allegory to spark understanding at a safe distance from which to work though one’s dilemma.

    And also:

    The story, like the very best of stories, need not have one outcome only. Its narrative, he thought, was like a spread of tarot card upon a table draped in bright red cloth. It was within his power to read in it one or another destiny, or many, and none an exile from the magic. With the slightest shift in perspective, the stories would branch like the stream in the valley in turnings at once parallel and divergent, and one story all the same.

    Keenan has always taken a keen interest in telling stories well, most notably through his lyrics and poems. His ability to tell stories invites a sense of connection that gives way to deeper meaning, as if letting you in on secret. As such, he’s been described as “a philosopher with a microphone,” while Tool’s music has been referred to as “hard rock for the thinking man.” (Both statements from the book.)

  5. Embrace the Intersection of Art and Science: Serving for years in the military allowed for Keenan to pursue art school upon his completion of active duty. For all of his interest in art, music, comedy, and theatrics, he was also very drawn to exploring math, patterns, structure, and order. His ability to straddle the tension between these opposites has breathed life into many of his endeavors. In marketing, being able to exercise both the right and left side of the brain is tantamount to achieving success.

In summary, while this book will mean many different things to many different people, for me it was ultimately a wonderful tale about staying true to yourself, acting on that which moves you, putting in the work required to achieve a vision, and then trusting in the universe that your plan is unfolding exactly as it’s meant to be. As stated in the forward by Keenan’s longtime friend and American visionary artist Alex Grey:

Maynard’s message points us back to ourselves, and the lesson of his life is our artistic challenge: be positively inebriated with life, be true to yourself, spiral out, keep growing.

These are of course timeless lessons, driven home all the more poignantly after discovering what was, after all, “the perfect union of contrary things.”

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