Cultivating Optimism for Music Entrepreneurs: 5 Questions to Help You Manage Uncertainty

My coaching groups at Yale are off to a great start this semester!  Students meet with me on a bi-weekly basis to share their successes and challenges in creating successful careers as musicians and artists.  Through honest, trusting and confidential sharing, they open up about their vulnerabilities and we explore how to manage the many challenges associated with a music career in today’s world.

Our students are now auditioning for summer opportunities, graduate school, fellowships, as well as taking professional orchestra auditions and YAP’s.  Many expressed concerns about what they would be doing in the future. Indeed, the music career is not a straight-line path and often, there will be periods where you don’t know what exactly you will be doing.

So how do today’s music entrepreneurs manage the uncertainty of a music career?

They cultivate optimism.

Cultivating optimism is a “happiness habit”:  an intentional activity that helps create greater happiness. I am indebted to  Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a research psychologist whose work on how to create life-long happiness is summarized in her book, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

Dr. Lyubomirsky’s research demonstrates that you have control over 40% of your capacity to become happier and that you do so through ” intentional activity”, which involves these 4 steps:

  • Making a decision to work on becoming happier;
  • Learning skills and strategies that will make you happier;
  • Applying weekly or even daily effort; and
  • Committing to a long-term goal to become happier

Sounds a lot like being a musician, doesn’t it?!

To help you cultivate a happiness habit, here are 5 questions to ask yourself to manage uncertainty whenever the worry thoughts about the future strike.

  1. What’s working?

In my coaching groups, we always start our sessions with a check-in on a success and a challenge. I like to begin with a success because it helps to focus you on the positive things in your life for which you can be grateful (hint:  gratitude is also a happiness strategy!).

And by success, I mean something that you feel good about. It does not have to be a momentous life-changing experience like winning a competition!  Our students embrace their successes not only with their career achievements but also in getting to the gym, cooking nourishing and cost-effective meals and making time to call home or have coffee with a dear friend.

So when your uncertain future is getting you down, think about a success and what you can be grateful for!

That, in turn, will make it easier for you to face your challenges and manage the uncertainty that comes along with a music career.

  1. What can I control?

Another important factor in cultivating optimism is identifying the areas of your life that you can control and to let go of anything that is outside of your control.

You cannot control the state of the economy and the job market.

You CAN control a lot of things:

  • how you present yourself in this economy;
  • exploring alternatives and multiple opportunities;
  • building your skills;
  • acquiring your experience and;
  • creating opportunities for yourself and others

So focus on what you CAN do and commit to taking some actions!  That will create a lot of momentum to manage your uncertainty.

  1. How real is my worst-case scenario?

Often when we worry, we imagine disaster scenarios like:

“I’ll never get into this festival and my summer will be a total waste of time.”

“My career will never take off if I don’t get into______.”

“How can I make it as a musician if I can’t score an orchestra job after graduation?”

One thing that helps is to examine those worries and test how real they are. What is the WORST thing that can happen if you don’t get into the “right” festival/graduate program/ or win an orchestra job next year?

One student shared that he would have to live at home—but that would mean he could save money, practice a lot, teach and network.

Another students observed that if you don’t get into a big-name festival, look for smaller, lesser known festivals where you can still get the performance and networking opportunities.

Moreover, even if you are not accepted into a music program, there are plenty of things to do outside of music.

For starters, you consider getting a job or an internship in an area of interest to you. This in turn, can help build up other skills and meet people outside the music field who could become supporters.

Similarly, you can take up a collaborative project and work with artists and writers in other genres.

You can also work on new repertoire to deepen and expand your artistic voice.

By facing your worst-case scenario, you will see that in fact, you have many more options than you realize and provide yet another way to help you manage uncertainty!

  1. What’s my challenge and what can I do about it?

Another way to cultivate optimism is to change your mindset around your challenges by listing those challenges, exploring how true they are and coming up with your own answers.

Let’s say you are auditioning for orchestras and you are not advancing.   And you are starting to doubt your abilities.

What can do you do about that?

Ask yourself the following questions when those negative perceptions crop up:

  • How can I do better the next time?
  • What can I learn from this barrier?
  • What strengths can I use to overcome this obstacle?
  • What have I done in the past when faced with similar situations?
  • What resources can I tap into to help me improve?

By coming up with answers to your perceived challenges, you are showing yourself that you can view your situation with greater positivity. Moreover, by practicing this activity over time, you can actually change those initial perceptions and begin to view your world in a more positive light.

  1. Will this matter in 1 week? 1 month? 1 year?

Often when facing an uncertain future, it feels very weighty in the moment.  So another way to cultivate optimism is to look at the positive side of things and put your issues in context.

Will this matter in 1 week?

1 month?

1 year?

This helps to put your issues into context.  Yes, it may feel awful right now but in a week, after you have had to chance to explore options, practice, network and reach out to others for help, you will probably feel a lot better.

In a month or a year, it may not even matter.

And if it still will matter in a week, month or year, then it’s time to do some work and take some actions to move you forward.

At the end of our coaching session, students were feeling much more optimistic about their futures because they realized that there were many things they could do to put themselves out in the world and manage uncertainty about their futures.

Which of these strategies can help YOU?

Pick one and commit to it.  It’s the start of creating an intentional happiness practice that can set you up for success!