"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
We have all been asked this at different stages of our lives. Sometimes the answer might have been "an astronaut!" or maybe "a doctor!" or perhaps for the spirited few, "a princess!"
At other points in our lives, maybe when we graduate from high school or college the answer is a little less exciting - "an accountant," "assistant to the branch manager" etc...
As we age it is so easy to allow our dreams to dim and to take away the exclamation point at the end of our answer to the question, "what do you want to be when you grow up" because we know more about what it means to be a grown-up - the responsibilities we now need to meet by earning an income, providing for ourselves, starting families, creating a retirement account, keeping our cars under warranty etc... not to mention actually finding joy.
But with that dimming dream, we sometimes allow ourselves to lose sight of what success means along the way. When we were kids it was not difficult to imagine being a doctor, princess or astronaut and think about being successful. To me, it felt like a simple math equation: dream job + reality = success. As a young adult, success feels more like a complicated equation: (dream job + reality - rent + student debt) x (number of years getting degree - number of connections)/ the square root of my age at the time = on the road to success.
As a creative, the I feel like I will be successful when I can do something objective: win the job, get tenured, found the workshop etc... and the road to getting there feels...well, like the equation above. I think that most creatives have held on to the answer they had to "what do you want to be when you grow up?" and tried to make a life out of it, but the beauty and curse of that is that success is not as objective, measurable or uniform.
Over the last year I have questioned what success means to me, because graduating from college and launching into the "real world" during a pandemic makes me ask myself fun questions like that. Without gigs, without recitals, performances, students to teach or any interactions with other musicians it was difficult for me to take inventory of what I had succeeded or what I was planning to succeed at. Up to this point, when asked what I thought a successful musician/educator looked like I would have said they're:
- playing in a symphony orchestra
- playing in a chamber group
- teaching a studio of dedicated students
- touring and performing masterclasses
But in a time where I could not go out and work towards accomplishing any of those things but still had the very human need to feel successful in my day-to-day life, I zoomed out and looked at myself as a person. I wondered how I could feel successful outside of the bullet points above. I wondered if it was possible.
I started to get some answers when I began to sit and listen to what I was naturally curious about, take note of who I was around and what I was doing when I felt joy and what activities built me up and made me feel whole. This mindset shift reminded me of a time when I was on a walk with my dad, years prior, in Connecticut visiting family. I asked him how he defined success and he responded, "being able to provide for my family." Though his career has always mattered to him, the impact of what he does and the positive implications that has was what ultimately defined his success.
I applied this same thought to what I do - the music I make matters, but value do I put on the impact my music makes on others? on myself?
Through asking myself these questions and listening long enough to learn the answers, I am discovering that the list of things I thought would make me successful are only manifestations of the values I hope to have when I am successful.
- "playing in a symphony orchestra" became sharing music and joy with others in concert
- "playing in a chamber group" became connecting with a small group of musicians by performing music together
- "teaching a studio of dedicated students" became fostering a meaningful connection with students through music
- "touring and performing masterclasses" became fostering a meaningful connection with musicians through music performance and music coaching
Now I think a successful musician/teacher/clinician:
- shares music and joy with others in concert
- connects with a small group of musicians by performing music together
- fosters a meaningful connection with students through music
- fosters a meaningful connection with musicians through music performance and music coaching
By the standards above, I now have values attached to what I deem successful and I open up different avenues for myself to find that success. It is so easy for us to put ourselves in a box by practicing thoughts like "I will be successful when I win a job" or "I will be successful when I have a huge studio of private lesson students". And while those things are true, there is also success to be found along the journey to those goals.
I now feel successful after fostering and maintaining a meaningful connection with a student which empowers them to progress and find joy in music. I feel successful when I get to perform for an audience in concert and share my joy with them.
I now know that my definition of success will shift over time and that revision process is where the truest success can be found - saying something isn't for you, and saying what is for you.
I hope by sharing my experience redefining success, we can start a conversation around what success looks like that leaves a lot more on the table. Find what brings you emotional nourishment. Find the things that allow you to provide for yourself emotionally and literally. Those are your successes, and they should be celebrated.