05/10/2013 12:46 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

Improvising a Heroic Life: Whoever You Are, and Whatever You Do

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We need to understand more deeply and appreciate more fully the heroic path that's available to us in our work and lives, day to day.

The American clothier Brooks Brothers just sent its customers a remarkable email in which jazz great Wynton Marsalis was interviewed about his work and thought. At one point, he was asked about the meaning of his Pulitzer Prize winning oratorio, "Blood On The Fields," a work from 1994 that will soon be restaged. He explained:

"Years ago, I thought the message was 'freedom is to be found in trying to be free.' Now, I understand it to be about the redemptive power of sacrifice, the necessity of studying practical things, the elevatory comprehensiveness of love regardless of circumstance, the heroism in acting to influence your reality, and the enduring value of persistence."

In this new perspective is a remarkable list of things crucial for our freedom to have the successful and fulfilling lives we all want. We can benefit from considering each of them briefly.

The redemptive power of sacrifice: In his new book, Give and Take, Wharton business professor Adam Grant explains that there are three basic styles of relating to other people in business and life: Giving, Taking, and Matching. The paradox is that while some givers seem to suffer professionally, along various metrics, from the time and energy they commit to others, yet overall, givers tend to rise to the very top of their professions. Grant cites research to show that takers (those who use others) and matchers (those who give only to get, or because they've already gotten) tend to end up, for the most part, neither at the top nor the bottom, but somewhere in the middle. Often, giving clearly means sacrificing -- time, energy, attention, or money. When you give anything to others, there's at least an immediate sacrifice on your part of some limited commodity. For example, you release for the sake of someone else something you could have used for yourself. You give another person the time you could have put into your own projects, or the energy, or money. But there are many forms of sacrifice. And some involve only your own concerns: releasing something now for something later, or something small for something bigger. You sacrifice short-term profit for long-term gain. You give up what you want right now for what you really want, or need, or aspire to be or do. You may relinquish momentary shallow pleasures for enduring deeper purposes.

Any form of sacrifice, entered into freely and wisely, can be redemptive, as Marsalis says. This is true in two ways: When the sacrifice is for another person, you can redeem or, in a core sense of the word, deliver that other person from difficult circumstances that may otherwise keep him from making his best contribution to the world. And, in every case of responsible sacrifice, you're engaged in redeeming your time or energy or attention, delivering it from a lesser good. Plus, you're involved in a type of inner work that can transform, your own soul.

The necessity of studying practical things: Too much of what we learn in school and beyond involves facts that are of just theoretical or ephemeral interest and offer no opportunity for practical application. As a philosopher, it's always struck me as odd beyond words that we don't all study the practical insights of the great men and women of the past, those who have already encountered all the fundamental problems we face in our time, and achieved greatness by learning how to deal with them well. These people have left us their notes, their hard earned practical wisdom, that we, for the most part, never consult or study.

Of course, the category of practical things that need to be studied can encompass such diverse topics as how to maintain an automobile, keep track of your finances, stay in good shape, and cook a good meal, along with such deeper existential issues as how to handle anger, the best ways to deal with disappointment or pain, what goals are worthy of pursuit, and how the most elusive goods in life are to be attained. The study of such things is not a luxury, but a necessity for doing your best work and at the same time living your best life.

The elevatory comprehensiveness of love regardless of circumstance: Take any situation, or set of circumstances, however challenging or gratifying, and then imagine two people -- one reacting to that situation in accordance with a comprehensive love toward others as well as the self (experiencing and showing such qualities as empathy, understanding, compassion, caring, kindness, self-control, patience, encouragement, and helpfulness), and the other person completely devoid of these things, displaying their grim contraries instead. Which of those individuals is going to be lifted up in and by that situation? Which is going to be able to elevate others? Love does lift us up. And in that fact is to be found the secret of its deep practical power.

Nothing in the world that we do or say should be devoid of love. Great business requires love. Excellent political governance requires love. The best art depends on it. So does the best life.

The heroism of acting to influence your reality: I love this phrase. If you've ever tried to do something really new, you've likely felt the inertial resistance of a world less than thrilled to be presented with your innovation. Of course, if you're surrounded with supportive family members and true friends, or companionable work colleagues, you'll likely feel an inner circle of acceptance and even encouragement for any good idea you have. But go very far beyond that circle, and you'll start experiencing the resistance that awaits any effort to influence in even a small way the very big enterprise that we know as external reality.

The current is already flowing. Habits are firmly entrenched. Everyone knows who does what, where the experts are, how things are properly done, and why you're probably not worth noticing. And if you're right about the value of your new thing, then, of course, they're all wrong to shut you out, fail to listen, and react, at best, with cool disinterest to your great proposal. That's why any effort to change your enveloping reality, pursued over time, with unremitting effort, is heroic.

In Greek myth and literature, a hero is a person who undergoes an ordeal and shows courage in striving to make a difference in support of esteemed values. The hero rises above the norm. He or she gives everything to the quest. In mythology, the hero operated somewhere between the level of ordinary humanity and actual divinity.

There's a real form of heroism in any worthy struggle, and to the extent that we understand the truth of this, we can rise above the frustration, fear, exhaustion, and disappointment that's almost always ingredient in any effort to influence our intransigently stubborn world for the better. You're struggling? Good. That's a sign you're trying to do something new. So, struggle on with dignity, hero -- fight relentlessly and prevail.

The enduring value of persistence: This is a defining quality of heroism. The hero doesn't quit. Mere mortals often do. To be heroic is to rise above the fickleness that stands or falls with the transient tides of external support. Etymologically, persistence means the ability to stand firm through difficulties and carry on despite the cost. Nothing great was ever accomplished without a determined persistence of effort beyond what a normal person would think reasonable.

The enduring value of persistence is two-fold. First, it creates a resilient strength of soul. When you make yourself persist, despite all your tendencies to give up, you create within yourself a cluster of powerful dispositions -- the characteristics of fortitude, determination, and hope -- qualities that make persistence easier as time goes on. Secondly, persistence isn't just a task for one time but for all times. It's in that general sense an enduring value. It's also an enduring value because it is the value of enduring -- and the value of that value always endures. It will never come into your life without leaving you with a benefit and a blessing. Whether the focal project of your persistence is a success or not, the effort itself will be, in many ways.

Sacrifice, practicality, love, heroism, and persistence: These are all things of great value. But there's no strict formula as to how they should be brought into our lives. There's no written sheet music for successful living that lays out each note we should play, and when we should sound it. That's where the great jazz innovation of improvisation comes in. Within a framework of wisdom to chart our way forward, we have to improvise the details. And that's why there can never be a formula that encompasses every decision for us. At the core of wisdom as a practice is the skill to create, discern, and improvise. How then do you become a great improviser in the jazz of life? Practice is always the key.

In the same interview, Marsalis said: "My father explained that practicing was proportional to playing. A lot meant good. Very little, meant bad. I wanted to be good."

The jazz greats practice a lot, in the company of other top artists, from whom they learn. And there couldn't be better advice for life generally. Associate with great people. Network with sages. Hang out the best, with people you admire. And let their improvisations teach you. Watch them. And listen. They can coach you on your path. That way, you'll discover for yourself how sacrifice, practicality, love, heroism, and persistence can play out in your own life with amazing results.