February 22nd, 2010

Maslow's Musical Moment: What Johnny Cash's “Hurt” teaches us about potential

True confession: I am not a fan of country music.

I am very proud of the eclectic nature of my personal music collection: it includes alternative rock, world, jazz, classic rock, dance, electronica, lounge, hip-hop and even (gasp!) some rap. But, try as I might (and I have tried), I just can’t get into country music.

Which is why I was rather confused when my Pearl-Jam-Stone-Temple-Pilots-Nirvana-lovin’ sister told me that “Johnny Cash is really cool”. I become downright disoriented when my Rolling-Stones-worshipping brother told me the same thing. Then he played Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” for me.

And then I understood.

Actually, that brother being…well…who is he is, he had both versions of the song. Because, as it turns out, Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” is a 2002 cover of the same-titled song written and recorded by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails in 1994.

Now, Nine Inch Nails, being an industrial rock group, is way more my kind of thing. But–and here’s the odd thing– that evening when I heard both songs played one after the other, I had to admit, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the country boy nailed it. (Sorry about that bad pun.) Johnny Cash took Trent Reznor’s song and made it very much his own. It turns out that I am not alone in this opinion: this song won many awards, even as recently as June 2009 when was voted #1 in UpVenue’s Top 10 Best Music Covers.

Before you think that you have stumbled on a music blog: stay with me. My point is coming. I promise.

Why did Johnny Cash record this cover? He already had an impressive discography of great music behind him, and I somehow doubt that he needed the money. So, why on earth do this song?

Because he could. Because the “doing” was more important than the “getting it done”. Johnny Cash, after a great long career, was self-actualizing. Johnny was on the Fifth.

Listen carefully to this song. The video, which still chokes me up no matter how many times I have seen it, matches the mood that Johnny Cash must have been in: introspective, reflective, sad. Since the version of the song that I own is from his greatest hits CD, I am able to listen to it in juxtaposition to a career’s worth of hits. “Hurt” has none of the playfulness of “A Boy Named Sue”, none of the classic country rhythms of “Cry Cry Cry”. It is simply a soulful, sad song, with all the pain in the world seemingly poured into it, sung by someone who knew, perhaps, that he was near the end of his life and wanted to leave behind an epitaph. (Johnny Cash died in 2003, a few months after his wife June Carter, and about one year after recording “Hurt”.)

Even Trent Reznor was able to acknowledge that Johnny Cash had taken his great song and elevated to another level:  “…[Hurt] isn’t mine anymore… [it] winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.”

What can we learn from Johnny Cash’s marvelous cover of “Hurt”? Everything, of course.

If you feel stuck, bored or stagnant in your current career path, cross-over to another “genre”. If Johnny Cash, a classic country music singer from a “radically different era/genre”, can take a song written and sung by an industrial rock artist such as Trent Reznor, and do such a good job of it that even the original author is in awe, well then: why the heck can’t you? If you are a Project Manager who has done only IT projects, cross over and do a hardware nuts-and-bolts project. If you have only managed customer-driven projects, try doing a new product introduction project.

Cross over. You’ll be surprised at the potential you will unlock in yourself. I know I certainly was when I crossed over a few years ago.

The same is true for the members of your team. I once worked for a company where there was an invisible wall between one product department and another. When engineers started crossing over across that wall, we saw interesting things happen: people learning from each other, engineers realizing that their products were not that different after all, synergies and ideas and new ways of doing things. One of my ex-colleagues is doing the same thing with his engineering group: he is, in essence, assigning the country music songs to the industrial rock artists, and vice-versa. And, lo and behold, wonderful things are starting to happen: the potential is being unlocked in his team in wild and wonderful ways.

Much like when an legendary country music singer decided to do a cover of a industrial rock artist’s song. And reminded us all what he was made of.

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