The Thinking Drummer: The Funeral Exercise

About seven years ago, I found myself at a crossroads. Although I had been playing drums since I was a teenager and had accomplished a lot as a professional drummer, I had diverted from the musician’s life in order to make money when I was nearing an age where one is supposed to “grow-up.” I had found myself working in a corporate job I eventually wound up hating. I had never stopped practicing or playing in bands, so I was still very much in touch with my “inner drummer,” but drumming was not–and could not–be my primary focus due to the choice I made to take a corporate position.

I was not happy, but I did not know what action to take. The good news is that once I spent the time to think through the mental exercise described below–“The Funeral Exercise”–everything became clear and I knew exactly what I had to do. Here’s how I discovered this important goal clarifying test.

During a vacation around this time, I read “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” One of the main themes of the book is that happiness comes when one’s goals and actions are fully aligned. A very simple and seemingly obvious idea, but one that many people overlook. The first part of this equation, of course, is to figure out what your goals actually are.

“7 Habits” contains a great mental exercise designed to help you figure this out in a very deep and true way. Get ready, because the test is a little bit scary. But clear your mind and open your thinking so you can get the most out of it. Here it is, .excerpted from the book, as Stephen R. Covey wrote it:

In your mind’s eye, see yourself going to the funeral of a loved one. Picture yourself driving to the funeral parlor or chapel, parking the car, and getting out. As you walk inside the building, you notice the flowers, the soft organ music. You see the faces of friends and family you pass along the way. You feel the shared sorrow of losing, the joy of having known, that radiates from the hearts of the people there.

As you walk down to the front of the room and look inside the casket, you suddenly come face to face with yourself. This is your funeral, three years from today. All these people have come to honor you, to express feelings of love and appreciation for your life.

As you take a seat and wait for the services to begin, you look at the program in your hand. There are to be four speakers. The first is from your family, immediate and also extended —children, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who have come from all over the country to attend. The second speaker is one of your friends, someone who can give a sense of what you were as a person. The third speaker is from your work or profession. And the fourth is from your church or some community organization where you’ve been involved in service.

Now think deeply. What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate?

What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? Look carefully at the people around you. What difference would you like to have made in their lives?

Get the picture? This is such a deep exercise that it goes way beyond drumming. It gets to your core values and how you are leading your life in many, many other important ways. But for me, at the time that I imagined this scenario, it scared the daylights out of me, not because I was a bad person, or because I was leading my life in some sort of morally problematic way, but because I was not doing what I should have been doing with my life. The exercise tells us that the funeral is three years in the future.

When I looked ahead three years, based on where I was at that moment in 2004, there was no possible way that I was going to achieve the things that deep down, in my heart of hearts, I really dreamed about. And I use the word “dream” for a real reason. It’s my belief that happiness comes when you dream of something good, something desired, and figure out how to vigorously pursue it. Once I discovered drumming and got deeply into it, many of my dreams became about what I could do with the drums, and how the drums could be a big part of my life. To give you insight into the depth of my desire, I want to describe I dream I had. In my twenties, I dreamt that I went to see Tony Williams play with his quintet at The Village Vanguard. In that dream, while Tony was playing, he looked directly at me–there was no mistaking that he was looking at ME,and he winked and nodded his head. Tony was telling me that I was a good drummer, that I could do anything with the drums that I wanted to. I have never forgotten that dream and I’m sure I never will.

It was shortly after I completed the “7 Habits” funeral exercise that I decided I had to return to the drums in a major way. I started to plan my escape from corporate life.

In 2006, I quit my job and rented a practice space in Brooklyn, beginning my long journey home.