See What Sticks: Questlove's Guide to Success at the Office

Hi everyone, Amma Marfo here. Two quick things about me that you’ll need to know before we begin: (1) I am a reader. I am a library-loving, constant tome-carrying, unapologetic bibliophile. (2) If there’s anyone you will meet who can connect what she’s reading to the world around her, it’s me.

As such, I want to dedicate my time in this space to sharing with you what I’m reading, and how it could inform a budding professional’s daily life. 

In addition to being an avid consumer of books, I'm also a huge fan of music. With that said, if I'm a huge fan, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson is a COLOSSAL one. So great is Mr. Thompson's love of music that The Roots drummer and member of the Tonight Show band wrote a memoir that featured its own playlists. But amidst the words that detail the rise of the Roots and the love of music that fueled it lies a great deal of wisdom about life- wisdom that could help you navigate your job search and the early days in your new role. I've selected a few highlights from Mo' Meta Blues to consider as you pore through postings and embark on interviews. He's a wealth of wisdom where soul is concerned, but who knew he was such a great career coach too?

On Expectations

"You hear so much about the tortoise and the hare, and the beauty of that story is that the hare is always going to come smoking out of the gate, but you know that eventually you're going to see his car set up on the side of the road as the tortoise moseys past on the way to the finish line. But what if you're the tortoise and you keep getting passed by other tortoises? What if the band that was signed after you becomes huge? What if the band that opens for you becomes huge?"

Who among us has never fallen victim to the feeling Questlove describes above? Answer: no one. It's a completely normal feeling. Even the least competitive person can feel pangs of confusing envy watching friends get calls from their dream employers or go on interviews, especially if his or her own search is moving more slowly. And even if we find our own jobs to enjoy, we can be plagued by insecurity that our friends are making more money than us, or get to travel more, or have more appreciative bosses.

As several of The Roots' contemporaries such as Common, D'Angelo, Erykah Badu and Outkast started to surge in popularity in the early 2000s, even Questlove fell victim to these pangs. But as we now know, his time came- in a big way. So even when we feel as though we may not be there yet, we have to avoid letting our expectations dictate our satisfaction with our current state.

"Thing was, I had expectations, and that was a problem. I took every failure personally and every imperfect experience as a failure, so every time another artist hit the big time with a magazine cover or a top video, it was like an arrow in my side."

But it is helpful to remember that unless you're competing directly with a peer, their success and yours can be mutually exclusive. If your classmate gets a job before you, it means they found their fit before you. It doesn't mean that you won't find your fit, or that their fit will be better than yours. Each process is just different.

(You might find that this advice sounds a LOT like the advice given out to those looking for love. I have another post about that- check it out here!)

On Seeing Opportunities to Learn

Questlove cites the early days of his experience with Jimmy Fallon and Late Night as a a music re-education. He speaks specifically of a band from Brooklyn called the Dirty Projectors, a group that he was convinced he knew the style of. He assumed that their Brooklyn origin meant the same sound and attitude as many other groups from the same place. But he was taken aback when he was proven wrong, and created his first viral video with them.

It's easy to make assumptions about a job based on the name of the company or institution, or how the job description is written, or especially the title. In fact, Questlove did this when Jay-Z started to express interest in working with him. His familiarity with his Blueprint album, combined with his assumptions about Jay from his commercial success and eyes on entrepreneurship, allowed him to write him off initially. But after his road manager encouraged him to call him back, he found a kindred spirit in Mr. Carter.

The lesson that can be learned from this pair of stories, is that every moment that something makes you uncomfortable, that challenges you, that you feel compelled to make an assumption about, is an opportunity to learn. Take the time to look deeper beyond your assumptions and discomfort, and you can find new sources of inspiration (like the beautiful, full vocals that Questlove heard from the Dirty Projectors) or unlikely collaborators (when Jay-Z became the president of Def Jam, he ensured that The Roots had a deal, and he allowed Quest to produce the tour featured in the Fade to Black documentary).

On Finding the Courage to Create

In addition to featuring the tales of Questlove's life, and interjecting testimony from The Roots' longtime tour manager Rich Nichols, Mo' Meta Blues features a few letters between the book's "Bens"- cowriter Ben Greenman, and the editor Ben Greenberg. One of the last ones features a really interesting question: "what is the value, even the marginal value, of new music?" Greenberg makes an excellent point: we all have our few comfortable go-to albums, our what's the point in finding new things? Ultimately, he comes to the conclusion that we create new things to prove to ourselves that we can, to lay the foundation for a body of work we can call our own.

The first job that you find out of the gate will likely not be the one that allows you to create your masterpiece. But it will help you to progress beyond the finger paintings and crayon scrawling that build the skills needed to create it. Ben says it well when he asserts, "When I write fiction, I don't worry about whether the novel I'm working on is similar to other existing novels or whether the reader would be just as well served going to a library archive as to the bookstore." And the more of that fiction he writes, or the practice at art that we do, or time and energy we put toward any calling we find ourselves pursuing, the closer we come to creating those classics that later people will fall back on in lieu of what's new to them. But the practice has to come first. See your early career pursuits as that practice, preparing you for a future command performance.