My Brilliant Career: Messages to Inspire Today’s Musicians

The June 3, 2012 New York Times Sunday Review section featured a series of essays entitled “My Brilliant Career” written by 5 prominent people in different fields  and documenting their varied and often “crooked paths to success”.  I was delighted to see that the music field figured prominently in this round-up since the writers included the brilliant composer and my colleague at the Yale School of Music, David Lang and pop record label president Jonathan Poneman, as well as politician Olympia Snow, the novelist Hilary Mantel, physicist and polymath Leonard Mlodinow.

The article, aimed at college graduates, shows us that the path to success is often a series of odd jobs and bizarre circumstances.  Moreover,  there are a number of themes that resonate powerfully for the creative people with whom I work.

Let’s take a cl0ser look.

Careers Paths are a Journey

Career success is a journey of twists and turns, rather than a straight-line trajectory and one’s first job does not necessarily predict where you may land up.

Poneman, now President of Sub Pop Records, started off pumping gas in Toledo. Lang, a Pulitzer-prize winning composer and founder of Bang on a Can, took off from his musical studies to work as an administrative assistant in a non-profit arts organization.  Mantel, the novelist who wowed us with Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, taught school in rural Botswana as a 25-year old transplant to Africa.

Most musicians that I know do a variety of work and are constantly on a journey, not only when they launch their careers but throughout their lives.  This is not surprising because musicians and artists cannot rest on their laurels and want to keep learning and growing.

Follow Your Muse and Make It Yours

If you know your creative passion, go for it!  David Lang lasted 6 months in his grunt job because he realized that he wanted to perfect his craft at graduate school.  And while Lang groused about doing all the grunt work for someone else —keeping books and calendars, ordering supplies, making copies and writing thank-you notes to donors– he handles the same tasks now that he is in charge of his own enterprise.  Indeed, for many creative people, making it yours is an essential element to success.

Mlodinow passed up a tenured faculty position in physics to go to Hollywood and write screenplays.  He is a great example of forging a unique career path which in his case has encompassed writing for television, producing computer games, designing a math curriculum, and returning to Caltech to do physics research, teach and write nonfiction.

Have Faith in Your Dream

If you have a dream, follow it and have faith that you can make it happen. Senator Olympia Snow knew early on that she wanted to be involved in public service to improve the lives of others and her goal was a job in Washington.  She committed herself to public service and did not make it to Washington until she was widowed tragically at the age of 26 and ran for her late husband’s seat in Congress.  She won and spent her entire career in Washington.

And Jonathan Poneman tells us that his dream world was the record store—and he is now President of Sub Pop Records.

So if you have a vision or a dream of success, be proactive and make it happen!

Adopt a Positive Attitude and Make The Most of Your Circumstances

Senator Snow also teaches us the importance of having a positive attitude and learning from one’s challenges.

The struggles she experienced in her personal life—being orphaned at age 10, as well as being widowed at a young age—taught her that she had a choice:  either to be overwhelmed by tragedy or to learn from these experiences which she was able to reframe as temporary setback. 

Hilary Mantel was able to craft a job as a teacher when she found herself in a remote, underdeveloped area in Botswana in the 1970’s at the age of 25. In fact, she characterized her teaching job as “one of her better career moves” because it taught her so much about herself and felt so meaningful to her.

How inspirational for today’s musicians who find themselves in a tough job market and may be wondering how they can make the most of their circumstances. 

For starters, embrace an entrepreneurial mindset and proactively create your own career opportunities which are now possible in an age where the Internet provides direct access to an audience and technology lowers the costs by providing a wealth of “do-it-yourself” tools. And let’s not overlook teaching as an option, no matter where you find yourself!

Embrace Your Passions

And finally, record executive Poneman reminds us to “put a premium on enjoying our time at work.”  So follow your passions and make the most of what you do each day.  You may not be able to figure out your career path right away but perhaps you will take heart from the example of Steve Jobs who dropped out of college, took courses that he loved, including calligraphy, with no clue about where it would lead until 10 years later when he drew on his knowledge of fonts and calligraphy to design the first Apple computer– forever revolutionized our world.  As he told the graduates of Stanford University in 2005, do what you love, trust those instincts and don’t worry about worry about connecting the dots because it will happen.

The great thing about musicians is that they are able to live their passions in their life’s work.  Therefore, be guided by your passions and trust that it will all add up someday.

And thank you, David Lang, Hilary Mantel, Olympia Snow, Jonathan Poneman and Leonard Mlodinow, for providing such inspirational guidance to career success!