Marcus Aurelius on taking one step forward
Marcus Aurelius was the most powerful man in the world at his time. As emperor of Rome, he wrote Meditations as a diary. He had no idea that we’d still be reading it 2000 years later, or even that anyone but himself would ever see it. He simply needed to remind himself how to live.
Learning guitar is messy. Even with the most perfect plan, we make mistakes and have to later clean them up. As time goes on, we come to deeper understandings, and our previous learnings take on new meanings.
When we see a new house built, we expect that they’ll have to move some dirt around. We expect the mud, debris, and piles of scrap laying around. We’re not surprised or alarmed at the noisy (and seemingly chaotic) mess.
But in our guitar practice, we may secretly believe that everything should stay tidy and neat. And it doesn’t.
The way forward, the surest path to precision and accuracy and beautiful playing, is to jump in and make “even the smallest step forward”. It’s to focus on one little skill or project, and give our best attention to it.
Then, as Marcus says, “to regard the outcome as a small thing”. Or, in other words, to not worry so much about the end product.
And here’s the irony: If we do focus and treat each small step as an end unto itself, we rise to much higher levels than we would otherwise.
If we’re always focused on the future, and dismiss the details and nuances of our current projects, we never get to where we want to go.
Master storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estes used a phrase that illustrates this: “There’s no milk at the Ram’s house.” To draw the parallel, perfectionism and hustling on to the next thing won’t give us the musical enjoyment and satisfaction we crave.
Country singer Johnny Lee shared the same lesson in his 80’s hit “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places“.
Sure, we do best with a general (or detailed) plan forward. But in the moments we spend with guitar in hand, we gain the most from relishing each repetition, each little revelation, each small step forward.
“Don’t await perfection… but be satisfied with even the smallest step forward, and regard the outcome as a small thing.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (9.2.(4)