Wednesday, April 20, 2011

To Sweat Or Not To Sweat

At some point in our lives we have all been told at least once “don’t sweat the small stuff.” This advice is usually offered by some well-meaning person who is trying to keep us from having some kind of emotional meltdown. I believe that I have even seen a series of books, in the self-help section of the bookstore, whose titles consist of these very words. Though this gem of wisdom seems to give comfort to many, I find myself wondering if it is really sound advice. I have been pondering this for several weeks. Why? Possibly because during this time nobody has uttered to me this very phrase in question. And that is probably a good thing

During my multi-week musings I have come to think that “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is really poor advice. It really is the small stuff that makes all the difference in most circumstances. In my mind, to not sweat the small things implies that we will happily settle for mediocrity. I suppose that for some this is perfectly acceptable: for me it is not.

Perhaps I am intrigued by this philosophical dilemma right now because much of what I have been doing for the past few weeks has been intensely focused in what on the surface seems to be “the small stuff”

A few Fridays ago my task for the day was to write a very short piece, by short I mean somewhere between a minute and a minute and ten seconds, for one of my colleagues. I spent roughly six hours working on this piece. If you want to do the math, that computes to about one hour of work for every ten seconds of music. Do you find yourself wondering how this can possibly be? This is how. Getting the creative juices flowing is not what takes the time. Luckily on this particular day the raw ideas came quickly. It is sweating the small stuff that takes a composition from simply a sketch or a draft to a piece of art. Should that note be a half note or a quarter note followed by a quarter rest? Maybe that part should have an F# instead of an F natural. Is the best tempo 90 beats per minute or 96? Sometimes it is literally the small stuff that consumes a disproportionate amount of time: should I use a dotted rhythm or equal note values. That little dot can make all the difference. Taking the time to consider, or perhaps obsess, over these seemingly minute details is ultimately what made this particular piece not just an OK piece of music but something that I was proud to say that I had written

Here is another real-life example. I am currently teaching a knitting class on how to make a particular sweater pattern. Without going into a lot of unnecessary detail, suffice it to say that to make a knitted garment fit properly, you have to knit to the appropriate gauge. Let’s say that you want to make a sweater that is 40’ at the chest. The pattern calls for a gauge of 4 stitches to the inch. Therefore your sweater will consist of 160 stitches. What if your gauge is almost 4 stitches to the inch, but not quite? Maybe it is just a tiny bit off, as in 4 ¼ stitches to the inch. A gauge that is only off by a quarter of an inch surely isn’t going to make that much of a difference, right? Wrong! In this case, your sweater will be nearly three inches smaller than you want it tobe. We all know that when it comes to the fit of clothing, three inches is not “the small stuff.

One more example – this time about literally sweating. Despite the fact that it is barely the middle of April, we have already seen temperatures above 90 degrees here in Texas. Thinking it ridiculous to turn on the air conditioner “so early” we opted to start the cooling process by making sure that all of the ceiling fans were turning in the “right” direction – the direction that pulls the cool air up rather than pushing the hot air down as is the case during the winter months. The problem was that we were not 100% sure which direction accomplished which goal. To further confound us, when we went to the Internet to solve our problem we found contradicting information. One source said the fans should run counter-clockwise in the summer and another said they should run clockwise. Obviously someone was mistaken. Nope. They were both correct. The clarity comes again in the small stuff. The crucial little detail here is whether you are looking up at the fan or looking down on it. In the summertime, if you look up at a ceiling fan it should be moving in a counter-clockwise direction. If you are looking down on it, it is moving clockwise. This small detail literally makes the difference between sweating and not.

Despite the examples I have given here I am sure there are cases where the small stuff really doesn’t matter. In the big scheme of things it probably doesn’t matter if one of your socks has a hole in the sole or even if your socks don’t match. It probably doesn’t matter if you eat the last few spoonfuls of yogurt the day after the “Best if used by” date. Whether you pay $3.78 or $3.79 a gallon for gas is a much bigger deal in principle than it really is to our pocketbooks.

It all comes down to what is important to each of us as individuals. If it’s important to you, sweat it no matter how big or how small.