Be a Ringo

Mike Press
5 min readMar 27, 2021

To get the most out of Global Service Jam and Global GovJam, find your inner drummer.

48 hours to change the world.

I’m not sure we changed the world, but we certainly changed something about ourselves. I’ve done ten of them so far, and each time I’ve learned something new — about letting go, about doing not talking, about being comfortable with ambiguity, about collaborating. Which is strange, because I thought I knew all I needed to know about those things. Up to my first jam I’d spent over three decades collaborating with others often in very uncertain territories.

The value of the Jam lies far less in the prototype outputs, interesting and inventive though they are, but much more about the experience created and how it challenges and changes our preferred ways of working.

I’ve seen students learn more from two days at Global Service Jam about collaboration and problem solving than their three years at university gave them. I’ve seen experienced public service professionals gain more creative confidence from Global GovJam than their entire career has equipped them with. I’ve seen city councillors drop in for thirty minutes and end up staying for two days because it’s opened their eyes to a totally different way of thinking and working.

As Adam and Markus have explained: “In a jam session, musicians come together to practice skills, learn new ones, challenge and build on each other’s ideas, meet new people, and have fun. Perhaps some of the ideas will be carried forward, but that is not the main focus. Importantly, they do not come to talk about music, they make it.”

Looking back at my ten jams, trying to make sense of that whole learning experience (and in the spirit of the music jam) I’ve come to the conclusion that you get the most from it, and contribute best to the experience of others if you try to do one thing, and one thing only.

Be a Ringo.

In the context of jams there are six elements to this.

1. Make the team shine

His job was to let the quality of the songs and the musicianship sparkle — and his drumming reflected that. The totally different styles he uses on She Loves You, Rain and Ticket To Ride (and to be honest you could choose any songs to make this point) drive the songs forward emphasising their passion, drama and remarkable melodies. At a jam you don’t have the opportunity to put on solo displays of your own brilliance. You have just enough time to settle into a team, work with them to achieve something, and find how you can help everyone gain the confidence to contribute. The challenge is to discover rapidly what your team mates can bring to your collective endeavour and what you need to do to help them. There’s a rather special joy to be found in being part of a jam team — creating and collaborating over such a brief and intense period.

2. Play to your strengths

Every Beatle could play the drums, but only one could act. The Beatles’ first two movies were vital in making them the first truly global pop phenomenon, projecting their personalities to the world. The problem they faced was that none of them could act — apart from Ringo. So in all the movies, Ringo starred. Being a Ringo at a jam doesn’t mean playing a supporting role, but quickly finding how your unique strengths can fit in alongside those of others and making full use of them where that’s needed. This could be described as a form of selfless creativity — or as Csíkszentmihályi describes it: a state of flow. The jam format opens us up to chance and spontaneity, allowing us to play to — but not be constrained by — our strengths. And it allows us to build on those strengths by taking risks.

3. Be experimental

Ringo’s unique sound was partly a result of what he did to his kit — tightening top heads and loosening bottom ones, stuffing blankets into the bass drum, draping tea towels over the toms and resting a pack of cigarettes on the snare. His playing on songs like Strawberry Fields and A Day in the Life, showed an equally experimental approach to his style of drumming. Experimenting should be at the heart of all design practices, but too often our professional roles constrain and limit us. A jam gives us a wonderful opportunity to try out different ways of working, to learn new skills and to simply play in a risk-free environment.

4. Be kind

“Ringo is Ringo… He’s every bloody bit as warm, unassuming, funny, and kind as he seems. He was quite simply the heart of the Beatles.” As John Lennon suggests, kindness was a valuable quality he brought to the group. He was often the peacemaker, seeking conciliation between three very strong egos. While jams often talk about the need to leave titles and egos at the door, a few can get smuggled in which in the pressure cooker of a global jam can make for difficulties. It takes kindness, humour and warmth to sort out the occasional problems that can arise. But more than qualities that help us to negotiate problems, they provide us with the ideal mindset to work convivially with others — to learn, share and be open to new ideas and approaches.

5. Be democratic

As Paul said in the movie A Hard Day’s Night: “We’re a community, majority vote, up the workers and all that stuff.” Whether we’re in a band or at a jam, we work democratically with others, ensuring every voice is heard and respected, every talent given space to grow, every individual allowed opportunity to learn. Every person brings their own remarkable and unique talents — and that is what makes the jam experience so special. Perhaps the most important quality we can bring that enables us to be democratic and engage in constructive discussion, is to be an active listener — to be able to pay complete attention to the people we work alongside. Indeed, there is a strong argument that listening and democracy are vital partners. As any drummer will tell you, to be good at the craft of drumming you have to be a good listener. But the act of drumming also provides a chemical impulse to be a better co-operator: “Oxford psychologists found the endorphin-filled act of drumming increases positive emotions and leads people to work together in a more cooperative fashion.”

6. Be your own Ringo

I grew up with The Beatles, so the Ringo analogy works for me, but perhaps not for you. Really, this is about finding your inner drummer— listening to those around you, seeing how you can work with them to create something that reflects the unique strengths and passions of the group. In her recent wonderful book about Lindy Morrison, drummer of The Go-Betweens, Tracey Thorn describes “drum patterns whose cardiac arrhythmia echoes all the anxious palpitations of the lyrics”. The drummer echoes, amplifies, complements, enhances: perhaps completes. Later, Tracey quotes from an essay by Jonathan Lethem in Rolling Stone in which he defines the role of the drummer: “I mean, songwriters come and go, but the drummer is the band.”

The drummer is the band.

So take a look at the drum kit at the top of this page. Settle yourself onto the stool and pick up the sticks. You know what you have to do, and of course you’ll get by with a little help from your friends.