Getting Better…

The following is a true story about how when one strives to be the best, he brings himself, and others, to heights previously unimagined.

Our story begins with the most successful band in the history of rock and roll, the Beatles.  The year was 1965.  The Beatles were sitting on top of the musical world.  In the previous three years they had charted no fewer than 40 songs.  24 songs of those sings reached the Top-40 with 11 becoming number-one hits.  In that short time the Beatles released no fewer than six albums that also reached number-one on the charts.

The Beatles “yeah, yeah, yeah” style and sound was a defining aspect of popular music, yet, all of that was about to change…

As 1965 was closing, the Beatles released an album titled Rubber Soul that was, in many ways, a departure from the musical model that had brought them their unparalleled success.  Rubber Soul was an album that defined the end of the Beatles existence as a strictly pop band and ushered in a new era in their history.  With Rubber Soul, the Beatles started recording more complex and intricate songs.  The topics they sang about became more reflective and thought-provoking.  And the sounds they made were unlike the music they had recorded before.  History speaks to the significant change that this album brought to the Beatles:

(Rubber Soul is) arguably the most important artistic leap in the Beatles’ career– the signpost that signaled a shift away from Beatlemania and the heavy demands of teen pop, toward more introspective, adult subject matter. It’s also the record that started them on their path toward the valuation of creating studio records over live performance. If nothing else, it’s the record on which their desire for artistic rather than commercial ambition took center stage– a radical idea at a time when the success of popular music was measured in sales and quantity rather than quality.” (pitchfork.com)

But, as great as the Beatles were, Rubber Soul didn’t just happen.  The Beatles didn’t just wake up one day and decide to invent a new way to record pop music.  Rather, they were influenced by others.  One of the artists that influenced the Beatles during this time period was a folk singer named Bob Dylan.  His album Highway 61 Revisited has been called the music that “started the 1960’s.”  In fact, according to Rolling Stone magazine, “Bob Dylan’s influence suffuses Rubber Soul, accounting for the tart emotional tone of (many of the tracks).”

As true artists, the Beatles were not content to just continue playing the chart topping pop music that brought them unmatched fame in the previous years.  As musicians, they listened to other artists and looked for ways to expand their own repertoires.  The Beatles were not just a bunch of guys playing good music, they were innovators.  They worked to understand music.  They listened, they copied, they invented, and they modified.  The result, Rubber Soul, was an artistic masterpiece that was unlike anything anyone could have previously imagined.

There is an essential point about professionalism and being one’s best that has to be made here.  There was no compelling reason, other than their desire to continue to explore music and their own talents and creativity that forced the Beatles down this road.

Put more bluntly, the Beatles had no reason to change.  Changing would be messing with a formula that brought them unmatched success.  The Beatles were already the top band of the era.  In August of that very year, they were the first rock band to hold a major stadium concert when they performed for over 55,000 screaming fans at New York’s Shea Stadium.  They also had recently starred in two hit movies.  The Beatles were the gold standard by which others were defined.

Change wasn’t just dangerous; it could have ruined their careers.  But the Beatles weren’t content with just being who they were.  They wanted more.

And it was this change that propelled them from being just a good band to being considered one of the greatest musical artists of any generation.  Yes, the music of the Beatles has been compared to that of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach.

Let’s contrast what the Beatles did with what we hear from others across professions including education.  Often times we hear people saying, “What I am doing is successful, there doesn’t seem any reason to change my approach.”  We also hear then old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Well, no one was more successful at that time than the Beatles…and, yet, they changed their approach.

Risks, especially creative risks, don’t always work.  Innovation is hard.  Change is frightening.  But when we change for the right reasons, because we know there is a better approach or a better way, than change can be transformative.  That type of change can be awakening.  Change for the right reasons can be inspiring.

When we change an approach because what we are doing is good for kids and good for learning, we are doing some of the most necessary work that can take place in a school building.

It has been said that good is the enemy of great.  Society doesn’t have great schools because we have good schools.  Once organizations are consider “good,” they often stop trying to get better.  This is why good is the enemy of great.

We know that we can’t stop improving when we get to good.  We have to continually push ourselves forward.  But even great isn’t always enough.  The Beatles were already great.  They wanted to get greater.

Rubber Soul became the first in a series of ground-breaking albums.  The Beatles music and their approach was changing.  But that’s only one part of the story.  The other part is how great thinkers and great doers are influenced by others.

The other part of the story demonstrates that when we are challenged, and when we strive to be the best, we can reach heights that we never thought were attainable.

Just as Bob Dylan’s sound inspired the Beatles, upon hearing Rubber Soul, another artist began to do some of the same self-reflection.  That artist was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys were considered the Beatles’ biggest rivals.  From 1962-1966, the Beach Boys has twenty-two singles crack the Top-40.  Like the Beatles, the Beach Boys were a hit-making machine.

Brian Wilson listened to Rubber Soul and realized that the music in that album was well beyond anything that his band had ever considered, let alone, played. Spurred on by the Beatles’ artistry, Wilson set before him the task of doing them one better.  While the rest of the Beach Boys toured the country, Wilson stayed behind in the studio writing some ground breaking tracks of his own.  It was said that when the rest of the band heard these songs, they were moved to tears; that’s how beautiful the music sounded.

With Brian Wilson’s tracks, the Beach Boys began recording their newest album.

The results were more impressive than any could have imagined.  Inspired by Rubber Soul, the Beach Boys created an album known as Pet Sounds.

Just as the Beatles had done, the Beach Boys were redefining their own sound and their own approach to music making.  No longer were the Beach Boys just singing about girls, and the surf and sun.  The Beach Boys were embarking on a transition of their own…

Pet Sounds became the Beach Boys’ most critically acclaimed album.  It is their masterpiece.

When we strive for success, when greatness becomes our singular purpose, the achievements we can attain can seem almost beyond the imagination.  When we allow ourselves to be immersed in striving for excellence, we can bring out abilities, talents, and skills that we never knew we had.

What is beautiful about this story is that the ideas of creative genius pushed highly successful artists to even greater heights.  Schools can do this.  So can teachers.  When we look into the classroom next door and we see teachers being great by using innovative approaches to push learning and student engagement forward, we can be inspired to reflect on our own practices and to grow ourselves.  That won’t just make us better…that’ll make every teacher better.

Through healthy competition and a positive spirit, we can become more successful than we ever thought possible.  Competition forces us to become even better versions of ourselves.

The amazing part about this story is that it doesn’t end with the Beach Boys’ signature album.

Upon hearing Pet Sounds, Paul McCartney of the Beatles was awed.  He felt that the Beach Boys had produced something of a higher quality than anything his own band had ever produced.  McCartney felt that the Beatles had been bested.

And being second best just wasn’t good enough.  So the Beatles returned to the recording studio with their most ambitious project yet…

***

Today, Rolling Stone Magazine ranks each the albums in this summary among the greatest ever.  Here are the top five albums of all-time according to Rolling Stone:

5.  The Beatles, Rubber Soul

4.  Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited

3.  The Beatles, Revolver (This album was the Beatles critically acclaimed follow-up to Rubber Soul. It is apparent that they were hitting a creative peak. The recording of this album was in its final stages when Paul McCartney first heard Pet Sounds.)

2.  The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds. (Time has proven Paul McCartney’s initial feelings correct. The Beach Boys’ most critically acclaimed album topped anything the Beatles had done to that point.)

But, the number one album of all time, a musical masterpiece in its own right, cannot be left out of this discussion.  You see, it was the influence of Pet Sounds that led the Beatles to record the number one album of all-time:

  1. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
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