How to Climb Out of a Hole

Feelin’ the blues? Let this tale of rock n’ roll resurgence revive your spirit.

In 1990 Alice in Chains burst onto the music scene with their dark, grunge sound and the unique harmonizing style of guitarist Jerry Cantrell and lead vocalist Layne Staley.

By 1996 the Seattle band had released three top-selling studio albums, a trio of EPs, and corralled legions of fans with songs such as “Man in a Box,” “Rooster,” and “Down in a Hole.”  The future looked as bright as the stage lights until Staley added his name to the long, sad list of musicians with lives cut short when he died of a drug overdose in 2002.

At that point, as far as Cantrell and his bandmates were concerned, the last chapter of Alice in Chains had been written.

As the years passed the surviving members of the band began jamming, and eventually began kicking around the idea of recording again. In 2009 Alice in Chains released a new CD–their first in 14 years—as a tribute to their fallen friend. Touring in support of the now-certified gold record, the band recently released their fourth single from the album.

Cantrell handles much of the lead vocal work on “Black Turns Into Blue” along with newcomer William DuVall. But before the album’s release there were many skeptical fans of the opinion that no one could match Staley’s stage presence, personality, and especially his amazing vocal range. Cantrell himself knew this to be true. He also knew he couldn’t let that stop him.

In interviews Cantrell explained how he found the confidence to reunite the band and tackle the microphone despite the long shadow cast by his friend. He remembered how Staley had believed in him and regularly encouraged him as a singer—an unusual trait in a business often dominated by paranoid, ego-laden frontmen. Cantrell recalled one particular poignant exchange:

Jerry Cantrell: “I just can’t sing like you, man.”

Layne Staley: “Well then learn to sing better.”

After several years of mourning, Cantrell took that advice to heart and got to work writing and recording; the ghost of his friend as his muse and inspiration. But it was also about a new beginning and letting go of the past.

The band recorded the title track in the studio with none other than Elton John on piano. (In a full-circle twist of fate, the first concert Staley had ever attended was an Elton John show.)

In an interview with Spin, Cantrell said,  “(Stuff) happens and things are not going to work out the way you want them to all the time in life. You get knocked (down), like you inevitably will, and it’s really about how you go about picking yourself back up. This is our process, this is what we’re doing.”

It’s a great story of a band that found its way back from the brink. There will always be others better than you.  But that shouldn’t discourage you from improving your abilities and honing your strengths and talents. You have a right to do your thing. There will always be reasons to quit–and people encouraging it–but that doesn’t mean you have to listen.

Somewhere there’s an audience that needs what you’ve got, and a stage waiting for you to step up and give it your all.

Crack the Whip! Life lessons from Indiana Jones

Do you sometimes wish you could don a fedora, grab a bullwhip, and add some adventure to your life? Here’s how to tap some of Indy’s best traits as you tackle each day.

Indiana Jones is everyone’s favorite big-screen hero who uses his wits as well as his fists to get what he’s after.

One of the most interesting aspects of  the character is that Indy doesn’t have any super-powers, he gets knocked down over and over just like those of us in the real world.

While the character’s exploits are created on storyboards, there’s no reason you can’t work on the script of your own life as well. Here are some tips you can use to start putting your own plan into action.

What do you treasure? When asked the importance of the “Shankara” stones by Short Round—the pint-size Temple of Doom sidekick—Indy replies, “Fortune and glory, kid, fortune and glory.” Have you taken time to decide what you really want out of life? What does fortune and glory mean to you?  Do you have a plan on how to get it, and what you’ll do with it?

Write it down. In most adventure movies, the call to action usually begins with something in writing: a mysterious old map, a cryptic code, or ancient runes on a tablet. We intuitively know that when something has been written down—or set in stone—it’s tangible.

This is true in the real world, what gets written down tends to get done. You can put this power to work for you by making your big goal come alive with a written mission statement and a business plan. If you like paper, use a classic Moleskine notebook. If you prefer pixels, try the Nightingale Conant mission-statement builder. Or go ahead and knock yourself out with a chisel and slab of basalt.

Face your fear. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is shocked to find his pilot Jock’s pet snake “Reggie” in the cockpit. “I hate snakes, Jock, I hate ‘em!” To which Jock replies, “C’mon show a little backbone, will ya!” It’s a humorous scene that sets up a fear the hero’s going to have to face down as the film progresses.

Indy will take on Nazis, but snakes will stop him in his tracks. Indy’s ophidiophobia presents a particular challenge since his exploits require that he enter dark passages where snakes like to hide.

Quite often we also have fears linked directly to our professional pursuits, fears that are holding us back. Fear of starting that business, a fear of public speaking, a fear of rejection. Sometimes even a fear of success. What scares you?  Identify it and take steps to face it down and vanquish it.

Be an open-minded skeptic. As a scientist, Indiana Jones is suspicious of “magic and superstitious Hocus Pocus.” Yet it is revealed time and again that there are mysterious forces at work in the world. You don’t need a PhD to adopt an inquisitive mindset. Make an effort to regain the sense of wonder and amazement you once had as a child.

Study a new language or learn a new skill.  Become an expert in something. Train for a marathon. Read passages from the teachings of different faiths. Look up at the night sky and marvel at the same stars the ancients saw. Visualize your place in the universe and get excited by the possibilities.

Take your lumps. “Dr. Jones, once again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.” Who can forget the opening sequence in Raiders when Indy reluctantly hands over the golden Chachapoyan idol to his rival Belloq?

A trademark of the Indiana Jones movies is that despite Indy’s Herculean struggles, he often loses the very thing he’s after. The mystical Crystal Skull is returned to the temple, the U.S. government confiscates the Ark, and the Holy Grail is hopelessly lost in a crevasse. Along the way Indy ends up getting punched, shot, beaten, and whipped. But he doesn’t give up, and it’s that relentless nature and ability to adapt that sets him apart.

Don’t let the prospect of failure dissuade you either. Others will take their shots and you’ve got to roll with the punches, dust yourself off and jump right back in. In most cases you’ll come away from the experience stronger and wiser than if you hadn’t dared at all.

Know what you do. What Indiana Jones does for a living is nicely summed up in one scene by army man Major Eaton; “Dr. Jones, professor of archaeology, expert on the occult, and obtainer of rare antiquities.” It’s a great “elevator statement” that introduces us to the character of Indiana Jones and  tells us everything we need to know about him.

Regardless of what you do for a living, you need a short, snappy way to sum up your expertise and what you can offer others. It should establish your credibility and succinctly tell others what it is you do. (Click here for tips on writing your own.)

Be focused on the moment. In Temple of Doom lounge singer Willie tells Indy, “You’re gonna get killed chasing after your damn fortune and glory!” To which he replies, “Maybe. But not today.” Indiana Jones is a man who—as Eckhart Tolle would say—understands the power of  “the now.” Indy is all about surviving and moving ahead but to do that he needs to stay focused on the urgency of the moment.

Too often we’re distracted by persistent thoughts of the past and the future. Neither will help us through the current predicament. Make an effort to be in the moment and give whatever you’re doing your full attention and effort. You’ll get more things done and enjoy life more.

Get away from your desk. In his day job as a professor at Marshall College, Dr. Jones has mundane lectures to prepare and stacks of papers to grade. He has busy work just like the rest of us. But to find valuable treasures, Indy knows he can’t spend all of his time at a desk or podium. He needs to get out of the office to make things happen. This isn’t easy, even for Indy. In The Last Crusade, he resorts to dodging appointments with a crowd of students by escaping out of his office window.

Your life is playing out in real time, and you have to make the most of it. Do something today to break out of your comfort zone. Make getting out of your office to learn new things, meet new people, and follow up on leads a part of each week. You’ll be surprised how interesting things start happening.

Decide on a bold objective. All of the Indiana Jones plots contain what famed director Alfred Hitchcock called a “MacGuffin.” A MacGuffin is the object of the hero’s quest, such as the Ark of the Covenant, or the Holy Grail. It has to be compelling and pose a challenge to obtain. It’s what keeps the story moving and the main characters motivated.

So what’s the MacGuffin you want to chase? What gets you moving and motivated? Decide what it is, and go after it with Indy’s same grit and persistence.

Bullwhip or not, you may find you can really become an action hero in your own life.

Remembering 9/11

I took this photo from my downtown NYC office nine years ago today. It was moments after United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower at 9:03 a.m.

A mere 20 minutes before, I was browsing in the concourse at the Mall at World Trade Center.

Much has changed since then. Much has stayed the same.

I dedicate this to the people who perished; to the people who risked it all to help; and to those who made it out to tell the story so that no one will ever forget.  All are all leaders.

I wrote about it here.