Pursuing Your Passion in 4 Hard Steps

At the beginning of 2016 I left a my job as a business analyst and software engineer to pursue the dream of being a full-time musician. It feels a little crazy at times and, often, when I tell people about having made this transition they exclaim “how brave”. I can’t help but agree with them. This shit is scary.

This was the third time I decided I wanted to give the full-time music thing a try. The first two times I got cold feet. In retrospect, I think I wasn’t quite ready, so I guess it’s good I got scared off. When the third time came around, I was much better prepared. I had saved up some money, and I was being hired fairly regularly. I was also extremely frustrated with my job which was, I think, that last push I needed to make it over the edge.

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Here I am one and a half years later, and I can tell you that I got a lot right, and a lot wrong. I’ve met a lot of people who want to quit their day job to follow their passion whether it’s opening an ice cream shop, writing a book, teaching dance, or something else. There’s no easy way to find success here and, despite hard work, you might not find the success you desire. There are, of course, steps we can take to increasing our likelihood of success. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way that I hope might help you do just that.

Be specific

You wanna follow your passion? Why? What does that look like? There are a million ways to be a musician, for example. You can perform, you can teach, you can write music, you can score films. Then there are things that are musician-like: you can produce, you can manage a band, you can book bands, you can make and fix instruments, you can do recording. The list goes on. Whether you want to be an artist, a musician, an author, or something else, it behooves you to be as specific as possible about your dream. Then, once you think you figured it out, explain to yourself why that’s the dream for you. What drives you?

It was a fascinating discovery for me to uncover the hidden reasons why I really wanted to be a musician. Yes, I love performing, and I love writing music. However, after countless discussions, hours of journaling, and occasionally knocking my head on the nearest hard surface, I found that music’s importance to me lies in its ability to connect people to each other, and as a way for me to connect with people. Further, I found that I enjoy the pursuit of mastery. My favorite scenes in movies are the montages. I love the idea that focused work leads to improvement. I also enjoyed the appreciation and attention that I received as a musician. It feels a little embarrassing to admit that but it’s better to work with truth than lies. Honesty is key.

We are self-delusion experts. Some of us are better than others, but we all have the talent. If you really wanna get to your truth, it’s gonna take work. My suggestion is to tag some of your good friends and discuss it with them. Also, journal. If you’re not keeping a journal, start by journaling about what’s taken you so long. 15 minutes every other day will do wonders. Here are some questions to start with:

  • What does my ideal life look like? Do you have a house, a family, a dog? Do you travel?
  • What are my non-negotiables? Are you open to have an apartment instead? Are there only a select number of places you’ll live?
  • What parts of my current life am I not willing to give up? Your car? Your friends?
  • What does success look like? Being rich? Getting to be creative?
  • Why is this my passion?

Be realistic

When I first made the transition, I had it in my mind that I would spend at least 5 hours a day practicing piano, jazz, and transcribing. I was going to do this all while building up my online presence, performing more, touring, and maybe doing some teaching to make ends meet. I’m sure had I reflected on these goals a little more rigorously, I would’ve realized that they weren’t realizable, at least not simultaneously. In fact, my time management system has brought great clarity on what I can actually achieve in a week. Here’s a snapshot of last week:

11 hours writing and arranging music for an upcoming performance
7 hours on songwriting
5.5 hours practicing
5 hours performing
3 hours on promotion
2 hours booking tours and local gigs, working out details for upcoming performances
2 hours on finances, taxes, etc.
2 hours on strategical thinking and systems
2 hours prepping for classes I’m teaching
And then a bunch of other miscellany

The reality is that following your dream will often leave you spending a lot of time doing things that you might not be all that excited about. Make sure that you’re being realistic with your specific vision. If you’re really excited about becoming a better painter well, sure, you can spend a month or two just painting all day. Eventually though, you’re going to need to sell your paintings, and you won’t be able to spend all day doing that one thing you love.

Be smart

I love Disney movies as much as the next person but I also fault them for instilling in us many toxic beliefs. For starters, there’s that small tinge of sadness I feel every time I talk to a dog and they don’t actually respond to me. And I’m pretty miffed that I can’t have a pet tiger. Perhaps a more harmful Disney message is that, if you’re passionate about something, you should probably just drop everything else in your life and go do it. In fairness, it’s not just Disney that’s sending this message. There’s a host of articles, books, and “experts” that just want us to forget about money, responsibility, our friends and pets, and pursue what makes us happy.

When we talk about pursuing passion, we often talk about it as a binary thing. If you’re a full-time artist, you’re pursuing your passion. If you’re doing it on the side, then you’re not. There are many who hold down a full or part-time job, and also pursue their passion. There are some who took the plunge into full-time artist, entrepreneur or whatever, and got trapped in a situation where they’re not actually getting to do the things they love. That might sound familiar to some of you. I know I’ve fallen in that trap. So, rather than going into work tomorrow and serenading your bosses with “I am quitting this job today,” consider this approach:

  • If you don’t have a job that issues a regular paycheck, get one. You might want to favor jobs that respect work/life balance so you can continue creating, and investing into your passion.
  • Save as much money as you can. Cut away all superfluous expenses and live as minimally as possible. The less you consume (and more you save), the more freedom you’ll have to do whatever you want to do.
  • Set goals for how much time you’re going to spend pursuing your passion. Again, be specific, and prove to yourself that this is something you really want by meeting your weekly goals even while you’re holding down a regular job.
  • If you’ve saved enough to pay your living expenses for at least 3 years, you have some people paying for your creations, and you really want to give it a go, now might be a good time. If possible, start by cutting down your work hours to part-time rather than leaving altogether.

Enjoy it

When I first made the transition to full-time, I fixated on how I was going to make money. I came up with lots of ideas but, after some introspection, realized that most the ideas weren’t aligned with my reasons for taking the plunge to begin with: a desire to connect with people, to pursue mastery, and to garner appreciation. I finally decided that I would put money second; Instead of trying to maximize my income as a musician, I seek to maximize my enjoyment.

I choose to spend the majority of my time doing the things that I love, and I will live with the outcome. In a year or so, I might make some carefully thought out concessions, or I may discover that I can’t make my passion my vocation, and that’s okay. It would be worse, I think, to be making a lot of money and no longer enjoying my art.

People are as varied as the songs they listen to. There are many who love programming computers (I actually still really enjoy this work). I had a math teacher in high school who was a mortician on the side. That was his passion. I think it’s a common misconception that passions have to look artistic. Almost all professions have an element of creativity. So, while this post has talked a lot about being some kind of artist, it’d be a mistake to think that you have to be an artist to pursue your passion. It’s up to you to discover your own vision and find your reasons, your hidden drivers. Maybe you’re already living your dream. Awesome! If not, I hope you find these ideas helpful, and find success however you define it. Good luck!

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Whoa, you made it to the end. Here’s a gift: Watch that cute pup in the picture turn on and play the organ, and take a bow.

Toxic Time Management

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with time management. I blame Batman. Batman, you see, is just a normal guy sans superpowers who made unbelievably effective use of his time. So, as a kid, I read about productivity, and concocted time management programs to support my lofty goals of becoming a real-life superhero. The philosophy behind my programs was generally pretty simple: spend all my time doing productive stuff like practicing martial arts, exercising, studying, building grappling guns. Batman didn’t have time for stuff like making friends, building community, watching movies, and so neither would I!

I have since given up on the idea of being Batman. I’d like to say it’s because I recognized that Bruce Wayne was an unachievable ideal though it’s more likely that I just found music more compelling. The idea of using every moment as effectively as possible, however, feels like an inexorable part of my identity. There are pros and cons. The pros: I have grown a lot as a musician and also as a person. The cons: I have avoided putting real effort into anything that can’t be checked off, and that’s a lot of important stuff!

A month or so ago, after a couple very productive weeks, I was feeling pretty depressed and lonely. In the name of productivity, I put a ban on things that weren’t goal related, and had isolated myself from friends and community. It took me a couple days to climb out of the slump. Previously, I would’ve gone straight back into full-productivity mode thus propagating the cycle. This time, however, I stepped out of action to reflect on this pattern, and come up with some new rules for how to think about time management.

I have recently updated my time management spreadsheet so that it reflects these rules. It might help you to have a look before continuing. Also, feel free to make a copy and use it yourself if you like.

Productivity is best optimized by optimizing for balance

The reason why my time-management systems continue to fail is because I have previously made productivity my primary and, really, only goal. So, by the 2-week mark I’m usually feeling dried up and isolated. For a sustainable time-management system, I believe we have to plan time for restorative activities, and aim for balance. How do we do that?

Make a list of all your projects: everything you do with your life. Now, ask yourself this question: what are the important things that I’m avoiding or just don’t naturally spend time on? For me, this was community, journaling, and therapy. Make sure these go on your project list as well. Now, every week, come up with your goal budget – the number of hours you have to spend on your projects altogether – and distribute those hours amongst your projects according to their importance. Remember those really important things that you don’t naturally put time into? Make sure they get some attention.

Once you have your week’s budget established for each of your projects, break those goals down for each day of the week. This may sound like a lot of work, but I can’t tell you how freeing it is to wake up and already have a plan for what that day has in store. Also, your daily goals will help keep you balanced. Without this, you’re likely to get to the end of the week without putting any time into those very-important projects that you have difficulty getting yourself to do.

One word of warning: you’ll occasionally start working on something to be stopped in your tracks by the BEST IDEA EVER. You’ll be tempted to drop your whole plan for the day, and maybe even the week, to get started. Resist!!! Seriously, if it’s the best idea ever, it can wait until next week when you can budget some time for it. If you still think it’s imperative, take 5 minutes to rebalance your budget and allocate some time for this new work.

Easy success is sustainable success

When we’re devising goals for ourselves, we often default to something like “learn this etude by the end of the week.” If the end of the week comes and we don’t have a polished etude, we’re likely to feel as though we’ve let ourselves down regardless of how hard we worked. It’s pretty hard to estimate how long it’ll take to complete a given task. If there’s a strict deadline, sometimes we have to. If there’s not, we can avoid estimation altogether and go with tasks like these: “this week I’ll put 6 hours into learning this etude.” It is much easier to succeed with a goal like this. When you get started, make sure to err on the side of allocating too few hours. Resist competing in the battle for who can do the most work, and battle instead for contentedness and a sense of fulfillment.

Don’t let good and bad get in the way

I have previously thought of different activities as good or bad uses of time. Practicing piano = good. Watching a Netflix show = bad. I’ve come to realize that this is a dangerous, and unnecessary classification. Instead, you can just moderate your activities based on a desire for balance (see above). For some, that means 1 hour of Netflix a week. For others it means 5 or more. You choose. That said, there is a category of things we do that probably aren’t that important, but are easy and fun to do. For me, this includes Netflix, movies, and time on Facebook. If you can, try using these activities as rewards. Please take care here not to use all of your self-care activities as rewards. Investments in community, seeing friends, or taking time to relax, for example, are probably not good rewards. These are too important! Look for things you love to do that really aren’t that important for you to do. Those are good rewards.

If you’re at all like me, you might try to use your reward time productively. If that’s the case, decide ahead of time (during your weekly budgeting) what you want to do as a reward. It’ll be a little harder to blow off.

For the love of all things holy, just treat yourself well

I think the true test of any time management system is quality of life. Are you happy? If the answer is no, you might not be balancing your time well. Loneliness and depression are formidable foes though. A better approach to time management could be useful but it’s probably just one facet of the battle. Here’s a great article about battling loneliness from my friend Ashley Kirsner of Skip the Small Talk. There’s a great section on self-care which is a category of activities that we could all stand to put some more time into. I wish you all the luck in achieving a balanced and fulfilling life. Now go forth and be awesome!

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What Engineering Taught Me About Making It In Music

Before I took the plunge into being a full-time musician, I got my bachelor and master’s degrees in Electrical Engineering. For a while I was pursuing music and software development simultaneously and, when people asked what I did, I would say “during the day I hit keys and, at night, I hit different keys.” It’s truly a wonder I don’t have carpal tunnel.

Every once in awhile I catch myself complaining about how I wasted so much time pursuing those degrees only to ditch my software job and focus on music. While it’s true that I don’t really spend much time writing denoising algorithms these days, I did learn a lot of important lessons during my time as an engineer that have helped me succeed in other areas of my life. Perhaps they can be useful to you too. So, here are some that I’ve found particularly helpful.

It ain’t impossible until it’s impossible

Engineers and programmers are often handed tasks that may actually be impossible but we accept that as part of the job description. By the time you’re a senior engineer you’ll have succeeded and failed so many times that the question “is it possible?” just doesn’t seem relevant anymore. Instead, you’ll only ask “why, and how long do I have?” If you really want to do something, why not just try it? Choose to believe it’s possible, and evaluate your belief later on. I recommend having an accountability team packed with insightful people to help keep you accountable both to your goal and to reality. It can be hard to let go of something we’ve invested a lot of time and energy into, and a solid group of friends and supporters can help provide an unbiased perspective on what you can and cannot accomplish.

Think small to go big

George wakes up one day and decides he wants to climb a mountain. He does a little research, flies to Tibet, takes one look at Mount Everest, flies back home, and goes back to bed. Sure, laugh at George, but I bet you’ve done something like this. Maybe you saw an amazing piano player and, despite your previous interest in learning piano, decided you just can’t be that good and binged on Netflix instead. Well, nobody climbs Mount Everest the first time they go climbing (or, if they do, they’re probably frozen to the mountain somewhere), and nobody plays like Oscar Peterson without working their asses off for years. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by some new goal, try breaking it down at least 5 times. For example,

I want to be able to play piano like Oscar Peterson.
I want to be able to play “C Jam Blues” just like he does.
I want to be able to play one chorus of “C Jam Blues” just like he does.
I want to be able to play one measure of “C Jam Blues” just like he does.
I want to be able to play one measure of “C Jam Blues”, right hand only, just like he does.

Now doesn’t that last thing sound like something you could do? I’m pretty sure you can! Start there and work your way up.

Failure is success in disguise

In every major tech corporation there’s a shrine to Steve Jobs and a plaque with all their favorite words. The first word on that plaque is “pivot” (followed by “monetize” and “utilize”). Well, Steve Jobs was kind of a jerk in my opinion, but I’m a big fan of pivoting. What is pivoting? Let’s say you spent the last year making a whole lot of tasty cupcakes. Your car is packed with the things, and you’re headed to Massachusetts where marijuana was recently legalized and cupcakes will be in high demand. Unfortunately, your tasty cupcakes are so tasty that you accidentally eat them all before you arrive (whoops, burp). You realize, however, that you are a freaking cup-cake-making ninja. Perhaps you can sell your knowledge, and teach others your art. Or maybe you consult with other shops. Maybe you start a food science blog. The point is, whatever you learned, created, or invented in pursuit of your goal might be as, if not more, lucrative than what you initially had in mind. If you fail, take a moment to reflect on what new skills and knowledge you have, and consider some creative ways to use them in pursuit of a new, different goal.

I know that doing new stuff is scary. It still scares the crap out of me more often than not, but I promise it gets less scary the more you do it. Good luck doing amazing things! I look forward to hearing about your successes and failure.

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What I Learned About Life While Sitting at the Piano

Update on May 10, 2017: This post focuses on my experience learning Taubman Technique which has done wonders for my piano playing. I talk a lot about active relaxation in the post and, while I feel this is an important skill, it is not a tenant of Taubman. Instead, Taubman aims to take away the antagonistic alignments and movements that produce tension. Relaxation is an important benefit of this work.
Thanks to Lisa (yea, I know it was you) who put a “Butts!” card in the Josh Box at Blues Yourself in Boston. My reflection on how to connect this to music led me to some interesting and unexpected places in my first blog post. I guess that’s the way of butts. Fair warning: I don’t actually talk about butts that much, but I do use the word “but” pretty often. Does that count?

Piano was the first instrument I ever played, but it wasn’t the first instrument I was serious about. When I was in high school, I started playing percussion, then tuba, then upright bass (yes, I was attracted to the big instruments, jokes welcome but only if you’re creative about it). Later, I went to college for jazz bass, left dissatisfied after a year, and pretty much gave up on music. About ten years later (I’m always terrible at remembering when things happened), I revisited the piano and fell in love with music all over again.

It was a completely new experience for me to feel excited about practicing. I broke out the Hanon book and my old jazz books. I was practicing every day for a couple hours and making considerable progress. Years later though, I felt that I had hit a plateau. I just couldn’t execute things on the piano the way I wanted. I might get it once but, the next time, it’d fall apart. I asked around a little, and a number of friends recommended I talk to a fella named Bob Durso who lives in Philly and teaches an approach called Taubman Technique.

I started lessons with Bob and felt like I was the protagonist in Karate Kid 5 (confession: I don’t know how many Karate Kids there are, and I’m not looking it up) where I have to defeat the bad guy with the Chopin Etude in C# minor. Our first lesson was about how to sit on the piano bench, and I left with an exercise that had me slowly playing five-note scales while exaggerating the rotational movement before hitting each key (wax on, wax off). Eventually, the knowledge that Bob was working so hard to impart to me took root and blossomed into this epiphany: Playing a single key on the piano takes more than the work of a single finger; it takes a coordinated effort from the entire body. Energy travels from the floor to your feet, from the bench to your butt, up through your torso, through your shoulders, down your arm, and into your little finger that is coupled to a key that, when pressed, causes a hammer to strike a string: this is what it means to play the piano.

Before Taubman, my approach to piano technique and life’s quandaries were roughly the same: keep doing the thing until I get it mostly right. My lessons with Bob taught me about reflection and intention. Now, when I’m perfecting a piece of music, I step back and reflect on the state of my body (where I am relaxed, where I am tense), how connected I am with the piano, the bench, and the ground, how my hand and wrist move as I play through the piece, my mental state, etc. All of these details must be in order to execute something perfectly. In general, my approach consists of stepping back, taking stock of the variables that I have control over, and experimenting with those variables until I find a choreography that makes the activity feel easy. And isn’t “easy” the way we want everything to feel? The irony, of course, is how hard we have to work to make things feel that way.

I’m often surprised at how concrete experiences, once settled and aged, crack open to reveal enlightening metaphor. I never did think to ask Bob if he considered himself a piano teacher or something more holistic. Perhaps you can’t be one and not the other. Regardless, I’m elated at the great strides I’ve made as a pianist and as a human since Bob and I first worked together, and I continue to look forward to the mysterious and windy path ahead.

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