Today my son and I were getting ready to break out the Play-Doh.
Remember the shear awesomeness of Play-Doh?
All sorts of colors. Always pliable. No limit on what you can create.
Didn’t taste nearly as good as it smelled, but in the end that’s probably a good thing.
Remember the feeling of peeling back the lid to reveal a fresh cylinder of your favorite color? Remember the anticipation of rolling a new clump in your hands, picturing your future masterpiece?
The nostalgia’s enough to make me order for some Play-Doh scented cologne. Yeah, they have that.
But these memories, as is often the case with memories, don’t fully represent reality.
And as anyone with kids has learned, when you open up a canister of Play-Doh, chances are good that you won’t see a fresh new cylinder. Instead, you’ll get a crumbly mix of every imaginable color.
Today, of course, delivering this exact scenario.
And the adult in me recoiled.
Where’s the fresh new Play-Doh? Where are the pristine colors?
Blue’s been replaced with a pinkish yellow mix. Green’s been infiltrated with a mess of orange and purple. And the less said about the red, the better.
And that inner voice starts up. “I can’t work with this. We can’t build with this.”
My son’s response? He told me that I was in charge of making the frogs and alligators. He would do the elephants and rabbits.
Our Expectations Define Our Obstacles
“Every day is an opportunity to create a living masterpiece.” – Dr. Michael Gervais, Tribe of Mentors
In Tim Harford’s TED talk, he tells the story of a 1975 performance by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. Due to a mix-up by the concert hall, the available piano was out of tune. The keys stuck, the pedals didn’t work, and the piano was too small to support the size of the hall.
In short, Jarrett considered the piano to be unplayable.
When the young concert promoter couldn’t get a new piano in time, she pleaded with Jarrett to still support the show. Jarrett eventually agreed, sitting down several hours later to play this unplayable piano.
And he turned out an electrifying performance. Compensating for the piano’s deficiencies, he avoided the upper registers, giving it a soothing presence. And desperately trying to gain enough volume to reach everyone, he stood up, pounded the keys, and gave it an extra level of dynamic energy.
The audience loved it. And the recording, originally intended to document the issues with the piano, became the best selling solo jazz album and all-time best selling piano album.
But Jarrett’s first instinct was not to play. To hold out for a better instrument. And who among us would blame him?
We all have these thoughts. We don’t want to be burdened by substandard tools. Why take on additional obstacles when we don’t need to?
But Jarrett’s instinct was wrong. Just as ours can be. It’s often these unexpected obstacles that shake us up and bring out great work. It’s often these new challenges, the ones we see as unnecessary impediments, that break us out of our complacency and force us to see things from a new angle.
When we cling to our previous expectations, we hold ourselves back. We find ourselves waiting for the perfect opportunity, instead of living the ones we have. Recognizing this lesson 2000 years ago, Seneca captured it perfectly in his treatise On the Shortness of Life,
“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
Embrace the Unpredictability. Live.
“To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.” – Oscar Wilde
The majority of us live with a level of comfort and security that would be unrecognizable to our ancestors. Within the relative safety of these lives, it’s easy to slide into the expectation that every turn in life should bring the expected.
But life’s still unpredictable. We’re not guaranteed any level of fortune, just as the world is not required to support our happiness.
Whether it’s a non-ideal instrument, a Play-Doh mash-up, or any other surprise that fortune sends us on a daily basis, we each get to decide: Is this going to stop me? Or do I, as Seneca suggests, live immediately?
As former Navy Seal Eric Greitens writes in his tremendous letters on resilience,
“Fortune will play her hand. And when she stands between us and flourishing, all we can do is live our best life.”
When life hands us these moments, we all get to choose, do we give up and wait for things to be as we expected? Do we refuse to play the piano? Or do we start making elephants and rabbits?