The Magic of Bill Murray

“If you can consciously let yourself get taken and see where you go, that’s an exercise. That’s discipline. To follow the scent. Let yourself go and see what happens, that takes a bit of courage.”
– Bill Murray

The comic legend Bill Murray has created decades of urban folklore by simply showing up in odd, random places and interacting with people. Did he really take a french fry from someone’s plate and whisper, “No one will believe you.” Did he really ride a bike in a Walmart wearing a fireman’s uniform, squirting a water pistol? Who knows for sure.

But there is video of him washing dishes at a party in Scotland, playing tambourine at a house party in Austin, and crashing a private karaoke room in New York. And there is a beautiful story from a father who met Bill outside of a hospital and watched him spend half an hour on his knees in the cold, comforting and talking to his son in a wheelchair after brain surgery.

Or this story. Bill gets into a cab in San Francisco and starts chatting with the cab driver, and discovers the cab driver is a saxophone player. Bills asks when he gets to practice his instrument, and the taxi driver says he doesn’t get to practice much because he drives the taxi all the time. So Bill finds out the saxophone is in the trunk and tells the driver to pull over so Bill can drive the car while the taxi driver gets to practice his saxophone in the back seat. They wander the streets of San Francisco with the taxi driver blowing saxophone in the back, and then cross over the bridge into Oakland after midnight to have barbecue together at a diner, and play saxophone for a crowd in the parking lot.

Whether Bill is dropping in to a game of kickball or reading poetry at a construction site, he is showing up to be present, not to entertain. He’s not there to juggle, tell jokes, or get on stage. He’s there to be alive in that spontaneous, inventive moment. In his own words, Bill says when it works best he finds a way to wake people up in their lives. He says he might encounter someone sleepwalking through their life, and hopefully he can help create a moment to wake them up. He also says sometimes he gets lucky himself, and wakes up to a new truth or new understanding.

Universally, everyone who tells these stories describe him as kind, present, and able to bring levity and joy to a moment. But the moments are fleeting and unpredictable. He’s famously impossible to track, or pin down. Even Sofia Coppola who wrote and directed Lost in Translation said that Bill told her he “might think about it” without ever actually committing to doing the film. So Sofia sent him the production schedule, flew to Tokyo to start filming, and then just hoped that Murray would show up, which of course he did.

Katie Calautti, a reporter for Vanity Fair, was asked to do a story on Bill Murray at the Toronto Film Festival. She said he was impossible to coordinate with because he has no entourage, no people, no team to interact with. He just shows up, and since you don’t know when or how he is going to appear, it’s pretty hard to write about his comings and goings. She said she spent most of her time at the film festival chasing a ghost. She said later that reporting on Bill Murray is like reporting on jazz. You just have to show up and see what happens.

It’s easy to be inspired by, and learn from Bill Murray. Show up, listen, give kindness, don’t seek the spotlight, look for opportunities to ease pain, or provoke new ideas. And when it works right, maybe something will happen to transform the moment, and allow an awakening.

“We’re in this life, and if you’re not available, the sort of ordinary time goes past and you didn’t live it. But if you’re available, life gets huge. You’re really living it.”
– Bill Murray

If you have a quiet hour, I recommend the documentary The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man.


I founded Mindscaling, a company building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

Last summer, my son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Grab a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.