When Not To Quit Something You Love: How Discipline Saved Both My Careers

I believe my students when they tell me they are “passionate” about music (or teaching). I myself am acquainted with passion, which has shaped my experience in manifold ways. At various times I have known passion for horses, classical music, running a college trumpet studio, learning to cook, painting with acrylics, triathlon, and the Tyrannosaurus Rex. (These are not listed in chronological order.) Each interest has claimed hours of my undivided attention, some with better results than others.

I can think of exactly one period in the first thirty years of my life when I would have described myself as a passionate writer of fiction. During that phase I posted a sign on my bedroom door which proudly enumerated all of the projects I’d started, and also how long I had suffered from writer’s block. Whatever else we might say about that season, my best friend will vouch for the fact that it was high on word count and low on coherent plots. More about this later.

Early enthusiasm is no predictor of endurance, which is probably fortunate lest our world be overrun by paleontologists. If you want to know the depth of any commitment, you have to stress-test it, try it out over time. This stress-testing most often looks like discipline, which is a word that tends to make passionate people cringe. “Passion” sounds exotic; it conjures up tropical beaches. We assume that passion is pursued for passion’s sake. “Discipline” feels mundane, a word better applied to homework and laundry. If we have to use discipline, we must not like what we’re doing very much.

The problem is that discipline is also what separates commitment from convenience. In short: if you want to know whether the passion you’re thinking of converting to a career is the kind of thing you’ll want to be doing in any kind of mortgage-paying way, apply some discipline and see where it takes you.

This is not sexy advice, but it has come to define my work life. Without it, I would have quit both trumpet and fiction and would be in a serious professional pickle.

Let’s backtrack a couple of paragraphs and return to my experience as a writer. Nearly seven months in, I can safely assert that 2019 has turned into The Year Of The Novel. Within the context of my most recent post, novel-writing falls under the heading of Myth Two (“the path that manifests itself in early childhood”), mostly because it is the only life goal I’ve carried with me since the age of six, other than owning a horse. Somewhere around November of last year it dawned on me that I was either going to write a novel or I wasn’t, and my odds of writing it would be exponentially better if I attempted that feat while employed part-time with a sympathetic husband and no children. Therefore I went to Starbucks, took stock of a year’s worth of brainstorming and false starts, pointed myself in the direction that seemed most likely to lead to a completed draft, and set about the business of getting there come hell or high water (or sharks).

I turn out to be a turtle of a writer, so at the moment I can’t offer advice about finishing novels, publishing them, or marketing them. That said, I have discovered that I am surprisingly consistent about working on them, which is an ability I attribute squarely to the experience I described in post number one of this series. Had I not wrestled myself into a practice room throughout 2017, I know exactly how my present venture would be going.

Despite my pre-college “writer’s block” (which I would re-define today as “unwillingness to sit my butt in front of a computer or a notebook long enough to work through the holes in my plots”), I entered Northwestern University as a double degree student, intending to pursue both music and fiction. Within a year I had relegated the writing to a minor, mostly because I was so absorbed in the trumpet. My core fiction curriculum, however, remained identical to that of the majors, which meant I was expected to complete a novella as my terminal assignment. Somehow I missed this golden opportunity, convincing my professors to accept the first chunk of a novel in which I was never wholly invested. I abandoned that project post-graduation, along with all other intentions of writing. I remember announcing to myself that because I could afford not to write every day (as opposed to practicing, where daily attention was assumed), I intended to exercise that privilege.

As you can see, my writing up to that point displayed no evidence of either passion or commitment; writing a book was a nice idea. For the next ten years, I wrote in fits and spurts, composing poetry at odd intervals, crafting murder mysteries for my friends to act out, and contemplating the opening chunks of new long-form fiction, which invariably got stymied by plot holes. Missing from my approach were two critical factors: first, the practice of outlining, which would have solved my plotting problems but which I dismissed out of hand because it was tedious; second, anything resembling discipline (which is probably why I never bothered to outline).

What’s staggering to me is that, exactly one year ago, the absence of these two ingredients led me to conclude that my dream of writing a novel (by this point I wasn’t even speaking of publishing a novel, but only of finishing one) wasn’t going to happen. Thanks to a misunderstanding of discipline, I walked away, not once but twice, from an activity that today forms the basis for the most rewarding and exciting project upon which I have ever embarked.

With that in mind, here’s what discipline isn’t:

Discipline isn’t the same as working really hard.

Discipline isn’t the same as following your teacher’s instructions.

Discipline isn’t a short-term activity; by definition it requires a long-term investment.

What discipline is is an individual measure, an awareness of when you’re cutting corners and a decision not to allow it. It’s about honest self-accountability over an extended period of time. (If you don’t do self-accountability, recruit someone else to hold you accountable, but don’t use it as an excuse to be undisciplined.) As a tenure-track professor in 2017, I set a practicing quota for myself that required me to play every day for an average of thirty minutes; that commitment tapped the sweet spot between a goal I knew I could achieve and a goal I would still have to work for. As a writer that number would be pitifully small, so the current quota is far higher.

Steven Pressfield, whose book Turning Pro was a major influence when I decided to get serious about practicing, has said that professionals recognize that they can only be professionals at one thing. I have found his words to be true, and they explain much of the confusion that young people face when making decisions about career. Many students start college in pursuit of a dream. (The ones I work with have chosen music, so let’s go with that example.) Somewhere along the way, some of them decide to change majors, with the idea that they’ll still play their instruments just as much but they’ll do it “for fun.” This logic appealed to me somewhere around my mid-twenties, but in my case I applied it to writing.

You’ve already heard how that went. Novels don’t write themselves and brass embouchures don’t stay in shape without regular maintenance; ultimately, the thinking leads in both cases to a nice idea that isn’t going to happen. Most of us are capable of juggling multiple activities, sometimes with professional success in multiple arenas, but we are not capable of exercising professional-level discipline in two competing domains. Sooner or later, the two will conflict, and one will prove to have precedence.* In 2017, I had no prayer of committing to my writing because my commitment energy was all going to my practicing. In 2019, I practice regularly but my commitment is wrapped up in writing a book. The most critical point is that before 2017, I had no track record of discipline in either activity, which means that in spite of holding a terminal degree in trumpet performance, I could not be said to have made the internal, gut-level, look-in-the-mirror-and-admit-it kind of commitment that can transform if into when. Without that experience, I had no real basis for deciding to quit either pursuit.

In my previous post, I listed five questions I wish I had asked myself at age eighteen. Today I conclude this series with the questions I wish I had asked after college:

Have I confused hard work with discipline? Without taking anything away from the time I’ve spent or the effort I’ve put in, can I honestly say I’m not cutting any corners?

(My answer, at twenty-two: Nope. I wasn’t recording myself or being routine about my practice sessions.)

Having identified what discipline looks like for me, have I given it a fair shot? In other words, have I implemented discipline on a daily basis for six months or longer?

(My answer, at thirty-one: Nope. Six months is not the same as a semester; on the academic calendar, six months will incorporate periods where you have to self-motivate.)

Am I preparing to make a major life decision on the basis of data that I’ve gathered while not fully committed?

(My answer, at twenty-two and again at thirty-three: Yep. This is what I did both times that I walked away from writing and every time that I nearly quit the trumpet.)

If I see myself as moving “towards” one thing that would make it necessary to step “away” from something else, have I applied the first three questions to my new path, and am I being honest about the relationship I will have with my old path once I leave it?

(My answer, at twenty-four: Nope. While in graduate school, I considered leaving music for visual art. Since I hadn’t exerted any discipline in the service of either art or music, that decision would have been based solely on the slippery foundation of feelings. Happily, I did understand that my relationship with the trumpet would never be the same, and I chose to hold onto it long enough to experience the commitment that had been missing.)

Does anyone else in my life have an agenda surrounding this decision, or is anyone manipulating my feelings about it, even if unintentionally?

(My answer, at twenty-eight: Yep. I was so frustrated with people advocating for my music career that I was ready to get my doctorate and jump ship, just to assert my own will. Thankfully, my advisers were actually giving me good advice because, as should be obvious by now, there was no evidence to support the belief that I was actually committed to doing anything else. Not everyone is this selfless, especially about decisions that influence financial stability.)

If my story as a trumpet player has been about turning a passion into a commitment, then my story as a writer is about making a commitment and unearthing a passion. I am fortunate that writing is not brass playing; if my two paths had been reversed I would be dealing with an atrophied embouchure and a lot of if-onlys. I gave up writing for many reasons, but above all I gave it up because I never gave it a chance. Despite all the talk about pursuing a passion, we don’t hear a lot about preserving a passion, and so we think the way to do it is to walk away when the project that once captured our attention begins to require parameters to keep it on track. I understand that thinking because I’ve bought into it multiple times.

If I’d acted on it without giving discipline its due, I would have missed out on most of the best of my life.


* By extension, the very title of this post is a misnomer; if I’m arguing that you can’t pursue two activities with equal professional zeal then it shouldn’t be possible to maintain two careers. I’m in an interesting position right now because I have a mismatch between which domain has my credentials and which one has my commitment, but my argument is not about output. Many people can and do produce professional-quality work in disparate domains, and I’d like to be one of them. That said, if I am judging myself by the standards I’m advocating here, then I am at present a writer who gets paid to play and teach the trumpet. That internal shift was so difficult for me to contemplate that I couldn’t commit to writing until I realized that unless I was willing to set the trumpet in second place for a while, I would go to my grave with the novel unwritten.