Imagination & Identity

Phil Circle
8 min readMar 30, 2023
Chicago City Hall (and unpaid extra in The Blues Brothers)

It’s hard not to respond to the world with a great big WTF. Now that we’re watching the deregulation of banks leading to another crisis and intervention, experiencing record rains and even snow in Southern California, bomb cyclones repeatedly slamming the Great Plains, Midwest and Northeast, an ongoing war, and socio-political in-fighting, it just looks like we’re going from one big mess to another. But we’re really not. I’m afraid it’s par for the course. As long as there are people creating their identities around externals, we’ll keep seeing unnatural human discourse across the globe.

Sure, the Silicon Valley Bank failure is hard to swallow. To me, it’s hard to fathom how a bank that important to a sector so essential couldn’t manage itself better, how regulators didn’t see a need to step in sooner, and why the tech folks were all in such lock step that, with all their knowledge of number-related things, they couldn’t grasp Economics 101. When you put your money somewhere, be sure to diversify.

At least, that’s what my understanding of economics gives me. But my confidence in this, in light of my reaction to it, and my inability to do anything about it, can all be easily shaken. I’m a musician. What do I know? Then I remind myself; a pretty fair amount. I’m well read and try to apply stuff I read, since a key element to retention is application. In college I tried to connect every class I took, to music in some way. I didn’t find it that hard, especially when I looked at music as a career choice. But, while I’m a musician, I’m also a lot more. And I readily admit, it took me some time to fully grasp that. As a result, I suffered through having bad days when gigs didn’t go the best, or worse, I couldn’t get any. I tortured myself through comparisons to other musicians, other songwriters, and just in general. When money was tight, which was a lot of the time, I let poverty define me and began making all the excuses for maintaining it, like I don’t need money or that too much of it will corrupt me. You see the vicious Circle that over-thinking can cause, right? Well, I do need money, and corruption starts in ones heart, not the bank account. I’m actually okay with money. I even pursue it. But it’s not the end or the means. It’s just one of many cogs in a bigger machine that is Phil. My identity is none of the things I just mentioned. Neither is yours.

I’ve touched on identity before. I’m going to touch on it again and unwrap it a little more. There’s a story the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma shares about when he met the great cellist, Pablo Casals. Casals recognized the young prodigy’s talent and skills. And he cautioned him,

“Remember, first you are a human. Then you are a musician. Then you are a cellist.”

I was recently reading about jazz great, Wayne Shorter, who passed away a couple weeks before I started writing this, at age 89. I’ve paid attention to him for awhile. As a contemporary musician and music coach, I can’t ignore him. His songs are all over The Real Book, each volume a collection of 460+ standards, mostly jazz instrumentals. But I also have paid attention to him because we both practice the same Nichiren Buddhism. Last year, in an interview, referencing health challenges, he spoke about making resistance his ally. This resonates with me. He also spoke about being human first, and how this was key to his dealing with performance nerves. He began to see his music as a service to others, a gift to his audience. Again, this resonates. I write and talk about this regularly.

Our identity, and the relationship we have with it, can have an impact on many things. That seems obvious when stated, but I’m not sure it was clear to me as a much younger person. And on the assumption that I’m speaking to other humans in this little blog letter, I’ll take a leap and imagine you can and have struggled with it, too.

When I coach songwriters, the first thing I give them is the idea that, once we complete a creative project, our sense of identity has been altered. Not because we’re more of a songwriter than we were. That goes counter to what I’ve just been talking about. It’s because we’ve created something to share with our fellow humans. By doing this, we become more human. It strengthens our humanity, it expands our connections to others’ humanity. We come closer to that interdependent human that lies just beyond the independent one. We deepen ourselves.

I’ve been reading a lot about determinism. It’s not a new concept to me, but I like this particular breakdown I’ve been digesting. Here it is:

We have three kinds of determining factors in our lives, that we may tend to let rule us.

One is genetic determinism. This is what it implies. Our genes make us this way or that. I’m Celtic and Gypsy (Sinti), so I like booze and travel. I can’t help it. That’s determinism. The truth is, I quit the booze. While it’s true I love traveling, I equate it more to my curious nature and how my Dad encouraged this in me, as well as all the traveling we did as kids. Oh, wait, this is…

Psychic determinism. This is the notion that our upbringing made us a certain way. One of mine is: I experienced a lot of trouble with intimate relationships over the years, because I had a complicated relationship with my mother. This kind of determinism is very widely used, isn’t it? Just insert parent here!

Finally, there’s environmental determinism. The economy or the people around us, or whatever thing outside ourselves; these are the determining factors in our lives.

All of these may have elements of truth, but we still have freedom of choice. Between whatever the stimulus in our lives and the response we have to it, lies that freedom. It is based in our self-awareness. Nobody can take away our self-awareness. Even though they may try. It relates to and may define our identity.

As I was reading on about all this, I got distracted as something specific occurred to me:

This freedom of choice, this self awareness and identity between stimulus and response, is where our imagination lies. In this space, we redefine who we are. It is one of our truest freedoms. Regardless of genetic, psychic or environmental determinism, we still have the freedom to choose who we are and who we intend to be. That intention, coupled with action, is where our rewiring begins. That rewiring is fueled by our imagination, our creativity, and leads to an evolving sense of self.

I hope you’ll listen to my Celtica Radio interview from March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, speaking of genetics. In this interview, the host asked me how the pandemic influenced my career. My answer was: It locked in uncertainty as a constant. I’m no longer falling prey to determinism. Because, you see, there are no excuses when the only constant is uncertainty. Environmental determinism has been undermined. I can’t point to anything specific to blame. So, I have no choice but to be proactive. I see this uncertainty as an opportunity to explore my creativity, to seek new worlds and boldly go (nerd alert), it’s a chance for me to also exercise the kind of radical optimism I enjoy. That’s the sort of optimism that is based in the knowledge that I’ll win because I’m the one taking action. And that I refuse to give up. There’s nothing rose-colored about it. There’s no naivety involved. Its key element is action, not wishful thinking.

That’s not to say that I don’t lose in some sense. Many actions fail in their initial intentions, but there’s absolutely going to be growth involved. Many times I’ve had ideas that didn’t pan out. But I never would’ve known if I hadn’t tried them. My life is full of failed attempts at things, but my life is no failure. My responses and reactions to life have moved me through many unusual and uncomfortable circumstances, but the experiences I’ve had are irreplaceable. Hell, I even wrote a book about it. It won a Readers’ Choice Award. This tells me that my efforts served others. But probably 75% of what happened in my life up to the writing of that book was shit I didn’t plan!

There’s a writing exercise I give students and clients. I learned it from a book called On Being A Writer by Dorothea Brande, published in 1934. Got it from a used book store in about 1986. What you do is grab a notebook and place it by your bed. Include a pen. No pencils, no erasure, censorship, or planning is allowed. Right after you wake up, you write whatever comes to mind for about 10 minutes. Then you plan another time during the day to repeat this. Do this for 30 days without reading any of it. If you miss even one session, you start over. This exercise helps you tap your subconscious, explore your writer’s voice, and build on your creative discipline. For musicians, it acts something like improvisation, building on your creative voice. But it also, almost without fail, turns musicians into songwriters.

Lately, I’ve had a number of students and clients working on this exercise. Since most or all of my writing for the last dozens of years has been for public consumption or in preparation for it, I decided to revisit this exercise myself. It’s been 36 years since I did it the first time. Upon completion, I began the final phase of it; read it cover to cover. I decided to take it to another level and respond to what I’m reading. I’m still doing this. In reflecting on my reflections, I wrote this…

Circuitous paths give us a wider range of views, like walking around the entire elephant before blindly describing it. And as I complete my long walk past myself, I emerge at the end of a jungle, near my previous starting point with no apparent new information but the scenery and weather. Until I begin walking again, experiencing again, interacting in a way that indicates growth, stamina, wisdom, and nerve. I am fortunate for my path. May I walk with you?

This blurb was drawn from the exploration of the journey we all take, the identity that evolves as we walk it, and the nagging question of whether it’s all a waste of time and we’re just fooling ourselves. I guess it’s clear that I came to the conclusion that none of it is a waste of time. Wasted time, in a sense, if we’re still alive and moving through life towards some purpose, is a delusional idea. Or at the very least a curb we put on our own laziness to keep us moving. Which I’m okay with. I constantly challenge myself to move forward. I constantly push myself to do more, to explore more, to live and grow more. But I’ve found a balance in the pace I take, the reasonableness of my own demands, and the slightly more forgiving tone the voice in my head takes when I don’t manage to complete something or it fails to accomplish what I intended. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I feel a stronger sense of who I am.

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Phil Circle

Phil Circle is an award-winning singer-songwriter, author and coach, native Chicagoan who lives in Los Angeles, and founder of Phil Circle Music in both cities.