This week I published three new articles that you might want to check out: Moulding Habits and the Loop on forming new habits and eliminating the ones that form along the way. Same Eyes, Different Directions on why perspective matters and the importance of taking feedbacks.
And Old Normal and New Normal on the fluid meaning of the word “normal” in context to the pandemic. Moving on to the newsletter now.
This week’s newsletter is about the story of one of the most known and admired composers in classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven and about how he became so deaf to the point he couldn’t hear the notes of his instruments or the singer’s voice and how it later impacted his personal life and career as a musician.
As many of us might know, Beethoven was surprisingly stone deaf. It’s important to know that he wasn’t always deaf, it’s something that developed slowly. The cause is unknown but it is believed that his deafness was caused by syphilis, lead poisoning, typhus, or possibly even his habit of plunging his head into cold water to keep himself awake.
It started when he was just 26 with a buzzing and ringing sound in his ears that started irritating him. It steadily grew and became more and more noticeable even though he tried to keep it a secret. By 1812 when he was 44, Beethoven had gone completely deaf. His hearing ability had deteriorated so much that he couldn’t hear the sound of the instruments playing or the singers singing. Here’s an extract from a letter Beethoven wrote in 1801 to Dr Franz Gerhard Wegeler, one of his close friend.
“… For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people “I am deaf”. If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession, it is a frightful state…”
He had to start using notebooks as a way to communicate with visitors who wrote down what they wanted to tell or ask him. And in the same way, Beethoven replied by writing his response in his notebook. These are now known as the “Conversation Books“.
Okay, so here’s the obvious question – if he was couldn’t hear at all then did he stop writing and composing music? – No. In fact, Beethoven created his greatest works including the Moonlight Sonata, his only opera Fidelio and six symphonies during this period.
The deafness worked as a gift for Beethoven musically because he couldn’t hear the “prevailing compositional fashions.” It was entirely him and his imaginations that led to his greatest pieces. Arthur Brooks, while discussing this in an article published in the Washington Post writes:
“It seems a mystery that Beethoven became more original and brilliant as a composer in inverse proportion to his ability to hear his own — and others’ — music. But maybe it isn’t so surprising. As his hearing deteriorated, he was less influenced by the prevailing compositional fashions, and more by the musical structures forming inside his own head. His early work is pleasantly reminiscent of his early instructor, the hugely popular Josef Haydn. Beethoven’s later work became so original that he was, and is, regarded as the father of music’s romantic period.”
He ended up wrecking pianos by banging on them so hard to hear the notes. Beethoven had to go through a lot of struggle, frustration and isolation to achieve greatness and influence. His deafness forced him to become very private and only allowing selective friends to meet him.
This seems to be a very important lesson. Sometimes eliminating what society has to say from your ears does wonder. Beethoven proved that the outcomes of creative processes are better without the worldly clutter, even though it might take a toll on an individual’s mental health.
Deafness granted Beethoven complete artistic freedom – not being influenced by what other musicians are producing, not considering people’s comments about his work, just creating sound without even listening.
Have a great week,
This Week’s Clippings
1 – Podcast – I really enjoyed last week’s episode of the Tim Ferriss Show with Chip Wilson, a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist. They discussed intriguing things like goal setting, the winning formula, linguistic abstractions and Chip’s theory about turning 43. Here’s one of the paragraphs I highlighted:
“There’re many times when people can’t be in integrity. But to clean up the mess caused by lack of integrity is where more integrity occurs. So that’s the other thing. So the third thing that I think is most interesting to me is this thing about being responsible. I could sense that I was a complainer in life. You know, I complained, complained, complained, but you know, of course we all know that after two complaints, nobody would listen to me anymore. It took me a while to get that. But more interesting is that when I was responsible for whatever the situation was, then immediately I had the power to do something about it.”
2 – Podcast – This podcast episode about Unsticking Yourself and overcoming writer’s block was quite helpful. I ended up re-listening it three times, it’s short but gives a practical exercise for generating new ideas.
3 – Article – I enjoyed reading this Interview with Alex Honnold, a pioneer of “free solo” climbing. He answers many intriguing questions about risk-taking, problem solving, teamwork, efficiency and failure. In free solo climbing, there are no safety ropes and even a slight failure leads to death. Here’s a clipping from the interview:
“… when I’m free soloing, I’ve already prepared and want to stick to the plan. I don’t want to be improvising. That would bring more uncertainty and risk into the equation. So most of my creative processing comes on rest days when I’m lying around somewhere safe, just thinking about climbing. That’s when I’ll envision “enchainments”—combinations of climbs that people have never done before.”
(This issue is a part of the “Sunday Clippings”. Every week I compile various useful insights, learnings and my highlights from interesting articles and books in a short and skimmable email newsletter. I’d love for you to sign up here and receive the future issues directly to your inbox.)