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drawing of live for today

❝It's not the note you play that's the wrong note - it's the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.❞ -Miles Davis

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the art of improv comedy. He writes, "One of the most important of the rules that make improv the idea of have characters accept everything that happens to them." Improv works because the actors don't fight against what has already happened. They use a "Yes. And..." approach to say that this happened, now what?

What works for comedy also works for jazz and other improvised music.

Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock once talked about being on tour with the great trumpeter Miles Davis when Herbie screwed up and played something that didn't belong or fit with what has been played up to that point. Because it was so bad, he thought the song was ruined. Imagine his surprise when Miles made it sound like that's what was supposed to happen.

Herbie said it took years to realize how that happened, and it finally came to him. Herbie judged the mistake; Miles accepted the mistake. Once he accepted what happened, he could make a decision about what to do next.


Before talking about acceptance, it's helpful to take a step back and talk about what acceptance is not. Accepting the cards that you've been dealt, your position in life, or your circumstances does not mean you sit around like a doormat and let life happen to you. You don't need to take on the persona of a helpless victim.

In other words, acceptance doesn't mean you are helpless.

drawing of victim mentality

Instead, acceptance is to accept what has happened so that you can make an appropriate decision going forward.

Think of the information you have available to you as a funnel.

drawing of decision making

You use the information to decide what to do next. The funnel informs your decision-making.

drawing of choices and behavior

The information you have to make your decisions is based on what happens, including things you wanted to have happen, things you didn't know happened, and even things you didn't want to have happen.

drawing of life happens

Wishing that some stuff didn't happen, or that something that didn't happen did, is nonacceptance. It's akin to ignoring inputs.

drawing of don't ignore data

Not accepting how things are, rather than how you wish they were, reduces your choices because you're not taking into account all available information.

drawing of don't reduce your choices


One common belief people have is that they'll start living as soon as they reach their goals or fix their mistakes (which is a specific type of goal). They may start living their lives and allowing themselves to be happy once they get out of college, get into grad school, graduate from grad school, get a job, make partner, get married, have kids, become an empty-nester, retire, and so on.

Goals can be helpful, of course. Yet at their core, goals are a signal that you aren't where you want to be. A goal can only exist in the future, and yet we can only live in the present. If we live our lives perpetually wishing they were different, we'll feel tension.

drawing of goals and tension

Even as we make progress toward our goals, it never feels good enough. As long as we haven't met our goals we are admitting to ourselves that our lives aren't good enough.

drawing of tension if you haven't met your goal

But what happens when we reach our goals? Do we feel a great sense of joy and live out the rest of our days contented?


We set a new goal, thus keeping the tension going.

drawing of setting new goals after attaining a goal

Goals are specific outcomes that exist in the future that we hope to achieve one day. Yet, we know that outcomes are out of our control. There is too much randomness (aka luck and risk) in the world to be able to control everything involved in getting a specific outcome.

Your behavior is in your control. These are your conscious choices, your habits, your routines, and your systems.

drawing of things in your control

Once you put in the behavior, the outcome is out of your control.

drawing of things outside your control

The Meaning in Life Questionnaire assesses two dimensions of meaning in life, the presence of and search for meaning. Presence measures how full you feel your life is of meaning. Search measures how engaged and motivated you are in efforts to find meaning in your life.


It's time to pause and look back. It might seem as though I'm encouraging you not to pursue meaningful activities because you should just accept your life and avoid goal-setting. So, let's close the door on those potential misunderstandings.

Acceptance means taking your current circumstances into account when choosing your decisions, and your decisions represent the kind of systems and habits you want to start without focusing on any particular outcome.

In other words, I'm encouraging you to do the best with what you have where you are. The best you can do represents your potential.

drawing of your potential

My point is that whatever our potential is, we should aim to maximize it. Instead of wishing our potential was higher, we just do the best we can with what we have.

drawing of do the best you can with what you have

This doesn't mean that our potential can't grow over time. In fact, part of your potential is maximizing the chances of higher potential in the future.

drawing of your potential over time

One way to view this new framework is to think about fulfilling your potential over time. That is to say, always do the best you can with what you have.

drawing of do the best you can with what you have where you are

Yet, more realistically, we could say that we ought to strive to get better at fulfilling our potential.

drawing of getting better at maximizing your potential


Accepting your circumstances and learning to be content today by doing the best you can with what you have necessarily means living more for today.

The future and the past both exist only in our minds as thoughts, either memories or anticipation. The present moment is all we have.

But this isn't an excuse to adopt hedonism as your primary philosophy of life. Just because the present moment is all that exists doesn't mean the future won't come. Your actions today impact what potential you have tomorrow.

Imagine being able to call up your past self. Imagine the conversation. What would you say? Do you have any complaints or gripes?

drawing of talking with your past self

In that same scenario, imagine yourself as your past self getting the call from present you. It turns out it's the same thing as if your future self were to contact you today.

drawing of don't ignore your future self

Living for today without regard for the future is akin to stealing from your future self.

drawing of stealing from future you

The trick is to find balance. Live for today while enabling your future selves to be able to live for their day when it arrives.

drawing of balancing the present and the future

When life happens, accept it, learn from it, and do the best with what you can where you are.

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Adams, Scott: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big Becker, Joshua: Things That Matter Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What Boniwell, Ilona: Positive Psychology in a Nutshell Burkeman, Oliver: The Antidote Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler: The Art of Happiness Denborough, David: Retelling the Stories of Our Lives Frankl, Viktor: Man’s Search for Meaning Hagen, Derek: Your Money, Your Values, and Your Life Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis Hanh, Thich Nhat: No Mud, No Lotus Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness Hanson, Rick & Forrest Hanson: Resilient Hanson, Rick & Richard Mendius: Buddha’s Brain Harris, Dan: 10% Happier Harris, Sam: Waking Up Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge Irvine, William: You: A Natural History Kabat-Zinn, Jon: Wherever You Go, There You Are Manson, Mark: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

McAdams, Dan: The Stories We Live By Mindfulness X Shapiro, Stephen: Goal-Free Living Sofer, Oren Jay: Say What You Mean



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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