Passion, Talent, and Your Choice of Profession: Some Thoughts on Majoring in Music

In modern American culture, we tend to believe that we reach the apex of professional success when our work achieves a balance between financial profitability and personal meaning. And why not? Given that we must earn money, who wouldn’t rather earn it in a way that feels personally satisfying?

Unfortunately, this lofty ambition carries certain implications for anyone who hasn’t yet arrived according to this standard, to say nothing of the pressure it places upon the thousands of high school seniors and college undergraduates who are trying to select a career. Having spent the past sixteen years on college campuses, first as a student and then as an instructor, I have noticed that today’s students are influenced by two trends: on the one hand, student loan debt has reached record levels; on the other hand, so has the number of people changing careers midstream, moving from “traditional” work to jobs that seem more interesting, impactful, or flat-out fun. The result? Students are more likely to consider a career such as music, especially those who didn’t care for most of their other classes in high school, but they want to go into that career with a guarantee of future employment. To find this reassurance, students take any number of precautions: they major in music education instead of performance because it is “safer”; they double major; they seriously consider only those schools with a history of gainfully-employed graduates, or else only those schools where their tuition is likely to be fully funded; they take time off between high school and college in the hope of saving money and gaining clarity. While each of these options has its pros and cons, the common thread is an attempt at risk management, a wish to know instead of hope that everything will work out in the end.

In the spirit of this confusion, I ended my previous post by raising the following question, which is a question I unwittingly answered for myself at age sixteen:

If you are a person who is highly motivated to practice, is this an indicator that you ought to pursue music professionally?

As an adult, I’ve come to believe that this line of thinking (and other sentiments like it) misses the point. But to understand why, it is necessary to dissect the two assumptions on which it is predicated: first, that someone’s current motivation to do something can (and should) be used to predict future motivation; and secondly, that there is a level of destiny surrounding our choice of career, a direction we “should” be pursuing.

These two implications are reinforced by two prevailing mythologies that influence much of what we believe about professional success. I refer to both of these notions as “mythologies” because they are not necessarily true, yet we have accepted them to such a degree that they have become true by virtue of self-fulfilling prophecy. The first is the mythology of passion, the idea that you should do what you love because passion leads to commitment which leads to greatness. We hear this idea endorsed by everyone from Oprah to Tony Robbins, and it certainly influenced my decision to go into music. In fact, if you’ve read the first post in this series, you’ll likely be surprised to hear that I initially chose a career in music because I loved to practice, and I wanted an excuse to do it all the time. At age sixteen, I asked myself whether my strong motivation to practice my trumpet was sufficient reason to go into music, and I answered with a resounding yes.

The problem with this reasoning is that we rarely describe ourselves as “passionate” about something unless we are also somewhat obsessive. Passion does lead to commitment in many cases, and commitment can indeed bring about greatness, but obsessive commitment generally leads to burnout. So for someone who wants to choose music out of a love for the subject, the real issue is not passion but sustainability. The question to ask is not, “How much do you love music?” but rather, “What do you not love about music?” and “What do you love besides music?” There is an oft-issued thread of advice that says, “If you can see yourself doing anything other than music and being happy, do that other thing instead of music.” I would argue that unless you can see yourself doing something other than music and being happy, you should not even consider a career as a musician. Why? Because one inevitable truth about work, whether fulfilling or not, is that it exists to finance the rest of your life. When your career is both the end and the means, your life becomes one-dimensional and stale, and recharging is nearly impossible. It is much better to enter the music world knowing that there are certain aspects of it that you won’t enjoy and to embrace other meaningful activities in your life as a welcome change of pace when your professional commitments grow tedious. This is the bargain struck by people in other professions the world over; to expect anything else of a professional musician is unfair and unrealistic.

But if passion serves as a faulty compass at best, what about the sense of calling that so many people experience with respect to career, the idea that we “should” do this or that because of a natural affinity for the pursuit? Here we encounter a second powerful mythology, the mythology of the path that manifests itself in early childhood, pointing our way forward like our own personal North Star. We most obviously associate this kind of story with the likes of Mozart and Bill Gates, the talented few who were seemingly destined to enter their respective fields by virtue of enormous aptitude or at least lifelong enthusiasm and thousands of hours, but we also associate it with the vast array of career-related books that promise to shepherd us from a lackluster professional existence to something that looks far more attractive. Whether you claim to believe in destiny or not, most of us find the idea irresistible in the context of work, and this is especially true for those whose place in a given field is not yet assured. When you are a struggling student who is trying to stand out in a seemingly endless herd of other passionate and talented people, there is something tantalizing about the idea that you might have an innate gifting that you have always taken for granted, but which (if you could only see it now for what it is truly worth) could transform your life if you heed its summons. In this mythology, she who is brave enough to answer this call will subsequently find herself not only wildly successful, a kind of late-blooming prodigy, but also highly fulfilled by work that she loves. If the mythology of passion is particularly appealing to the eighteen-year-old high school senior, the mythology of calling is equally attractive to her twenty-two-year-old, degree-holding counterpart, the one who is suddenly facing the realities of the workforce and is growing disillusioned.

But the problem with this second notion is that its influence is most clearly evident in hindsight; it is not a particularly effective means of looking forward. It is easy to look back on your life and conclude that you “always loved” a particular activity or “always knew” that you should be pursuing a particular course of action, but in the present tense, during the years when you are actually ascendant in your field of specialization, what matters most are traits such as flexibility, curiosity, diligence, patience, and resilience. Choosing a career because you expect to be good at it is a recipe for disaster during the tedious limbo period when it hasn’t yet taken off and you’re left wondering if you picked the wrong thing after all. At best, this particular mythology offers a beautiful illustration of how the twists and turns of our lives can come together into a harmonious and unexpected whole; at worst, it is a recipe for second-guessing, discontent, and change-of-major forms.

Having considered its inherent fallacies, let us now return to the central question of this post:

If you are a person who is highly motivated to practice, is this an indicator that you ought to pursue music professionally?

By now it ought to be clear that this is not a question that one asks when seeking advice. Rather, it is a question whose true aim is to elicit reassurance. And for this reason, it is an exercise in futility. Ask anyone anywhere who desperately wants an uncertain situation to turn out in a particular way—the three finalists angling for the same full-time job, the cancer patient awaiting the results of her most recent blood work, the still-single forty-year-old who fears dying alone—and each of these people will be able to narrate a half dozen stories of similar situations that worked out favorably for someone else and twice as many examples where everyone’s worst fears were confirmed. When we face real uncertainty—which we do in the music world—no amount of outside reassurance will ever be enough to completely remove our fears or our doubts. And the challenge for would-be musicians is that while each of us can always choose to write the ending of our story by quitting and walking away, the decision to walk away is also the decision to never know if you might have ultimately succeeded, had you only held out through one more year, one more audition, one more interview for one more job.

Nor does winning that job fully satisfy that question. I can swear based on personal history that there is no more disquieting experience for a young professional than to choose to pursue her passion, achieve rapid success within that field, suffer through early-onset professional burnout, and then watch as countless others attempt to switch into her field in an attempt to avoid the same levels of exhaustion that she herself is experiencing. And so if I had to do it again, if I could advise my eighteen-year-old self, here are the questions I wish I had been asking:

What does it look like for me to recharge, and what will I do to ensure that I never confuse the thrill of my profession, if and when I choose to put music in that role, with the concept of having fun for the sake of relaxation?

Who knows me well enough to recognize when I am truly unhappy, no matter what sort of face I might show to the world, and will I allow this person to talk sense into me if it turns out that I have made a life decision that has caused me to sacrifice my happiness in some ongoing way?

What is my actual day-to-day going to look like in this profession, how will that differ from my experiences during school, and will the things that motivate me now still exist as motivating influences once I reach the professional goals I have set for myself?

Am I genuinely curious about this topic; can I generate questions that will take a long time to answer and that can hold my attention over the span of years or even decades?

Do I have evidence that I possess enough emotional resilience to handle the anxiety of not having a job and trying to find one, since this will likely be part of my future, and what can I do now to bolster my inner reserves in anticipation of that time?

Had I asked myself these five questions as a teenager, I’m not convinced that I would have possessed enough insight to answer them all, but having a different framework by which to measure my career would have provided me with a more realistic set of expectations for the experiences I would have while chasing that dream. In short: I would have still chosen music, but I would have pursued it with a good deal less drama.

So herein, perhaps, lies the most important point about choosing a profession, any profession: it is worth choosing a career in a field where you possess some level of passion and some level of ability, provided you understand that neither is a guarantee of success or satisfaction and both must be tempered by the understanding that work is sometimes tedious, careers can take time to unfold, and your work is not your life no matter how much you enjoy it. Indeed, one of the only guarantees that actually does exist with respect to career choice is the guarantee that if you choose a field in which you have little interest and limited ability, you are almost certain to be unsuccessful and unhappy, and this is worth remembering before we blindly dismiss those alternatives which most capture our interest.

Here is a thought experiment in closing: supposing I remind you that there are pre-med students, management students, engineering students, liberal arts students, and computer programming students who will face their own competitive job markets after school one day, and who may do so with a great deal less real-world experience and fewer professional contacts than their music-major counterparts, since music graduates are often vouched for by professors who have watched them closely over four years of college.

Reread that sentence and notice what springs to your mind.

Does that sound like an endorsement for majoring in music? Do you want to object: the world needs passionate managers and engineers; not everyone goes into those fields to earn money? Do you think, “Sure, but there’s still a reality about the number of available jobs in different professions”?

I’d like to argue that in spite of the fact that no college student can absolutely guarantee that the choices he makes in his late teens will result in a meaningful life in his thirties or forties, the would-be musician often faces one thing that his peers in (for instance) engineering do not: an onslaught of questions, concerns, and objections from those closest to him (and often from within), before he enters college and before he has the chance to take stock of what his odds of success might actually be. This atmosphere is hardly conducive to the honest self-reflection that will best set him up for success in any field, let alone music, and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the many influential people in my own life who gave me the space to take risks at critical junctures. While it is true that our choices have ramifications, I have found that the actual content of the major decisions I’ve made has mattered less to my sense of well-being than my ability to understand my reasoning, accept responsibility for the outcomes, and maintain a sense of optimism about the possibility of making changes. It is not lost on me that I am presently in the process of adding a second career in (of all things) fiction writing, so in my next post (which, judging by the timestamps on my blog, might be available in a week or in two more years), I’ll discuss the experience of delving into these same questions as an adult, and the ways in which my life as a trumpet player has proven to be unexpectedly vital to the process of drafting a novel. Stay tuned.