I used to care a lot about how things did.
I think most people are that way.
I remember when my first book, Trust Me I’m Lying, came out I was probably 10% proud of what I’d done and 90% eagerly awaiting for the first week sales to tell me the rest of how proud I should be.
It was interminable, waiting to find out if I hit the bestseller lists.
But as I’ve gone on, I’ve become less and less this way.
It was a slow shift, I think, the product of getting skunked on the list more than a couple times. A result of realizing, as most creators eventually do, that sometimes the thing you think is your best work does the worst, and the thing you threw together in a few minutes suddenly does millions of views or outsells everything else.
I have this recurring image that plays in my mind these days, especially when I am working on a book or a particularly difficult article. I’d close my eyes, think about the project, and there it would be. The image is of an unidentifiable baseball player at the plate. It’s zoomed in like one of those SportsCenter closeups, and the batter is already mid-swing and connecting with the ball. It’s one of those beautiful, old-timey swings like Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams used to take. The front leg extended, the back leg all the way back, the bat coming up and hitting the ball perfectly.
That’s it. That’s the whole image.
I don’t see where the ball goes, whether it was a base hit or a grand slam. I suspect earlier in my career, I would have cared about the outcome. I would have cared about who the player was and what team he played for. I would have needed to know whether the ball went foul or found a fielder’s mitt or cleared the upper deck. But as I have gotten better as a writer, paradoxically, it doesn’t even occur to me that such a thing would matter.
The image is just the connection. The bat meeting the ball. The thing that is supposed to be all but physically impossible — hitting a rock coming at 90 miles per hour, that traveled from an elevated mound down to the batter in less than 400 milliseconds. Over and over again. The connection.
It doesn’t seem like much but to hit a baseball is basically to defy physics. Very few people can time their swing just right to meet the ball and hear that satisfying crack as the ball heads back the other direction. It’s a miracle. It requires complete and total dedication.
And it’s no small feat in and of itself…whether it goes foul or over the outfield wall.
One of the things athletes learn is that if you let your mind wander, if you spend even a second thinking about where that ball is going to go, what you’re not doing is your next job: running.
I have a story about the great Frank Robinson that I tried to put into Discipline is Destiny but it ended up in the new book on justice.
In some ordinary, otherwise forgettable game Robinson heard that majestic crack of the ball leaving his bat, and was so positive it went over the left field fence at Fenway, that he ran at half-speed to first base. But then suddenly, the ball came up short, banging off Fenway’s iconic 37-foot tall “Green Monster.” Robinson, had to settle for a single.
His team won in a blowout, so it didn’t really matter. Yet after the game, Robinson walked in and slammed down $200 on the manager’s desk.
He was fining himself. He had been too certain of the outcome, too focused on it, and it had meant he hadn’t done his best, he’d let his team–and himself–down.
Anyway, I’ve always loved that story. To me it’s a kind of greatness bigger than hitting a home run…and it has lessons for all of us.
Of course, here in the real world, companies have to make payroll. Quarterly numbers count. Whether you work with a publisher or you work for sales commissions, you do have to care if you’re getting results or not. Robinson won MVP Awards in both the National and American Leagues (and a World Series MVP to top it off). Obviously this dude likes winning, and he knows his way around a stat sheet.
Yet, the longer you do whatever it is you do, the more you realize the truth of one of the basic principles of Stoicism–the part about how some things are in your control and some things aren’t.
Doing the work. That’s up to me. How the work is received? Less so. How well it’s appreciated? How it stacks up next to other people’s work–in quality or in revenue? Again, much less so. “Ambition is tying your well-being to what other people do and say,” Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations. “Sanity is tying it to your own actions.”
When you’re sitting there hoping, expecting, needing to be validated by a certain kind of success, what that’s doing is taking you away from the process in front you. You’re taking yourself away from work you could be doing to make the thing better, work that actually will make a difference in the way that dreams and expectations do not.
It was worrying too much about things he couldn’t control, Ian Happ told me on The Daily Stoic Podcast, that got him sent back down to the minor leagues after a great rookie season with the Chicago Cubs in 2017. “I was caring more about what the guy who made the decisions thought and got away from my process and what made me a good player,” Happ explained. “When you worry about the things that might get you put on the bench, the end result of that is always, you do the things that get you put on the bench.” He shifted his focus back to the work. “Instead of wondering why or trying really hard to impress a coach or the people who make the decisions, I said, ‘you know what? I’m going to believe in myself, put in the work, and at some point, they’re not going to be able to keep me out of the lineup.” With this approach, Happ worked himself back into the Cubs’ lineup and had a breakout season in 2022, making his first MLB All-Star team and picking up his first Gold Glove Award in the process (he kept that mindset and actually won his second Gold Glove a few weeks ago). That’s what happens when you care more about what you are doing and less about what others are thinking.
What you’re also doing is depriving yourself of the joy and gratitude of the specialness of getting to do it at all. It’s an incredible thing to be a professional baseball player or to get to write books or to do whatever is that we’re called to do in life. But being outcome oriented, results driven is to spit in the face of that. Instead of being present, you are basically thinking, “I can’t wait for this to be over so I can find out whether it was worth it or not.” And let me tell you, the world is not kind to that kind of neediness. It is not kind to that kind of ingratitude either.
I said that on Trust Me I’m Lying, I was 10% intrinsically secure and 90% waiting to be told my worth by the market. For Discipline is Destiny, I’d say that ratio has come almost entirely around. I didn’t think the book was perfect, but I had genuinely enjoyed doing it–been improved by doing it. I felt it was the best work I’d done, and while my publisher did send me my first week sales as they do for every author, I was genuinely shocked several months later when my agent told me it was my fastest selling book. What I was most pleased by though was the way this had snuck up on me and how little this news changed my opinion about the work, positive or negative.
I was just vibing still on that initial connection with the ball. The rest was extra.
As it should be.