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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