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Careers and Callings

For most of my life, as early as I can remember, I have been strongly affected by sound. I have an early memory of one of my birthday parties not going so well because one event consisted of sitting on balloons in order to see who could pop them the first (or something). I ran into the hall upset because of the loud sound they all made, and we had to quickly move onto the next activity.

I was mesmerized by all of the Charlie Brown holiday cartoons not just due to the animation, but also because of the music, which I realized later. I watched movies and noticed the soundtrack and sound effects more than the plot. I started buying records when I was about 12 years old and while my family would be in the den watching TV each night, I would be in the living room walking around pretending to be the musicians that I was listening to on my dad's headphones with the long coily cable.

In elementary school I thoroughly detested Music class because it consisted of learning to sing Great American folk songs as taught to us by a crabby lady in her 70s. Not only was I thoroughly bored by the tunes, I was also appalled at my classmates' seeming inability to actually sing on pitch. In fact, I so disliked participating in the choir that in order to avoid having to sing in one of the Spring concerts, my friend and I intentionally sang way off key so as to be excluded from the event. Result: everyone had to dress up and sing, and we got a free study hall during class which we capitalized on by playing paper football games.

The point of my recollection is this: I think music chooses you, and not the other way around. Meaning, before I was even aware of what it meant to become a musician, or pursue a career as a musician, I was drawn to it and intimately aware of music and sound all around me. No one had to teach it to me, or tell me to value it. This attraction to music has continued throughout my entire life, and has contributed in part to the tension that defines many of my 'adult' choices: where to live, what job to take, who to marry, who to hang out with, how to spend my money, how to spend my time.

I've had a lot of jobs, but a lot of them in some respect are traceable back to my love for music, either directly or indirectly. They were either jobs that employed my musical skill (music leader at a church, session guitar, FOH engineer, the studio, etc), or jobs that I took that allowed me the mental freedom or flexibility of schedule in order to make music a priority (delivering packages, driving for Uber).

I knew early on, as evidenced by my unwillingness to finish my undergraduate degree in a timely manner, that the pursuit of music was always going to take up a lot of time and compete with more traditional aspirations. It's one reason why I have never chosen to have a "career" proper. Career is of course a fluid term and is not intended as something that is antithetical to making and enjoying music. For one, music is meant to be made and enjoyed by everyone, regardless of your job, taste, skill level or career aspirations. I just mean to use the word career in order to distinguish it from calling, and in this sense I am using the term career as a chosen vocational path that makes use of one's innate abilities, interests and education so as to accomplish certain life goals (house, family, vacation, retirement, etc) but which does not necessarily reflect a life long passion or emotional investment. It is somewhat utilitarian, but to varying degrees depending on the person and the career.

Often people will change careers and move around based upon specific opportunities and potential advancement. They devote themselves to their career and find great satisfaction in it but they wouldn't necessarily define themselves by it or find a certain measure of their identity in it. "It's what I do" vs. "it's who I am." They could also change careers and be very satisfied in a related line of work, or sometimes in an unrelated one. I think this characterizes most people, who are simply trying to make it through life doing something they enjoy and experiencing fulfillment in a job well done, but finding existential 'meaning' in other areas of their life which may not be part of their career.

In my experience this is different than a calling. No one just decides randomly one day, "hey I think I will be a brain surgeon, or a missionary, or a teacher, or a rocket scientist, or a peace corps worker, or a civil servant, or a musician." I think these callings, and many others like them, are decided early on in life, sometimes without individuals even knowing. And I think the pursuit of these callings in life is not necessarily income or status related. In my experience people that feel like they have a calling in life pursue it regardless of the economic prospects. Some callings pay better than others, but most people who feel like they have a calling would work for free (or try to).

A calling for most people is not simply something they do, it is an extension of who they see themselves to be, and it's usually in pursuit of an ideal or goal that is 'bigger than themselves.' Meaning, their callings don't just exist from 9 to 5; they're always contributing to a lifelong work, a desire to change the world, create a legacy, or connect with some transcendent or philosophical ideal(s). This is one reason why it is often extremely difficult to measure or quantify the "value" of such callings, at least in economic terms. In a free market, a commodity's worth is determined by how many people want it and what they are willing to pay for it. This is great for tangible commodities (like donuts), but not so much for intangible/immaterial ones (like art or world peace), a fact which can often discourage many dedicated musicians.

Many of the musicians that I meet live with the paradox that what they have spent so much time and money perfecting may not have the commensurate level of free market 'worth.' Indeed, pursuing music as a "career" may not be the best business decision, but at the same time it may be worth it.

Actually, it is worth it. And that's my ending exhortation, or I guess the actual point of this particular post. Despite sounding like a tired cliché, I would advise all of the musicians out there to pursue something else if you can. If not, then embrace your calling as a musician and don't resent it. Stop comparing yourselves to other people, and don't look to the world, critics, or "fans" for approval or validation. It ain't gonna happen, and if it does it's ephemeral. It'll change tomorrow.

Instead, pursue your art because it has meaning beyond the here and now. It has eternal value. Embrace your calling and enjoy it, all the while knowing you may have to find creative ways to supplement your income or pay your bills that don't include making music. It can be done, and most musicians that I meet do exactly this.

It's very rare to meet (per capita) a musician who makes his or her living solely by doing music, especially original music. But it can be done, and I encourage all of you heartily to pursue this goal. But you should pursue it as a byproduct and not as an end. Playing music is its own reward, and when we lose sight of that we start to resent the very thing that we love. And this of course leads to another cliché: the angry, alcoholic or drug addicted, depressed, cynical, arrogant but insecure musician who scowls through every gig or rehearsal because they're unappreciated, broke, tired, playing with musicians who don't meet their expectations, or just otherwise committed to pessimism.

Don't be that guy, or girl.

If music has chosen you then embrace it, and make peace with that. Be grateful that you have a calling, and I would say, a gift, to do something that truly can change the world, even if you don't always see how at the current moment. And work whatever job you need to in order to meet your responsibilities while also pursuing music on whatever level you can. In this life, and in this country especially, there are A LOT of levels available if you are hard working, patient and humble.

Ultimately, strive to find joy in the music itself and not in what it gets you; I think you will find that is worth all the money in the world.

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