I was not crying but I felt worse than I can remember. Tears would have been like massaging a broken leg. My leg wasn’t broken but my dreams were.
From the time I was 4 years old I played baseball and loved it. Before the start of every season my father would take me down the street or to a park and we would train. Pitching, fielding, sometimes we would go the batting cages.
When I was 10 I made my first travel team. I was the worst player. I think I got two hits the whole year. And I made an error just about every time the ball came my way. I wasn’t actually as bad as I played but I won’t get into the reasons why it went that way.
At the end of the season, my coach pulled me aside. The assistant coach actually. He said, “I know you didn’t have all the success, but you always hustled. And you can’t teach hustle”. He patted me on the shoulder.
Two years later I made the team again. And the next year.
But weird things started happening to me physically. I never really figured out why but certain things I couldn’t do anymore and certain things I suddenly did really well.
At freshman year tryouts, I didn’t really know what my strengths were. It was 6:30 A.M. All I knew is that I had spent about a decade training, thousands of dollars, thousands of hours, and I still loved baseball.
I remember at one point my assigned group was taking a break and everyone was talking about porn. In great detail.
Days later they called us in alphabetically. My friend was right before me and he came out ecstatic with all the paperwork for someone on the team.
I didn’t make it and even though the coaches were nice nothing really mattered.
I had no idea what to do with my life or who I was other than a feeling of being completely worthless.
A year later one of the members of my school’s top jazz ensemble dropped out and there was an audition. He played alto and I played tenor but I still gave it a shot on alto.
I bought an actually good alto mouthpiece and in one weekend practiced 10 hours.
Again, crushed. Didn’t make it.
My junior year on speech team my goal was to be the regional entry. My partner and I became the regional entry. I reached that goal but I immediately set a goal to make it to sectionals. We made it to sectionals then my goal was to make it to state. We won sectionals and made it to state. Then I wanted to make state finals but we didn’t make state finals and I was so sad. For some reason reaching three huge goals and then failing at one made me sad not happy.
My senior year I wanted to make the Honors District Band. I made that, then wanted to make All-State. I made All-State then wanted to make Honors All-State. I made Honors All-State then wanted to be first. I was fourth and unhappy.
I can’t even count how many times I wanted to make people like me (mostly girls) and none of those goals made me happy. If I succeeded I was happy but then I would find out they weren’t people I actually liked. I actually succeeded a lot but that was rarely a good thing in the end. Or I would just fail and that would be painful.
I remember I wanted Mark Colby to like me but he didn’t. Now I can’t imagine a better teacher than Jim Gailloreto. My goal was a big scholarship at DePaul and I didn’t prep that much for Roosevelt. But the reverse happened and I love Roosevelt. Then Mark Colby left DePaul anyway.
What percentage of goals must we reach to be happy?
The answer I have realized is I will never be happy by reaching goals. There will always be a new goal.
Goals cause me anxiety. What if I don’t reach the goal? Am I a failure? Will everyone know how bad I am?
How do I set goals? How should I know which goals I can reach? How do I track my progress?
There is a general dialogue in society that successful people set goals. Productive people set goals. In my experience this is false. It sounds good but I don’t know anyone who reaches their goals (a few people set goals and reach them but they are not happy and aren’t seeing the results they want. For instance a math major might work really hard to ace a course and he does but it doesn’t actually get him the job he wants).
Most people set themselves up for failure when they have goals. There are many reasons why people fail to reach goals. Maybe they overthink it. Maybe it was a bad goal to begin with. Maybe they decide they no longer care about the goal. And if they reach the goal that doesn’t bring happiness or success. They are on to the next goal.
And the whole time I am involved in a goal, I am anxious. My identity is wrapped up in achieving it. When I stopped playing baseball I realized that I didn’t know who I was. But now I am so happy to be more than a baseball player.
The fear is if I don’t have goals, how will I direct myself? What can replace this goal myth that has been around the past several decades?
My solution is themes. I have several themes I live by.
For instance one theme is to be physically healthy. I don’t have a goal to lose five pounds or bench a certain amount of weight. I just exercise and eat healthy. And sleep.
Another theme I have is to be “emotionally healthy” which just means I surround myself with people I love and support and who love and support me.
In music, I don’t have a goal to learn 100 ii-V licks or play my scales at 250BPM. I don’t have a goal to memorize 50 tunes. I’m not saying it would be bad if I knew 100 licks or 50 tunes from memory. But they aren’t explicit goals in my mind.
My theme is to be a good musician, with an emphasis on jazz saxophone. How am I becoming a good musician? Studying theory, studying harmony, listening, reading, practicing not just saxophone but piano and singing. Absorbing ideas, many ideas, but from the right sources.
I try to improve 1% in my themes every day. 1% is just a meaningless number that means a small amount.
If I lose 5 pounds that doesn’t mean I’m healthy (I could still have low energy and bad mood and be nutritionally deficient). If I memorize a tune I might not even get better at music if I don’t understand it. But these themes help me really improve at things that matter.
I’ve been living by themes for about a year and the results have been that I have a ton of things I can point to and say “I know/can do this this and this”. For example, I have learned tunes and changed friendships and ate vegetables.
No goals, but lots of results. The right kind of results. And the whole time I had no anxiety about goals and didn’t have to worry about how I was tracking my progress.
I can feel my progress.