The other day I had lunch with a new musical acquaintance. He has some physical issues and wondered aloud how long he’d be able to keep doing this. Without any particular intention to preach, I asked him what “this” refers to. Like a room full of light bulbs going on at once, this illuminated my percolating awareness of the huge role expectations can play in our perception of bounty versus scarcity. I told him that in my experience and observation, specificity of expectations is the biggest obstacle facing so many musicians (and, for that matter, every other human being) – bigger than physical frailty, bigger than economic challenges, bigger than anything about the “hustle” for gigs, publicity, recognition and so on. It’s easy to get into the trap of evaluating the value or satisfaction of something based on these expectations. It’s hard enough to objectively ask ourselves “where am I?” Hard becomes virtually impossible, though, when our own sincere thoughts are being drowned out by a sea of other questions: “Where should I be?” “Where are the people I envy?” “Where do others think I am?” “Where did I expect I would be by this point when I was younger?”
The following day, I found myself remembering how exactly a year ago, on the heels of a scary hand injury, Kate turned a gig of mine into a surprise early 40th birthday party. As I reminisced about that night it occurred to me that my angle of view could profoundly shape what the take-away was from the night.
Interpretation #1: What an amazing night. I was down in the dumps from an injury that left me only able to use my left hand to play, but I decided to soldier on and play my gig that weekend. Lo and behold, as we played “Be Real Special,” a flood of wonderful people marched through the door. Before I knew it, I was being feted with kind words and beautiful songs and a parade of hugs worth of “this is your life.” The music was buoyant, and my desire to acknowledge the perseverance that allowed me to still play the piano come 40 was, ironically, addressed perfectly by playing left-handed, never mind doing so in such a supportive environment. Every man should be so lucky as to feel this appreciated and loved for a day. How blessed am I.
Interpretation #2: What a disaster. For years I’d been aiming to musically celebrate on my 40th birthday, but that was of course implausible since the date (December 14) is now inexorably linked with both personal and global tragedy. So instead, people came out on a night when I was physically and musically compromised, in pain and sleep-deprived. As a result, all of these folks showed up, some of whom seldom get to hear me play, and they got a broken-down, impaired version of me at a place that doesn’t even have a piano. A bunch of important people couldn’t even make it, and yet because there were so many people, I couldn’t spend more than a moment with any of them. So by the next day I was back to being alone, with only the left over cupcakes to get fat from. Boo hoo, poor me.
You may find this surprising, but I have opted with interpretation #3. I am an upbeat guy in general, so it would be natural to think that I’d have chosen #1 and that’s quite reasonable. Everything in #1 is completely accurate, genuine and reflective of the sort of gratitude and optimism that provide the antidote for the “Debbie Downer” approach embodied by #2. However, I am not saying that there is any moral superiority or even necessarily personal gain to accentuating the positive at the expense of acknowledging the full scope of reality. Really , everything in interpretation #2 above is true as well, and all else being equal I prefer truthful cynicism to delusional optimism. This may seem subtle, but what I choose to reject in #2 is not any of the factual information. Rather it is the way in which the embedded pessimism revolves around unmet expectations.
It is fact that a tragic mass shooting has made my actual birthday a day unfit for celebrating. It is fact that on the day of last year’s gig/party I was in significant physical distress. It is fact that some of my nearest and dearest people were in far-flung places and unable to be there. It is a fact that I gorged on cupcakes (okay, I’m not going to lie, that part was actually pretty awesome). I can’t claim to embrace the full scope of life or reality if I shuttle these things into the periphery of my awareness.
And yet, what does it mean if I get bent out of shape based on my unmet expectations? Am I somehow entitled to not be in pain or to be immune to the sorts of deeper challenges that other humans face? Does everything have to go right for an experience to be deemed positive? Is “going right” even a quantifiable thing outside of my own preconceptions? And am close enough to being the center of the universe for any of that to be of great import?
Taken a bit more broadly, the definition of my own career as a whole is a broader-scale example that provides context for this notion. Am I a hero who has overcome disability and industriously triumphed in putting forth beauty into the world? Am I a star-crossed loser who failed to achieve his goals? Uh, both? Neither? More to the point, the very logic behind the question is not entirely healthy. The most real answer is that I’m just a guy who is navigating fluid and unpredictable circumstances and trying to make the best of things. Just like the vast majority of other human beings on the planet.
I am also not saying one shouldn’t set goals or have standards. It is very difficult to focus one’s energies without doing so. Goals and standards do not necessarily equal expectations, however. The desire to become good enough to play high-level basketball can be a great source of inspiration and discipline. The sense that the world has betrayed you if you don’t make it to the NBA is not useful.
Why not? Because you miss out on life. Whether you are happy or sad is in part a matter of personality, choice and life circumstances not entirely within your control. Yet neither happiness nor sadness has to dictate how fully you live your life, and living it necessitates both going with the flow and being open to all that surrounds you. How many people have missed out on great relationships because they were too busy pining for an unrequited infatuation to look around? If you don’t get something you wanted, it’s not my place to say how you should frame that emotionally, but in practical terms getting caught up in that decreases the likelihood that you will be aware of the other opportunities that exist.
In the end, I don’t know whether my new pal will be hanging up his instrument in two years or playing the Superbowl halftime show in twenty. I do know, though, that any prediction we make now will be at best semi-accurate. If we choose to let go of those expectations, this needn’t be stressful, only another facet of the blessing that is life.