What Are You Listening To?

Are you listening to that inner voice that knows you've got this, or the other voice that says you're not going to make it?

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When I deployed for my Operation Iraqi Freedom tour back in 2004, alternative rock was still pretty heavy in my daily music rotation. I was leading a convoy one day and was reflecting over my response to a situation and I realized I was uncharacteristically bitter. It wasn’t a particularly unusual interaction, so I ran through why I was off.

Enough water? Check. Enough food? Check. Enough sleep? The normal no, but check. Something up with my team or headquarters that’s bugging me more than normal? No — check.

What bubbled up for me was that it was likely the alternative rock I was listening to before the interaction. It wasn’t one song that jumped out at me, but rather that the genre didn’t actually make me feel how I wanted to feel.

But as I thought about what my job as a tactical field leader really was, my presence was usually just as important — if not more important — than my skills. My troops looked to me to be calm, solutions-focused, pragmatically positive, and a model for how they should be. The themes and vibe of alternative rock were actually pushing me away from that state which, even then, was my default.

So I pulled the entire genre from my daily rotation; in this scenario, the extreme experiment was the best call. It was about that time that I discovered Jack Johnson. He already had his first two albums out, so I played the digits off those albums during the day. I’d fall asleep to Jack Johnson, Norah Jones, Alicia Keys, and Sarah McLaughlin. Though Norah, Alicia, and Sarah were all important players, to this day I credit Jack’s music for getting me through a year in the desert whole, better than when I left, and with a legacy of interactions with troops and people while overseas that I can be proud of.

To be clear, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with alternative rock — it’s just at that time, in that context, it wasn’t the soundtrack music I needed. I’m so thankful that my 24-year-old self knew that.

Ever since then, I’ve been intentional about thinking about how I want to feel before I listen to music. When I create new speeches or webinars, I sometimes can’t start with the content until I create a playlist or choose some songs that ground what I’m teaching. What I listen to anchors how I’ll be, so it’s a way of choosing how I’ll be before I start performing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this during COVID-19, because the songs and artists that I’m listening to are the ones that are hitting me in all the feels. Pandora radio stations do most of the driving these days, but Jack Johnson, Zach Gill, Michael Franti & Spearhead, and Jason Mraz are all a mood; Norah Jones, Ed Sheeran, and Sara Bareilles a different one; Collective Efforts, Blue Scholars, and Brother Ali another. Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, and Soundgarden — yes, alternative rock — or Army cadences are what prime me to put some space between the couch and my backside.

But if Jack defined my deployment, Chris Stapleton is defining the COVID lockdown. “What Are You Listening To?” is today’s song rec and is the song that won’t let me rest until I publish this anchor. If you’ve never heard of Chris’s music before, you’re welcome. The thing is, the themes of his songs aren’t what’s speaking to me — it’s just that he gets me to deeply feel in a time when I’d otherwise turtle up.

While you’ve no doubt figured out how important music is to me, this post is actually about all the things we’re listening to. Are the podcasts you’re listening to priming you to be how you want to be? The audiobooks? The news?

And are you listening to that inner voice that knows you’ve got this, and that there are plenty of small miracles happening to you every day, or the other voice that’s telling you you’re not going to make it and the world is falling apart? It’s much harder to avoid the head trash inner playlist — especially if the external playlists are reinforcing it — but knowing how you want to be and listening to whatever helps get you there is a good way to avoid having to climb your way out of the hole.

You have a lot of influence on how you’ll be today. So… what are you listening to?

Originally published at

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