What It Takes

What It Takes

Brian Wilson, Warren Buffett, Albert Einstein, and Ruth Stone

By Callie Oettinger | Published: May 5, 2017

[REMEMBER: Registration for Shawn’s Story Grid Workshop closes tonight. Haven’t checked it out yet? Dig in here: Story Grid Workshop]

In the documentary Beach Boys: The Making of Pet Sounds, Al Jardine said Brian Wilson “sees things I don’t think the rest of us see and hears things, certainly, that we don’t hear. He has a special receiver going on in there, in his brain.”

What is that special, indefinable “it” about Brian Wilson? Is it really related to seeing, hearing, and receiving? And, if it is, what’s different about how he sees, hears, and receives? What of the rest of us? Why aren’t we all walking around composing “God Only Knows” or any other Wilson and Tony Asher masterpiece?

What Are You Hearing?

In his book The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, Dr. Norman Doidge shared the work of Dr. Alfred Tomatis, whose groundbreaking work identified “the ear as a battery to the brain.”

From the chapter “A Bridge of Sound” in The Brain’s Way of Healing:

In the late 1940s Tomatis continued to attack the conventional wisdom that the larynx is the key organ for singing. He showed that contrary to conventional wisdom, singers with bass voices did not have larger larynxes than those with higher voices. Human beings aren’t constructed like pipe organs, in which larger tubes produce lower sounds. Powerful tenors sing at frequencies from 800Hz up to 4,000 Hz but so do baritones and basses; the only difference is that the baritones and basses can add lower notes, because they can hear lower notes. He summed it up by saying provocatively “One sings with one’s ear,” a statement that caused much laughter.

But when scientists at the Sorbonne presented their studies of his work to the National Academy of Medicine and the French Academy of Sciences, they concluded that “the voice can only contain the frequencies that the ear can hear.” The idea came to be called “the Tomatis effect.”

Tomatis didn’t stop there. He invented a device called the “Electronic Ear” to help struggling singers. The device blocked out different frequencies, which trained the singers’ ears to hear the frequencies with which they’d been struggling/missing. By exercising their ears, they strengthened their voices, just as they might engage in exercise to strengthen other parts of their bodies.

Among us non-singers, Tomatis found, too, that the frequencies we hear can be influenced by our countries of origin. For example, he found that the French “hear in two ranges, 100 to 300 Hz and 1,000 to 2,000 Hz. Speakers of British English hear in one higher range, from 2,000 to 12,000 Hz, which makes it hard for French people to learn English in England. But North American English involves frequencies from 800 to 3,000, a range closer to the French ear, making it easier for the French to learn.”

More from Doidge:

Arguably [Tomatis’] most important discovery was that the ear is not a passive organ but has the equivalent of a zoom lens that allows it to focus on particular noise and filter others out. He called it the auditory zoom. When people first walk into a party, they hear a jumble of noises, until they zoom in on particular conversations, each occurring at slightly different sound frequencies.

Jardine’s comment that Brian Wilson hears what others don’t hear, might be right. It’s possible that Wilson tunes into frequencies and zooms into sounds/rhythms/conversations that the rest of us aren’t accessing. Even more remarkable is that Wilson is deaf in his right ear, which is the dominant ear for the majority of us. By accessing sound through his left ear, he’s automatically processing sounds outside the norm.

What are You Seeing and Receiving?

In the same Beach Boys documentary, Wilson mentioned that he “copied The Four Freshman singer, the high singer,” when he wrote “Surfer Girl.” He tapped into a musical influence and merged it with interests of his peers. While he didn’t surf himself, he understood—he saw—the appeal of the surfing culture, just as he did the car culture, just as he did the raw fact that the lives of most of his peers revolved around school and dating.

There’s a difference in this sort of seeing, just as there is in hearing as researched by Tomatis. There were millions of other guys Wilson’s age seeing the same thing. Even Wilson’s own bandmates saw the cars and girls and surfing culture, but . . . They didn’t do what Wilson did.

Why?

In the documentary Becoming Warren Buffett, Buffett was asked the following question:

“What are the key indicators you look for in companies before making an investment?”

He replied by talking about Berkshire’s investment See’s Candies:

“If you give a box of See’s chocolates to your girlfriend on a first date and she kisses you . . . We own you. . . We could raise the price of the boxes tomorrow and you’ll buy the same box. You aren’t going to fool around with success. The key here is the response.”

Buffett is right. My godmother introduced me to See’s Candies’ boxes of chocolates over forty years ago. I loved them then—and now she’s gifting them to my kids today. That’s loyalty.

But why does Buffett think like that? Why did he see that potential in See’s Candies? Just like Brian Wilson’s peers could see the response to songs about surfing, cars, relationships, and school, Buffet’s peers could see the response to the gift of a box of chocolates. What’s the difference between Buffett, Wilson, and their peers?

Why do they find creative configurations for random puzzle pieces, when all anyone else sees are mismatched puzzle pieces?

Exposure and Experience

Wilson had to be exposed to The Four Freshman and Buffett to See’s Candies—and to what was going on in the world around them—in order to connect songs and products to cultures. In order to do this, they needed experiences that would allow them to connect the dots. This comes from constant exposure and experimentation—paying attention to what does/doesn’t work in the surrounding world, and learning from it.

This is reading everything you can read, listening, painting, practicing whatever it is you love over and over and over again.

For Buffett and Wilson every song composed and deal made can be filed under practice, which brings more experience.

Internal Engine

To do all the things mentioned above, there has to be an engine, a drive to capture it all.

In a TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert told a story about how poet Ruth Stone described poems coming to her, on a “thunderous train of air”:

It would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet.

She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page.

And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.”

And then there were these times—this is the piece I never forgot—she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she’s running to the house and she’s looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it’s going through her, and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand it and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first.”

I love this story. It’s like capturing a dream. You have to write it down the second you wake or you risk it floating off to Never Happened Land.

What powers an engine like Stone’s or Buffett’s or Wilson’s?

I think it’s curiosity.

Have you watched the new National Geographic series, Genius? In the first episode, a young Albert Einstein is driven by a need to know. Curiosity is at the helm, pushing him for answers.

Why Does Any of this Matter to You?

Within the first few minutes of the Beach Boys documentary, David Marks said, “People think ah, I can do that, but they can’t. It’s only something Brian could do.”

Wilson, Buffet, Williams, and Stone had/have a gift for connecting the dots. Their ability to bring together all the information coming their way—whether in dreams, Muse-driven trains, or cocktails parties—is extraordinary.

Do I think we can all do what they do/did? No.

Do I think we can tap into what I’m guessing to be qualities existing within their creative process? Yes.

We talk about hard work on this blog all the time.

What we don’t talk about as much is what we see and hear. Sometime you have to lift your head from your work and process what’s going on around you. What do you really hear and see? And of what you’re receiving, is it the full experience or are you missing out on an entire cocktail party?

The other part of lifting your head is this:

Big ideas aren’t necessarily a sign of genius, but of someone with the capacity to make connections between all the dots swirling around them.

How often do you hear about those ideas happening after an all-nighter of working?

They arrive during a hot shower and in the seconds before you go to sleep. They float in on a song, or a well-crafted sentence—and come along just when we least expect them—sending us flying like Ruth Stone to capture them.

We can do all the work and practice in the world, but minus the mental gifts Wilson, Buffett, Einstein, and Stone were born with, I think the thing we need most is to really see and hear the world around us and within us. Just as Tomatis helped improve the voices of singers, I think his same methods of tapping into different frequencies can help guide our creative endeavors. And when I say frequencies, I’m not necessarily talking just about traditional “sound.” Remember, Beethoven composed even after losing most of his “hearing.” (Maybe he did this by relying on “bone conduction?” *Read Doidge’s book.)

Are you tuned into all the frequencies possible?

Posted in What It Takes

16 Responses to “Brian Wilson, Warren Buffett, Albert Einstein, and Ruth Stone”

  1. May 5, 2017 at 6:17 am

    So, there is a scientific argument as to why Europeans learn English from American TV/Culture. I was in Birmingham, England, three years ago and spoke to a young Dutch woman whom I first thought was Canadian because of her accent. Also I was on the DART in Dublin seventeen years ago and overheard a conversation a Dublin woman had with a Danish guy who learned English in America; I assumed he was American.

    Also, lest we forget, the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was written in German. It was the Scots-Irish who ensured American spoke English.

    Young posh Irish women in Dublin speak using put-on American accents; which bugs the Hell out of me. :)

    • Callie Oettinger
      May 5, 2017 at 8:32 am

      Desmond,

      Thanks for your comment. Doidge mentioned Tomatis finding that people learning a new language picked up the accent of the instructor. Makes sense since we all pick up the regional accents of where we grow up. Interesting to read the how/why background.

      ~Callie

  2. May 5, 2017 at 7:38 am

    Wonderful piece, Callie. And here, you did what Wilson, Buffet and Stone did: you connected the dots. You describe the pattern that unites the contributions these minds gave the rest of our “tribe.”

    “By accessing sound through his left ear, he’s automatically processing sounds outside the norm.” An argument might be made here, though peripheral, is that sound came to Wilson through the side of his brain that is not usually the cognitive side. So, the way in which the sounds were filtered was less about the words, and more about the context.

    The brain is a pattern detection mechanism. It’s no surprise that some do it better than others, or differently. But, as you have here, it is nearly a moment of grace when we are able to share in what they see and hear, the fruit of their art, and yes, I think Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway can be described as a work of art.

    Galaxies in the sky and conch shells on the beach share the spiral. Life itself is a response to pattern.: day night, summer winter; it’s wonderful that we can partake of this consciously, and that it can be communicated as you have here.

    Thank you.

  3. Mary Doyle
    May 5, 2017 at 8:00 am

    Thanks for a wonderful post Callie! I agree that it’s curiosity that “powers these engines.” It’s also a willingness to be in the present moment and to pay attention to what is right there, not an easy thing to do in this world full of distractions.

    • Callie Oettinger
      May 5, 2017 at 8:33 am

      Thanks, Mary! Taking he time to be curious – to follow an idea all the way through – isn’t easy. ~C

  4. Rose
    May 5, 2017 at 8:10 am

    What I see is that you’ve conflated the names Ruth and Rose. Did you notice? Being a Rose, I’ve found that the two names are mixed up all the time. I’ve always wondered why. They only share 1 letter (R).

    Ruth is a very popular character name yet few people alive today actually have that name.

    Great piece with a hidden puzzle.

    • Callie Oettinger
      May 5, 2017 at 8:18 am

      Ouch. No, I didn’t notice… It’s amazing how many time you can read a piece and then ignore the error in the headline (and in paragraphs below…) Thanks, ROSE! ~C

  5. May 5, 2017 at 8:32 am

    Least we forget (and get depressed we weren’t born with super talents) these superstars often (maybe always) had a parent(s) who instilled a culture and provided 10,000+ hours prior to brain maturity.

    Tiger Woods was hitting golf balls before he was potty trained, Steven King was writing stories as a child, and Brian Wilson, like Mozart, was being taught music from birth.

    Buffet’s father was an investor and businessman and Einstein’s father was a mathematician and engineer, Wayne Gretzky’s family put him in ice skates before he could walk.

    Some of this “hearing” is lost to us adults. We cannot go back and get 10,000 hours in before puberty in a chosen field.

    So if the surest way to get into Major League Baseball is simple (be born to a father who played in the Major Leagues) but impossible to control…

    What do we do?

    Callie, you wrote: “Do I think we can all do what they do/did? No.

    Do I think we can tap into what I’m guessing to be qualities existing within their creative process? Yes”

    I agree, for sure, but the limitation is that we cannot go back to being children. We can learn, however, and figuring out how to learn is key. Well, and then doing it.

    Btw: Love & Mercy was a great flick (2014) and after watching that and Straight Outta Compton I’m pretty sure if a guy looking like Paul Giamatti shows up to help you, it would be smart to run.

  6. Dick Yaeger
    May 5, 2017 at 1:52 pm

    Callie,

    I recently bought hearing aids. Put it off as long as I could, but… Today’s technology allows pencil-eraser size devices with frequency control up to 48 channels. You can switch through dozens of preset programs that cut out restaurant noise, wind noise, set for music or theatre, ad nauseam. I wanted one designed to filter out my wife’s “honey do’s ,” but alas, the audiologist was uncooperative. I suggest you start a venture that sells optimized-frequency programs for learning music, languages, etc.

    Dick

  7. May 5, 2017 at 2:32 pm

    Great piece.
    The lesson for me here is getting the right mix of ‘radio silence’ and ‘open channel’. I’ve found my curiosity muscle gets stronger the more I use it. Especially as I walk around – why is that teddy bear left on the footpath? What are those two men hunched over talking? What are they talking about? The world is ripe with ideas for the taking if you’re open to them.

  8. May 6, 2017 at 3:37 am

    Callie,

    Of all your posts, this is my favourite so far. We are taught we have five senses in school but physiologists tell us we have nine. There are the basic five we all know about. The other four are our sense of temperature, our sense of pain, our sense of balance and acceleration, and our sense of where our body is in the space around us and in relationship to all of our other body parts.

    Native American wisdom says we have 357 sensory perceptions in our bodies, and we use these “antennas of awareness” constantly to make sense of our world and our body in it.

    When we learn to recognize and feel the many sensory perceptions we have throughout the day, we develop our intuition. (Intuition is highly attuned sensory perception.) We become more creative and more brilliant like Einstein. (Einstein used “intuitive choice” to help him figure things out. He said that all great achievements in science start from intuitive choice.) We also develop the skill of empathy. Intuition and empathy are partners in the body.

    Therefore,developing our sensory perceptions is really important. We learn to be “in the flow.” We become more intuitive, more creative, and more empathic. (Art really is good for the world. In the end, it might be the only thing that saves us.)

    When we are attuned to our sensory perceptions full throttle, we capture poems by the tail, songs by the throat, and scientific formulas by the equation as they thunder or float through the cosmic ether.

  9. May 6, 2017 at 9:51 am

    Callie,
    Great post, as usual. I listened to Droige’s book a few years ago, looks like I’ll need to re-listen. It is so packed with fascinating information that it is certainly worthy of a few reads/listens.

    Seven years ago I was at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language. It is academic/government think tank with the sole purpose of bigger, faster, stronger in foreign language acquisition/master for the intelligence community. Cool place, truly bright people. Experts in pedagogy, cognitive psychology, language acquisition, linguistics, the only people without PhDs were myself and the two Soldiers I brought with me.

    In one lab, one curious PhD was putting brain-caps on people and measuring how the brain processed improper grammar.

    I asked him, “Have you ever mapped an idea?”

    Dmitri, “You mean like an ‘aha’ idea?”

    Me, “Yes, exactly”.

    Dmitri, “They all look the same.”

    I also read “Imagine” by Jonah Lehrer, I think he got into some trouble about plagiarism/fiction in this book–but I read it before the controversy.

    He talks about ‘exhausting the linear thought process’ before the gestalt thinking can take over. Numerous other ‘ingredients’ to creativity, but one was the cacophony of different stimuli. Basically answers why more art/business/creativity happens in NYC than PigsNuckle, AR.

    The ideas all map the same. We have to do the hard work to exhaust our linear efforts before we can relax and ‘hear/sea/understand’ how the pieces fit together.

    I think most of us don’t go all the way to exhaustion, it is more attractive to check our phones…

    Have a great weekend.
    bsn

  10. May 6, 2017 at 11:35 pm

    I once had a short story arrive intact in my head while I was peeling potatoes. It was the strangest experience. One minute I was thinking about nothing in particular. The next an old, male voice was telling me the story of “The Redhead”, only all at once, from beginning to end.

    Needless to say, dinner was at that night.

    A poem to my father arrived while making the bed.

    I understand exactly what Ruth Stone means.

  11. May 7, 2017 at 10:37 am

    This. Was. Amazing! Great stuff. Loved, loved, loved this post.

  12. May 9, 2017 at 12:36 pm

    I had no idea that Wilson is deaf in one ear. I eagerly awaited the release of Pet Sounds (got it for Christmas that year) and will put the documentary on my viewing list.

    As for catching that “thunderous train of air,” I once wrote down a story idea in church before Mass started. The piece that resulted garnered personal and encouraging rejection slips. I’m getting there!

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