This morning something happened that hasn’t happened willfully in… well, I’m not really certain. I changed my mind that my level 7 or 8 awesome morning — which for all intents and purposes should have been good enough — into a level 10, five star, absolutely perfect morning. Certainly, we reason, it must have been something that I saw along the way on the trail, or a feeling that came over me, or some other external factor that changed it from a three-star morning into a five-star one. Well what happened?
I changed my opinion about my morning nature hike.
It really wasn’t a perfect day — the wind was howling today, gusting at 20+ mph at times, and it was overcast and gray with no sign of the sun. The snow was awesome though, crunching under my feet with only a few footprints along the way. The overall landscape was brown, drab, and lifeless, and not a sound could be heard save for the wind gusts passing over the treetops and the occasional bird firing warning chirps overhead to the other birds that there was a human nearby. Not a perfect day, but certainly a hike that was deserving of three out of five stars.
But I changed my mind. I changed my opinion of how I was feeling. Allow me to explain.
Let’s back up a little bit to when I was driving to the nature center and listening to Episode 28 of the Practical Stoic Podcast. Simon Drew had been talking about coming to terms with things we can and cannot change. This isn’t the first time he’s talked on this subject either; I’ve heard him mention another philosopher that talked about this in the form of a triad — things we cannot control, things we can control, and things we can only partially control. Personally, I prefer to think of it like a spectrum — on one end, you have things that you’ll never be able to control — the weather is a good example. On the other end, you have things you can completely control — things like your attitude or your choices. And then for things that don’t fall into either end, are somewhere along a continuum where I may have varying degrees of control (or lack thereof).
“For good or for ill, life and nature are governed by laws that we cannot change. The quicker we accept this, the more tranquil we will be.” — Epictetus
Normally when I go walking by myself, I like to throw on my headphones and listen to music or a few podcasts to occupy my mind. But this morning I decided to stow away my headphones and hike in silence… at least for the first ten minutes. I started thinking about the podcast, about the quote from Epictetus, and all the things I can and cannot change — my mind immediately went to my efforts to create acoustic instrumental music a few years back, and how I regarded the outcome a failure despite having created seven acoustic improvisational instrumental albums over the course of a year or so, some of those albums full of solid material that I’m still proud of to this day.
What was so bad that I warranted the effort a failure? I didn’t sell many copies, not very many people “liked” it on social media and YouTube, not many people bothered to share it, and overall I felt that it had extremely low market penetration. But how much control do I have over those things? Where did I go wrong? What did I do right? What more could I have done?
I spent a good fifteen minutes or so hashing things out loud [there was no one on the trails that morning, so I felt quite comfortable talking out loud to myself]. One by one, I went through every facet of my musical ambitions and asked myself, “where does this fall on the spectrum of control?” I started with my feelings of failure — all of which I had legitimate web stats to reinforce them. I confronted people not sharing my music enough to my satisfaction, or liking my music, or the issue of people not buying my albums, or the fact that my royalty metrics were coming back with such low stream counts. Every single area that I identified as a failure were things that were either completely out of my control or weighed heavily on that end of the spectrum.
Some of my most favorite, well arranged, and nicely produced songs — like the song “Sketch #9” from Improv Sketches Volume 4 — had low playback stats with little support beyond my closest friends and family. I think this improv sketch captured how I felt after releasing my music — like some dude just sitting off in the corner of a cafe playing music but drawing no attention, no fanfare, no applause.
But the lie that I’d sold myself is that if I try hard enough, if I keep churning this stuff out, if I keep sharing it, enough people will like it, or start buying some of the albums, or sharing it more often on social media. And when it didn’t happen, my effort was self-proclaimed as a failure. As I’m typing these thoughts “out loud”, I’m realizing just why I quit playing music, why I stopped arranging pieces, recording them, and sharing them with the world [or the couple dozen that bothered to listen and “like”]. I believed that I had some control over my success as a musician — but it’s not true, or at least not to the extent of what I believed.
Further into my hike, I moved on from contemplating and reflecting on all the things I couldn’t change or control, to the things that I could. The only things I could control:
- How much I practiced my guitar
- The attention to detail in the recordings
- The quality of the recording
- The design of the cover art
- The availability on different digital storefronts and streaming services
- How frequently I shared them and with whom
And beyond that list, there really wasn’t a whole lot within my realm of control. Hell, even some of the items on that list have nuances and areas that I can’t control either — like the quality of the recordings, well they were done in my tiny house where I had a six-foot by six-foot space to record in and with pro-sumer level equipment. It’s not like I was tracking this stuff at some professional recording studio with a paid engineer. It was just me in my house, and that’s it. I had no room for drums and other instruments either, so all the drums were creative uses of percussion to try and produce a pseudo-drum kit like sound.
With all the facts laid out in front of me while hiking through snow-covered trails, it became apparent that there really isn’t a whole lot that I can control. About the only thing that I can is my level of effort and my attitude about the outcome, my opinion of whatever happens after the song or album’s been distributed and shared on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms. I have no control over how someone will respond, whether or not they’re going to like it (let alone pay for it), and how (un)popular it will be out on the interwebz.
It was a little humbling to go through this exercise with my music ambitions, yet it was also liberating for me. I sorta knew all along that I had to just do this for me and because it brings me joy, not because I hope to make money off this or for it to be widely popular. I really don’t have a whole lot of control in that department. But I didn’t have the tools or understanding at the time to know why I should just be content with the effort to create and not of the outcome itself.
Now — that’s not to say that I cannot have some level of influence over the outcome. I could try harder to network with people in the music industry, or I could spend more money on advertising, or I could take more guerilla warfare approaches and blitz people with the music in different ways, trying to increase exposure. But in the end, I still cannot control how people will respond. Maybe good fortune might strike if I met the right person who had all the right connections to make things happen. But more likely, a small audience will be my reality — a reality that I should have probably accepted from day one. The world is not a level playing field, it’s not fair, and fortune often favors those who know the right people and are often in the right time, right place situation.
“By accepting life’s limits and inevitabilities, and working with them rather than fighting them, we become free.” — Epictetus
This quote from Epictetus really brought it all home for me — reminding me that this shift in attitude and opinion isn’t giving up or settling for less. [I think about how many times I’ve read books or listened to lectures telling me not to settle for less than what I deserve, or in the evangelical christian world, what “god” has planned for me.] No — accepting the limits, inevitabilities, and truths of life, and working with them, will grant me ultimate freedom. I am no longer bound to expectations that are likely to fail.
When I thought deeply about this on my morning hike, and meditated on the few things that I could realistically control — and that it was OK to not be in control of all the other things I wished I had control over — I felt free. It wasn’t quite like some big magical, mystical moment for me, but I felt free — free from feeling like a failure because of the poor response to my music, free from feeling the need to be liked, free from the need for people to share my music, free from the need for people to purchase my music. It’s not that those things aren’t good or nice — they’re just entirely out of my control.
After processing some of these really heavy thoughts, I moved onto other areas of my life, contemplating where things fell on the spectrum of control, eventually falling on my reflection on the day. I thought to myself, this is a pretty decent hike, and normally I think I’d give this morning a 7 out of 10. But why? Why settle for a ten? What made me feel like I had to dock my morning three points? What was so wrong with it? So I picked apart all the elements of my hike, thought about what I could control, and what I could not. All of the things that were not of my control suddenly became kind of irrelevant, and only the things I could mattered. One of those things that I could control, I decided, was my opinion about this hike.
Right then and there, I decided this was a 10/10 morning — perfect in every way. I was alive, I was moving, and I had control over my attitude about the morning. Despite the drab gray sky, despite the cold blowing winds, despite the little bit of back pain I’m working through — it was still a perfect hike. It was like a switch had been flipped on inside, and the rest of my morning was simply tremendous… because I decided it would be.
I don’t know how well I’m going to have the strength to maintain this kind of attitude on life in everything that comes my way — I’m pretty sure that I’ll fail at this practice of mindfulness and understanding what I have control over and what I do not, in fact I know I’ll fail. It’s part of being human. But it’s worth it to keep trying again, and again, knowing that I’m slowly becoming better and more content than the person I was yesterday.