I play bass and sing in jazz combos. Unlike rock, where band members stay together for years if they can stand each other, jazz gigging is more like pickup softball games. You get a call asking if you can make some café gig and if you can, you’re often meeting fellow players for the first time while setting up for the show. Like pickup games you can learn something about where you are in the pecking order by when you’re called. If you’re called right before a gig it probably means you’re pretty far down the list.

When I was young I hated that aspect of pickup games. I wasn’t great so they’d generally pick me toward the end and reluctantly. Sometimes I wouldn’t be picked at all and would sit on the sidelines watching like the unemployed in today’s economy. Heartbreaking and heartless, but such is life.

Then there was the dating world, where you could also be sidelined. The jazz scene reminds me a little of that. I can see myself sublimating, Freud’s term for channeling your sexual energy into your work. Getting called by a superior musician can feel as exciting as getting a “yes” from the girl of my dreams back in high school. It’s usually frumpy middle-aged guy with great chops, and yet it can make me that giddy.

Still, on the jazz scene, when they don’t call me, I don’t find it heartbreaking. That’s because I’ve got job security. Not because I get picked a lot but because I’ve got only a little time for music as it is, and both gigging and staying at home to practice are job one. When I’m picked for a good gig, I’m delighted, and when I’m not picked and am thereby afforded time at home to woodshed and get better I’m also delighted. Either way, I’m making progress and getting to savor my lifelong love affair with the Terpsichorean muse.

And another love affair I fell into through my father’s guidance. Through his work- and play-aholism, it was obvious that his most reliable source of satisfaction was the pursuit of mastery. “Nothing compares,” he would say. “Not even sex.”

With millions of jobs lost and many businesses holding on by a skin tag, this is no time to be talking glibly or spiritually about life being a win-win and it being all about a positive attitude, and there being no reason to sweat the small stuff cause it’s all small stuff. Not being able to feed your family is not small stuff unless we define small stuff so broadly as to include positively enormous stuff.

Underemployment imposes two big tasks–first, the enormous task of regaining financial footing, and second, regaining resilience after the cosmic wedgie of being laid off, rejected or sidelined. I think there’s emotional resilience to be had through my broader definition of job security as loving work whether you’ve got it or not.

Even when you’re not making a lot of money, you can be making a lot of progress. Many of us have been doing the same job for so long that making progress has come to be measured only in pay raises. But my father was right. Every new trick you learn can come to feel like a shiny new coin in your pocket.

Bass is just a pastime for me but I’ve got job security in my other work too. My inbox overfloweth. These articles are a good example. I can write an unlimited number and it always makes me feel alive to produce them, even when the audience for them is smaller than my café audiences.* Money aside, when I’m not working, I’m working.

There has never been a better time for the pursuit of mastery. Granted there have been far better times for recognition of mastery–I know top-flight musicians who can barely scrape by. But lord, to learn new things, there are no end of free and effective tools. We don’t realize it yet but the world of education (in which I work) is about to change more radically than it has in thousands of years. Delivery of high quality education is already almost too cheap to meter. Go to the library and borrow any course in any medium from books to DVD, or simply go on line. There are 4,000 colleges in the US now but with the advent of on-line accredited education, that number will soon grow exponentially.

I listen to books, podcasts, and the Teaching Company’s lectures at high speed (175-210%–you get used to it and fly through stuff) on my ipod while commuting, shopping, exercising and cleaning. I’m learning more than I ever learned sitting restlessly in a classroom. On-line tutorials by the gazillions, productivity power tools at unbelievably low prices.

I know it’s hell getting going from a cold start. The first days in any program of mastery are generally a drag, and if you’re anxious and depressed because you’re not making enough money it’s that much harder. It’s like the first days in the gym trying to lose 50 pounds having avoided exercise since high school. No fun. No returns. But if you can make it over the hump, you’ll be on the mastery gravy train, and as my father said, its the most reliable buzz out there.

Back in line, waiting too long get picked for baseball, kids wouldn’t spare your feelings. Captains would show their annoyance at having to pick us last choices. Bosses these days are no better at sparing feelings. There’s a glut of eager workers. Anyone in control can start to indulge in gross insensitivity if there’s no consequence. Absolute power may not corrupt absolutely but it sure can bring out one’s inner A-hole.

Many of us feel shafted not just by the economy but by management as they showed us the door. Revenge fantasies must be at an all time high. If revenge fantasies could be converted to bank credit, we’d see a speedy economic recovery.

I wonder if there’s anything like job security that can spare our feelings of being shafted. Losers have long alluded to the consolation prize of lessons learned, but really, I don’t know that we give that concept much thought. The problem with the lessons of history, personal or otherwise is that they are open to interpretation. If by “at least I learned something,” we mean at least we learned that our boss was an A-hole, that’s not going to be much of a consolation prize. It’s not going to be the same satisfaction as me getting to woodshed when I’m not picked for a gig, especially because revenge fantasies generally have to stay fantasies if we want to keep your resume tidy and avoid being arrested.

Berkeley neuroscience Terrence Deacon argues that the emotions that accompany learning are the experience of shifting energy demands in different regions of the brain. Over-supply here, under-supply there-just like the heaving changes in an economy as it seeks new equilibrium. He also argues that those emotions are what evolution feels like-the die-off of populations in one region, the flourishing of others.

I think there’s something like my jazz job security in recognizing that when you’re tossed both by the economy and by your emotions, you’re in the throes of evolution. You’re getting to experience the feeling of evolution. There may even be comfort in knowing you’re a bigger evolver than your boss who complacently sits there not having to adjust.

There’s a line I always liked from the Tao Te Ching: The master makes use of all circumstances. I’d modify it in two ways. First, the master tries to make use of all circumstances-you never know for sure if the use you make will pay off. And the other is this. It’s not the master but the pursuer of mastery who tries to make use of all circumstances.

* I’m in the way-minor leagues and realized recently it wasn’t really honest to call all my gigs, gigs, since the term implies playing to larger audiences than I get. I now distinguish gigs from figs (figments of gigs) and the rule is if the audience is less that twice the size of the band, it’s a fig. Kind-hearted friends and relatives count fifty percent. Dancers count double. Dancing children count triple.
They’re also figs because I don’t care a fig if the audience is small. Here’s a song I wrote explaining why. It’s fun to introduce it in cafés, saying to the computer users and people deep in conversation, “Excuse me, can I have your attention. Here’s a little song I wrote about why I don’t need your attention.”