The Power of Priorities

The Power of Priorities


Whatever you’re doing musically, do it well. And whatever else you have to do in life is going to follow suit. It just works that way. ~ Jazz musician Clark Terry.


By Tom Robotham

One of the most inspiring documentaries I’ve ever seen is Keep on Keepin’ On, which was shown at the Naro Expanded Cinema shortly before Christmas and will be out on DVD later this month. You can read my essay about it elsewhere in this issue.

The film got me thinking about a lot of things: the power of music; the power of love; the impact I want to have as a teacher; determination in the face of hardship and pain—and the things that hold us back in life.

Lately—perhaps because we’ve just crossed the threshold of a new year—I’ve been especially preoccupied with the last of these ideas. I am not dismissive of my own accomplishments. But in my darker hours, I am plagued by an awareness of what I have failed to do. And I ask, why?

One problem is fear. I’ve taken my share of risks, and like you, I’m sure, I’ve sometimes paid a heavy price. Other risks have paid off handsomely. But in still other cases, I’ve hesitated till the moment was lost, fearful that I was not up to the task. For this reason, I’ve always loved the film Defending Your Life, starring Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep. It is a poignant reminder of the importance of overcoming fear. For as Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.” (Few people realize, I think, that FDR’s famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” was a paraphrase of Thoreau.)

But there is something else that’s held me back: Dissipation, or the failure to focus with laser-like intensity on the things that matter most. The dissipation, it seems to me, is caused by both external and internal distractions.

In this day and age, external distractions are more abundant than ever. You can see evidence of this in any social setting, where people are incessantly checking their phones. I try to avoid this kind of behavior when I’m in the company of others, but I’m not entirely immune to it, especially in private. I sit down to write, and PING, I get a text. Like Pavlov’s dog, I instantly respond. Even if I do not reply, the distraction of the PING has already dissipated my energies, if only for a moment.

When I was growing up, of course, none of this technology existed. But watching too much television had a similar effect. I firmly believe that it causes attention-deficit order, and if you watch television with a critical eye for even half an hour this should become self-evident. What unfolds before the eyes and ears is a string of non sequiturs. Local television newscasts are the worst: One second you’re listening to a report of some horrible tragedy, and split second later there’s some chuckling weatherman in front of you. And of course there are the commercials, which are all designed to rattle the brain—none more so than those for medications, which tell you, essentially, You really need this pill, even though its side effects may include blindness, liver disease and death.

For this reason, I rarely watch television anymore. And this year, I want to get in the habit of shutting off my phone when I write or sit down to practice piano or guitar.

But that won’t address the more fundamental problem: Put simply, I have too many desires and anxieties that all too often pull me out of the moment and into some distortion of memory or anticipation of the future. I suppose that’s why I was drawn to Zen Buddhism many years ago—a recognition of the need to live more fully in the present, whether I’m reading a book or washing the dishes.

Moreover, I simply have too many interests. I’ve often thought that if I could live for a thousand years I would master every academic subject, become fluent in five or six foreign languages, travel the world, learn to play every musical instrument, become a master carpenter, excel at gourmet cooking, improve my tennis game, train horses, learn to identify every plant in the forest, scuba dive, master every martial art…

You get the idea. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that one could live 10,000 years and it would still not be enough time if the problem of dissipation persisted.

And so, at the dawn of this new year I return to Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“The one prudence in life is concentration,” he wrote in his essay Power. “The one evil is dissipation: and it makes no difference whether our dissipations are coarse or fine; property and its cares, friends, and a social habit, or politics, or music, or feasting. Everything is good which takes away one plaything and delusion more, and drives us home to add one stroke of faithful work. Friends, books, pictures, lower duties, talents, flatteries, hopes, — all are distractions which cause oscillations in our giddy balloon, and make a good poise and a straight course impossible. You must elect your work; you shall take what your brain can, and drop all the rest. Only so, can that amount of vital force accumulate, which can make the step from knowing to doing.

The work that I have elected is writing and teaching, and I feel fortunate that I regard them as two branches of the same endeavor: the pursuit of knowledge, the exploration of ideas and the sharing of both in an ongoing dialogue. For this reason, my social life is often an extension of my work. When conversation sets the mind on fire, ideas burst forth like fireworks on a summer night.

Yes, but the key is to follow through on them—and that, I’m afraid, is frequently something I fail to do.

Music is nearly as important to me as writing and teaching, but more often than not, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which I long to play even passably well, sits neglected on my piano, as thoughts of other things flutter about my brain like a hundred butterflies in an open meadow.

How much richer my life would be, I realize—and how much more inner peace I would have—if I could let those butterflies pass through my mental sky and sit down to study a few well-chosen wildflowers in my soul.

Accompanying my essay about that aforementioned documentary is a review of a new album by jazz pianist Justin Kauflin. The title of the record is Dedication—and as 2015 opens up before me, this is what I seek: more focused dedication to my priorities; more uninterrupted hours of disciplined application to reading, writing and lecturing; an hour or two a day of practice on the piano and guitar; more dedication to my own body, through some fitness regimen; more attention to caring for my living environment. And finally, quality time with my closest friends.

The last of these is one of the hardest things for many people to achieve these days, for a couple of reasons. I know people who often voice this lament because they feel pulled in a thousand directions at once and end up neglecting the people who really matter to them. The other problem in this age of distraction and—let’s face it—duplicity, is that it’s often difficult to know who your friends really are. The only way to overcome this problem, I’ve found, is to continually reevaluate relationships and make the hard choice of cutting emotional ties with people who have proven to be less than loyal and less than caring. Otherwise, the emotions lead to more dissipation.

Ah, but how to find the time for all of this? Reading and writing and playing fugues, working out, cleaning, cooking and spending time with friends. The only solution, I think, is to not worry about any of these things when they’re not directly in front of you, and simply to focus on the moment, investing ourselves as fully as possible. And so I’m reminded of Thoreau once again: “To affect the quality of the day,” he wrote in Walden—“that is the highest of arts.”

This, then, is my resolution for 2015. What about yours?