I’m down to the last few weeks of my teaching job before heading out to join my wife in San Francisco. Here’s a conversation that I have with folks about once a day:
“San Francisco—congrats! What will you be doing out there?”
“Um, er, well…..”
“Will you be teaching?”
“No, not really, but maybe… well…”
“What? No teaching? What… playing?”
“Ahh.. some, probably, but….”
I usually end with something like “taking time off” and “entrepreneurial activities,” and I’m left with moderately puzzled good wishes for the future.
What’s really important?
Truth be told, I’ve got a plan on what I’ll be doing in California. It’s just not a plan centered around work.
I’m a reflective guy, and I’ve taken the last nine months of living apart from my wife (which royally stinks—I don’t recommend it) to think about what’s really important to me.
It’s a fun project to sit down and really ponder what’s important. Honestly, I’m not sure that I’ve ever really done this kind of thing before. It has been a great process—I highly recommend doing something along these lines regardless of where you might be in your life or career.
So, I asked myself the question: what’s really important?
Here’s the list I came up with:
- my wife
- growing and developing
- making a contribution
Note that a job is not on this list. It probably would have been 5 years ago, and most certainly would have been 10 years ago. But my thinking has recently evolved.
For years, I was obsessed with getting an orchestra job. I drove and flew to at least 30 auditions all over the country, spending an insane amount of cash, time, and energy in the process.
Did I learn some things in the process?
But did the positives outweigh the negatives?
Not for me.
I’d always thought of quitting the audition circuit as an ultimate admission of my own inadequacy as a musician. Doing so would invalidate of all the years I spent in college and afterward taking audition after audition.
There must be a way to win a job, I thought.
If only I tried a little harder, practiced a little more, took more lessons, bought a different bass, changed my bow hold, changed my warm-up technique, recorded myself more…
As turning 30 loomed ahead of me, I started to see my life stretching out in front of my eyes, with repeat brackets put around all of my activities.
I saw myself at 40 driving the same highway, a little grayer around the temples, worried about subbing out of a gig and falling to second place on a contractor’s list.
I saw the endless stream of station wagons and SUVs that would pass through my possession. I saw concert after concert of the same repertoire performed “pretty well” by the same orchestras.
I saw the private students filtering in and out of the room, the checks handed to me, the endless trips to the bank with little wads of personal checks.
I asked myself if this is really the final destination for me in this world.
I decided that the answer was no.
So I quit. I said forget it—no more auditions.
Time to figure out another path.
That feeling of giving up, of quitting, of allowing myself to, in my eyes at least, willfully become a loser was really painful. I decided to go back to school for something else. I quit most of my work. I decided, at 30, to go back to school and bang out a music ed degree.
This was a practical decision, not a passionate one. Thought I’d taught a lot of lessons over the years, I’d never really felt a “calling” to be a full-time teacher. From many conversations with colleagues, I know that some in the teaching profession really do feel this calling. Others land in the career for less idealistic reasons. I was the latter for sure.
It’s amazing how much my thinking has changed since those initial years of music ed, and how insanely more gratifying this second career has been for me than the freelance career.
The most valuable takeaways from this teaching career are things that I’d never in a million years have imagined. For example:
- I’m a much better musician after years spent conducting, arranging, studying scores, and listening with intensity to multi-layered music.
- I have a whole new set of skills that I never dreamed I’d have, from organizing trips and planning budgets to hiring guest artists and motivating large groups of people.
- I’ve never felt that “endless cycle” tedium in this second career. Never once. There’s always the opportunity for creativity in my approach to any given moment in the teaching jobs. Exact for administering standardized tests. That is a nightmare example of everything back about our educational system, and if I never have to do that again it will be too soon.
- These teaching jobs have stimulated my creativity and made me grow as a musician and as a person exponentially more than the freelance circuit.
Also, while I was a B list player, I was an A list orchestra director, and I found that I really was working with the best in the business in terms of my colleagues. There were a lot of creative minds on faculty with me that were searching for new ways to further what they did in music and in education. It was very inspiring to me—much more so than a lot of the freelancer mentalities that I’d encountered.
Still, while I loved that career path, I never ended up feeling like it was my specific calling. I knew that I liked it…or really loved it, to be honest. But I still played a ton. I taught university on the side. I did a lot of guest conducting gigs.
If I look at that above list of goals:
- growing and developing
- making a contribution
…it was the last two areas—growing and developing plus making a contribution—that the job really satisfied. Maybe freelancing hit those to an extent as well, but only faintly for me. I guess there was a lot of traveling involved in freelancing, but driving for dollars isn’t really what I mean when I list “travel” as a goal.
As I transition out of this job and into a new phase of life, I’m working on orienting myself not so much on a specific career but more on that set of life goals.
Cops, firemen, teachers…. and orchestra musicians
I’ve realized that I have been working in two of the most traditional career paths imaginable.
In what other career paths do you see someone staying in the exact same job for 10, 20, 30 or more years? Yet this is the norm in both teaching and orchestral music–the two worlds in which I’ve spent my adult life. Yikes!
What if I decided to focus only on things that connect with these life goals? What would that life look like?
Goal No. 1 – My Wife
I know what I don’t want to do anymore—live apart from my wife. I decided to stay back in Chicago and keep “doing my thing” while she got her new career going in San Francisco. That felt like the wrong move about 30 seconds after her plane took off from O’Hare, and I’ve been counting the days ever since.
My wife is the coolest person I know, and being apart has really put things into perspective. Though I know many musician couples that maintain a long-distance set-up, working in different cities and reuniting on weekends and for breaks, I miss making dinner as my wife makes her way home, spending lazy weekend mornings together, and exploring our neighborhood on foot together.
Putting job in front of family is dumb. Bad move, Jason.
Goal No. 2 – Walking
I’ve been taking long walks since I was a teenager. After high school, I would routinely park the car by the Big Sioux River in my hometown of Sioux Falls and walk along the beautiful bike path, decompressing from the day and thinking about music, life, trees, birds….
I kept this up all through college. My alma mater
is nestled along the shore of Lake Michigan, and I would regularly take long strolls along the lakefront on my way to school, during practice breaks, and between classes. The sound of the waves crashing against the rocky lakefront in the winter was just as fascinating to me as the sight of countless students relaxing and reading outside on a picture perfect spring afternoon. I spent as much time as possible outside during those years.
There’s something special about exploring on foot. Regardless of whether it’s the Smoky Mountains, South Side Chicago, or the Golden Gate Bridge, the pace of walking allows me be a part of the experience in a way that I don’t feel when biking or driving. I love the pace, the speed, and the opportunity for quiet contemplation if I’m alone or good conversation if I’m with a friend. I also listen to a huge amount of music and podcasts while wandering around.
Walking is good exercise, it’s good for the mind, and it’s good for the soul. I usually get in a walk of at least a couple miles even on a busy day, and on more relaxed days I frequently walk 15 or 20 miles, stopping for breakfast, coffee, lunch, and even dinner.
This hobby (or habit—I’m not sure what to call it) has also allowed me to explore places that I’ve lived in a deep and meaningful manner. I’d explored Chicago’s lakefront for years, but around 2010 I started reading John Greenfield
‘s inspiring blog Vote With Your Feet
. John does these epic walks around Chicago and nearby regions, and following along with his journeys got me thinking more creatively about my walking destinations.
Not wanting to simply duplicate John’s walks
, I began to spend a lot of time looking at Google Maps and thinking about interesting paths of exploration from my place. I had moved to Hyde Park (Obama’s neighborhood) and had the added challenge of being located on the South Side of Chicago.
As I plotted out walks, I kept asking myself if I was going to get messed with/mugged/shot in these unfamiliar areas. I had spent all of my adult years living either in suburban Evanston or on the far North Side of Chicago, and I was unfamiliar with the South Side and more than a little trepidatious about venturing out into the unknown.
I started safe, with walks from Hyde Park to downtown Chicago along the lakefront. These were about 6-7 miles long and were “safe” walks by any standard. These walks became a standard activity for my wife and me. In the five years we spent living either in downtown Chicago or in Hyde Park, I’d estimate that we did that specific walk at least 200 times. We did it in the blazing sun and in the falling snow. It was a blast.
After a couple months of the south lakefront walk, I decided to wander through the neighborhood instead of sticking to the lakefront. I’d thought about doing that a lot but had always lacked the courage due to the South Side’s unsafe reputation.
One day, I decided to just do it. I headed right down King Drive, Cottage Grove, and Drexel.
Were there beaten-down and abandoned properties? Sure. But there were also beautiful brownstones, parks I’d never seen, people walking their dogs and playing with their kids, and much more. Fascinated by the new (to me) area, I started venturing out more and more in the South Side neighborhoods.
I started to get a feel for what differentiates a good street to walk down from a bad street. Chicago changes a lot from block to block, and it can be surprising at first to see how quickly safe streets become dodgy ones. My explorations became bolder, and I started to head south, west, and north along all sorts of interesting new paths.
A whole new world opened up to me.
Chicago really is a city of neighborhoods, with distinct histories and characters, and I started to get curious about buildings I discovered and streets that were new to me. I began to read voraciously about these new discoveries, getting my hands on every book I could find about the history of this city. My knowledge broadened and deepened, and with it my appreciation for this multidimensional city that has played such an important part at so many key junctures in our history.
No matter how many times I do a walk, I always seem to find something new in it. Maybe I spot a building that I never really “saw” before (Chicago is full of outstanding architecture). Maybe I take a right or a left on an unfamiliar street. Maybe I stop in a store I’ve never noticed before. The possibilities are endless.
I’ve been doing as much walking as possible in my new home of San Francisco. This place is a walker’s paradise, with hills upon hills to explore in all directions. I start most days by walking to Tank Hill Park
and soaking in all the possibilities. I look at the mountains of the East Bay. I look at the craggy outcroppings of the Marin Headlands
. I look at all the hills poking up: Buena Vista Park
, Bernal Heights
, Corona Heights
, Twin Peaks
, and many more. I can barely contain myself with all the options.
Goal No. 3 – Writing
I love to write. For a few years, I wrote a lot
. But for the last seven years, I haven’t written much beyond emails to parents.
I want that to change.
Writing also takes a huge amount of time and energy, and…. well, it’s hard. To write really well is just plain hard.
I’ve found writing nearly impossible to do with the career I’ve been in these past seven years. My brain just wasn’t in a place to go there. I wanted to unplug and unwind after getting home, not think “big thoughts” and hole up with my laptop feverishly pecking away.
Getting the podcast
going again was, for some reason, much easier than starting to write
again. I’m not totally sure why this has been the case. Maybe it’s that doing the podcast is more similar to what I’d be regularly doing in my life—having a conversation with someone about music, teaching, their interests, and the like. There’s a lot of work involved in the podcast for sure—it takes an incredibly amount of time and energy—but it’s not necessarily deep
work. In fact, most of it is fairly shallow work:
- scheduling an interview
- editing audio
- crafting show notes
- posting the audio file
- sharing on social
Lots of steps, but nothing requiring depth of thought.
There’s something about a full-time job that kills my desire to think deeply. I don’t know why. I’ve been trying to rekindle that part of my brain these last few months, and it’s only now as I approach the end of full-time employment that I feel like I can get out from under it.
I started writing this post a few days ago in a public library before a gig. I’ve continued it two mornings at 4 am before heading off to work. I’m really looking forward to carving out a couple of hours each and every day to write. I’m still not sure what I will write about specifically, but I am making that a priority starting in June.
Goal No. 4 – Traveling
It seems like almost everyone, as they approach the end of their life, wishes that they traveled more. Most don’t wish that they spent more time at the office!
After years spent traveling nowhere more exotic than Des Moines, I’ve had the good fortune to take trips to Peru, Spain, and Cuba. Funny how teaching public school is what opened up new travel opportunities for me.
I plan on traveling more. Much more, hopefully. We’ll be exploring California for the rest of the year, but I’ve got my sights set on Vietnam, China, Brazil, Argentina, and many places in Europe.
The book Vagabonding
by Ralph Potts has been inspiring to me when thinking about travel. Ralph shows just how easy it can be to travel long-term and make it a primary focus of your life rather that a one-week-a-year frantic “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. I love the idea of spending a month backpacking overseas or setting up shop in a small town in Vietnam for several weeks.
My wife and I are starting out with weekend trips all over California, getting to know our new home state and take in its myriad offerings. She’s never been to Oregon, so we’ll be sure to head up the coast sometime this summer as well. It has been tragically long since I’ve been back to New Mexico (where my wife is from). I see a lot of West Coast explorations in our future for sure.
I love biking as well as walking, and I’m planning on heading out to explore all that the Bay Area has two offer on two wheels. I’d also love to do some longer trips by bike. I’ve got a hankering to try biking across the country
sometime really soon.
Goal No. 5 – Reading
Like many people, I seemed to fall out of the reading habit and ended up reading maybe a book a year at best for about a decade. I’d step it up in the summer months slightly, with many pleasurable hours spent reclining on my balcony in Chicago’s Loop reading Farm City
and Cadillac Desert
But around the time I re-launched the podcast
, I started to get back into reading on a regular basis. Listening to some of my favorite podcasts like the Tim Ferriss Show
and realizing how much people that Tim read was a big inspiration in getting back to reading.
I’ve been aiming for a book a week and hope to increase that to two or even possibly three books a week. Reading is a fantastic way for me to keep growing and developing, and I find that it’s one of the most valuable activities I can do with my time.
How am I finding the time to do this?
Well, for one thing, I’ve decided to limit how much I check Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and even my email, text messages, etc. Those “distraction goblins” have a way of getting you hooked on the rush of new bits of data and really do become like a drug. I knew that I should probably change my patterns when I found myself unable to focus on the plot of a 25-minute TV show without my phone in front of me.
Scroll, scroll, click…. scroll, scroll, click….
My current method of “noise control”—and I’m ever tinkering and refining these kind of workflows–is to do a “deep dive” into email/FB/Twitter twice a day and do what needs to be done. I usually end up with some to-do list takeaways, so those go into my actual to-do list in Evernote
. I’ve basically lived in Inbox Zero
for the past seven years, so I always get tasks out of my inbox (and all the distractions of that environment) and into my Evernote workstation.
More reading and less zombie clicking has been great for me. I feel more inspired, thoughtful, and curious, and my list of books to read is growing exponentially. Here’s a list of some of what I’ve read these past couple of months:
I am planning on getting some novels in here as well—I’ve got a bunch on my shortlist—but even the nonfiction above has proven to be massively educational and inspiring.
Goal No. 6 – Growing and Developing
Time is a flat circle. Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again—forever.
Growth is an overarching goal for me in all aspects of life. I believe that people are constantly changing, either for the better or for the worse. This is true physically, cognitively, and emotionally. Unlike my cats, who seem fairly happy to do the same thing every single day, stasis in humans isn’t really a thing.
I absolutely believe in a growth mindset
. I marvel at people who seem to be carved out of stone, doing the same thing day after day and year after year. I’ve seen a lot of that in both music and education these past 20 years. I’ve also seem people in these same fields with crazy amazing growth mindsets.
I like being around the latter.
Starting to listen to podcasts back in 2005 was a major milestone in my adoption of a growth mindset. Before that point, I was a little more static and conventional in my thinking. But discovering all of these people talking about specific topics that they were passionately invested in was a revelation to me. Prior to discovering podcasts, I actually went through the entire back catalog for This American Life
and burned every single episode on CDs. I’d drive around with giant stacks of CDs on the passenger seat, swapping them out at random on my endless freelance drives.
These days, I listen to a ton of podcasts. Here a list of some that really inspire me:
Goal No. 7 – Making a Contribution
A lot of the above goals are very inward, focusing on my own development. This seventh goal is the one that you’ve probably seen the most in practice if you have followed my blog or podcast for any length of time. I find meaning in contributing positively to the world. That is the prime motivator behind putting out the podcast, all of my various teaching
, and speaking
I’m always searching for ways to add value to areas of my life that interest me. In the world of teaching privately, I’ve experimented with novel and helpful ways to incorporate technology into practicing. I’m always experimenting with different approaches to bow strokes, intonation, vibrato, and teaching expression. Having the blog and podcast have been wonderful as channels to deliver new ideas that I’ve discovered.
In the world of the youth orchestra, I’m constantly thinking about what motivates young people to participate in music and what their personal experience is in the ensemble. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this over the past decade and am also constantly experimenting with different approaches to rehearsal, student leadership, and prioritization of focus (I could write for pages and pages on this topic).
I feel that the distribution channels (blog and podcast) that I’ve cultivated over the years have a lot of potential to help people. I take very seriously what I put out on these channels, and I think that there’s great potential to make a meaningful contribution with this content.
Which makes me happy.