The Long Practice of Mastering Freedom


What do these quotes have in common?

“You can have no dominion greater or less than that over yourself.” - Leonardo Da Vinci

"Morality is of the highest importance — but for us, not God.” - Albert Einstein

“Any musician who says he is playing better either on tea, the needle, or when he is juiced is a plain, straight liar." - Charlie Parker

They bring home the lesson that if we're going to be our best selves, we need to set and live within proper moral standards.

This isn't just a challenge to be righteous, it's a lesson proven in social science .

In 1897, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim undertook one of the first modern empirical studies of mental health in his masterwork “Suicide.” Prefiguring the methods that modern social scientists take for granted, he surveyed European populations to see what social patterns predicted self-harm. His results were clear: Individuals are less likely to hurt themselves in communities with more clearly articulated moral boundaries.

This is consistent with more modern social science research. For example, the “paradox of choice” is a well-established phenomenon, in which consumers get less satisfaction beyond a certain number of product options because choosing itself requires energy and resources. Effectively, Durkheim found that there is a “paradox of moral choice” that is that much more virulent in its effects.

Economist and happiness researcher Arthur Brooks, an accomplished musician in his own right, was a big fan of Charlie Parker's, and describes how Parker became a legend.

Study the sheet music to any jazz song — take, for example, Parker’s classic “Anthropology” — and two things are immediately clear. First, the player is bound to a written melody the first time through the chorus. In the case of Parker’s songs, the melody is complex and requires incredible virtuosity — which is to say, years and years of careful practice. Second, the chord structure is spelled out over the melody with zero ambiguity. When improvising after the melody, the jazz player must stay within these chords. This is devilishly hard, once again requiring years of work and study.

Fail on either of these dimensions, and you’re a hack who is laughed off the stage. Indeed, there is a famous story of Parker himself at age 16 at a jam session in Kansas City, Mo., with older, well-known musicians. When Parker lost track of the chords during a solo, Jo Jones (drummer for Count Basie) threw a cymbal at him and kicked him out.

Parker learned and improved. Listen carefully to his work 10 years later and you don’t hear a man missing chords or playing whatever he wants. Freedom in Parker’s music was the freedom to work within the melody and chords to make beautiful, life-affirming music. That meant the self-mastery to dominate his craft through years of careful practice, and the humble discipline to live within the rules of the music itself.

But Brooks also points out that it was Parker's lack of discipline that ended up killing him, at age 34, of heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver. Parker himself knew that the booze and the drugs not only were making him physically ill, but were destroying the years of work he put into his music.

"When I get too much to drink, I can’t even finger well, let alone play decent ideas," he is quoted as saying.

The lesson here isn't (or isn't "just") to stay off drugs. It's that the only way to be truly free is to master the art of being your best self.

What discipline do you practice to help you live a better life?