“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”
– Shenryu Suzuki
When you think of Neil Peart and his contribution to music, you could arguably sum it up with one word: excellence. In fact, the pursuit of excellence is something that he described as being “my life’s tangent” (West 2020). Not a man to rest on his laurels, he continually pushed the envelope with regards to improving his ability and knowledge. And while this manifested most famously in the iconic music of Rush, it’s well-known that this mindset was applied to more than one musical environment. On his continual journey to become a better drummer, it is clear that Peart approached this with what Zen master Shenryu Suzuki called ‘beginner’s mind’. Listen to any interview with Peart and you’ll quickly get a sense of his almost child-like enthusiasm for music, culture, art and literature. So, while we will always be inspired and grateful for his musical legacy, perhaps the most important lesson this great man has given us might be how to approach life-long learning.
Fixed mindset vs growth mindset
In order to learn, you need to put yourself into a mindset that enables this to happen. Specifically, you need to believe that, whatever your previous background, education or achievements, your abilities and intellect are not static. In fact, they can be changed in ways that are meaningful, if not profound. Psychologist and researcher Carol S. Dweck is credited with creating the contrasting terms of fixed mindset and growth mindset. The fixed mindset maintains the belief that our intelligence and creative abilities cannot be modified – you are born with an allocation in these areas that cannot be changed, and success is the only measurement of being smart or skilled. Conversely, the growth mindset embraces the conclusions of neuroscience that the brain (and all its neural connectivity) is malleable and that our fundamental levels of skill, creativity and intelligence are all changeable through consistent, incremental gains. It is this mindset that embraces challenge and does not associate failure with unintelligence, but rather an opportunity for growth (Popova).
Neil Peart embodied growth mindset. Before embarking on the legendary Burning for Buddy project in 2007, he began to study with jazz legend Peter Erskine to improve his big band drumming. When he did so, he described the experience as “feeling like a 13-year old again” (West 2020). He knew that big band drumming was an area that was out of his comfort zone and that expectations would be high regarding his performance. Therefore, he put aside his previous achievements, embraced the challenge with enthusiasm and grew exponentially in his ability.
Commitment and resilience
While enthusiasm and self-belief are essential when it comes to learning, Peart also knew that there is no substitute for being fully committed and present with the process. This unwavering dedication to the pursuit of excellence was further evidenced as he studied with the great Freddie Gruber. A teacher to drumming icons such as Steve Smith and Dave Weckl, Gruber was known for deconstructing the physical aspects of drumming and applying these concepts in ways that helped his students with their specific musical goals. As Peart put it, Gruber “teaches you to dance on the drums” (ibid.). And while the prospect of unleashing new potential in his playing was a tantalizing one, he knew that a sustained period of hard work and self-discipline would be required to achieve his goals. After considering whether he could commit fully to this journey, he resolved that the outcome, as well as the process itself, justified the time, cost and effort required. This type of mindset resonates with that of world chess and Tai Chi Chuan champion Josh Waitzkin, who noted that “mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously” (2007:60).
While he will always be remembered as someone who inspired and influenced countless drummers and irrefutably helped defined the genre of progressive rock, Neil Peart also leaves us with a legacy of how to learn and live life to the fullest. In fact, he showed us how these two parallel objectives are actually inextricably linked. His commitment to excellence and his sense of responsibility to his fans are summed up well in the following quote, in which he shows both eloquence and humility:
“As a musician it’s my responsibility to get better and if people are admiring the work I do then that’s even more inspiration to improve and to take it up a notch. The hunger for improvement and exploration and all that really does derive from the acclaim. I know people give me that respect, so I feel I have to earn it”
Dweck, Carol S. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.
Suzuki, Shenryu. (2006) Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Waitzkin, Josh. (2007) The Art of Learning. New York: Free Press
West, David. (2020) Rush Drum Legend Neil Peart on the Pursuit of Excellence. Musicradar.com [online] Available at: https://www.musicradar.com/news/drums/rush-drum-legend-neil-peart-on-the-pursuit-of-excellence-604582 [Accessed 1 March 2020]
Popova, Maria. Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives. Brainpickings.org [online] Available at: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/01/29/carol-dweck-mindset/ [Accessed 3 March 2020]