What We Can't Know

When my younger brother was very little, there were a few months where he confused “don’t” with “can’t.” My mom would ask him a question, and if he didn’t know the answer, he’d look up at her and go, sadly, “I can’t know.”

I think about this sometimes when I’m stressing out over what I can’t control. In an artistic career, there is so very much that we can’t know: whether a certain opportunity that we desperately want is going to come through. Whether, if it does, it will be exactly as immense and life-altering as we think it will be. Whether this person who’s been saying she wants to commission us for years will finally, this year, commission us. Whether people are listening to the music we create. Whether they like it.

If you’re like me, you persist in worrying over these things anyway, despite the fact that there is little we can do to change their outcome. I can control the creation of my music; I can control, to some extent, when and how it gets out into the world. Beyond that, I have to accept what aspects of my career are beyond my control — and, to be clear, most of them are.

All of this not-knowing can be tremendously frustrating, especially when we are waiting to hear back from opportunities or are in between projects. Sometimes, even success brings stress: Is this all going to vanish overnight? What if it does?

There’s another way to frame the can’t-knowing, though. Lately I’ve been thinking about everything that’s already happening, but that we can’t see. We may lose a grant this year, but someone on the judging panel may learn our name and advocate for us to win next year, when we submit an even stronger portfolio. Someone may be waiting to hire us until next season, because it’ll fit better into that year’s budget. Fans who have never met us, but heard our music at a concert, may be eagerly awaiting our next project, happy to pre-order our new album.

If you are consistently putting effort in, sharing your music, and staying in touch with people you respect and admire, then what you see happening is nothing compared to what you can’t see. For every rejection that comes your way, there is someone — a colleague, or someone you’ve never met — who is already interested in your work and will reach out to collaborate with you in the future. People you haven’t even met yet are listening and caring deeply.

We can’t know whether everything will turn out the way we want it to, and we can’t know what effect any given performance will ultimately have on our life. We can’t will a collaboration into fruition. Once we’ve applied to a grant, we can’t overanalyze our way into winning it. But on the other hand, we can’t possibly know all the delectable, invisible opportunities we’ve set in motion already.

We can’t know, until we do. While we wait, we control what little we can. We make more art. We send it out into the world to be heard.

.  .  .  .  .

This post was originally published on the MusicSpoke blog, April 2016.

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