The Tao of Nelson: How Willie’s Sons Seek Optimism

Optimism correspondent Mike Hall talks with Lukas and Micah Nelson, the creative sons of the one-and-only Willie Nelson, about seeking optimism along their journey.

Lukas and Micah Nelson grew up on stage under the laid-back eye of their father, Willie, adopting his Zen-like, positive attitude toward life, learning, and music. The two have their own solo careers but spend a lot of time opening for their dad on tour—and then returning to the stage to play with him. We talked to them at ACL Live at the Moody Theater in Austin in advance of one of Willie’s annual trio of New Year’s Eve shows.

Mike Hall: One of my favorite quotes—I have it typed on a piece of paper above my desk at work—is from your dad, who has had some great things happen to him and he’s had some terrible things happen to him. He said, “When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” In other words, optimism is a choice. What do you guys think about what your dad said?

Micah Nelson: The dimension we live in, the field of time, of duality, where we experience the positive and negative as dual experiences, they’re both going to happen, no matter what you do. So you have a choice to think positively about every situation.

Lukas Nelson: Things are going to happen. Happiness is going to happen. And sadness is good—it’s gonna happen, too. It’s all part of learning.

MN: Sh*t makes the flowers grow.

LN: The biggest thing I’ve learned is how to find perspective and choose happiness, because it is a choice. Our brains have the ability to create different pathways. There are all these neurons firing and connecting electrical currents, and when you have a thought, a signal is sent between two neural synapses. So when a new thought process creates that current, it’s kind of like forging a path in a forest that hasn’t been walked before. You can train your brain to follow the more-used path. The more you think to create these positive pathways in your brain, the more your brain will automatically choose the positive. And so what I do every morning is, I’ll wake up and go for a run, and I’ll think of a word and repeat it: “Positivity.” “Happiness.” “Joy.” “Serenity.”

MN: In a way it’s a version of counting your blessings.

LN: It is, but it’s also creating. Because when I say the word “serenity,” my brain associates that because I’ve felt serenity before. It goes back and remembers what serenity felt like. You have to train your brain. When your mind is trained to a positive place, then you start making decisions based on that place. That creates a domino effect in your life. It’s so powerful—people really resonate with positivity way more than negativity. You can change someone’s life with a brief, positive moment.

MH: You guys are both artists. One thing about being an artist is you have to fail a bunch of times before you find your voice, find success.

LN: I don’t like the word “failure.” I don’t use that word, ever. It’s not something that enters my brain. It’s not even true. Anytime something doesn’t go the way you planned, it doesn’t mean it’s a failure. You’re always learning something, and you have to look at that right. You have to choose that positivity. If you go out there and you bomb a show, you can either say “I failed,” or you can say, “This is a continuing of my lesson.”

MN: Think of it as fertilizer.

MH: How much has your dad’s philosophy and example affected your attitudes?

MN: A lot. I think observing him and knowing him, you absorb these tendencies toward positivity, toward compassion. But people forget that we have two parents. You know, our mom was the one raising us a lot of the time, so from her we were getting more parenting, you know, “Don’t do that.” And for my dad, he was living by example, and we’re watching what he does in his life. He’s doing what makes him happy.

LN: Without our mom we would be pretty terrible people.

MN: She instilled in us the drive to be independent in our own way, because she is very independent.

MH: The world is an unbelievably scary place today. How do you maintain a sense of optimism?

LN: If you watch the news, the world is a terrible, scary place. But if you go out in Austin on New Year’s Eve, you see mostly happy people. You venture out anywhere in your life and interact with the people around you—your community—you find the representation of goodness in nearly everybody you meet; it’s like, ninety percent great.

MN: I don’t know about that. The world is terrifying for a lot of people.

“It’s not just a matter of thinking good thoughts all the time.”

LN: Yeah, but you know you can’t take everything on. I’m talking about how I deal with it and stay optimistic. I see representations of goodness everywhere I go. I don’t care where you’re from or where you live, you will see that, whether it’s somebody helping an old lady across the street, somebody giving somebody a really thoughtful gift, or somebody teaching somebody a lesson in life. Even during hard times, you find the goodness is all around—it’s just quiet. And the bad stuff is loud, and it happens every once in a while. I believe in optimism. I’m an optimist, so I’m always more focused on positive— the way that I stay positive is not by looking at all the shit. Even in the squalor, the spirit is alive with people, the goodness is alive with people. It’s about perspective.

MN: But it’s not just a matter of thinking good thoughts all the time. That’s the first step. You have to do something, too. It’s about paying attention so your positive thoughts and choices are effective toward positive change. Everyone can do something, whether it’s practicing daily random acts of kindness, voting with your dollar, or making the conscious choice of educating yourself on the ripple effect of your actions.

LN: We are in the most peaceful time per capita of population for violent deaths that has ever been in this world. Because there are almost eight billion people in the world. Seventy-five years ago, the entire world was in a state of war. We had atomic bombs dropping, we had people dying by the hundreds of thousands every few months. Right now, because of globalism and the internet, because of the connections we have, we are in a state of relative peace that has been unparalleled in the history of humanity, with the exception of before the Industrial Revolution.

MH: I think we can all agree that’s something to feel good about.

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