Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In retrospect, some depressing advice

I did a show today with a jazz trio. All of the musicians were college students, and better at jazz than I expected. One of them talked to me after the show; he's working towards a degree in sound engineering, and wanted to know if I had any deep insights into the profession or the academic side. My first piece of advice is universal: be the guy everyone wants to work with. Don't complain, be helpful, learn more than just your job, be friendly and pleasant and good at what you do. There are jerks in the field -- as in any field -- but when they get hired, it's in spite of what they are, not because of it. They'd be better respected if they kept the same degree of competence, with much less attitude. I stand by this piece of advice, and would gladly offer it to anyone in any field, professional or personal.

The other piece of advice was in answer to the question, "what advice would you give yourself when you were starting college, knowing what you know now?" And the answer was improvised, sincere, and surprising. My advice was roughly this: run from this profession as fast as you can. I've got one of the better jobs in my field, and in a lot of ways, my job sucks -- way too much unpaid overtime, a bit too little respect, and I can feel myself sinking into a rut. There's an old management joke that condenses to, "I've got twenty years of experience!" --"No, you've got one year of experience, repeated twenty times." And I can feel myself starting to sink into that; I have to work to keep my attitude fresh, and it's getting harder.

If I had to give my younger self career advice, it'd be to work hard at something that paid well, and get good at it: go to med school, or study law. Some of my high school classmates are doctors and lawyers; they worked hard through school (though probably no harder than I did in undergrad, once I started taking it seriously), and worked hard afterward to establish themselves in their fields. And now, they're enjoying the benefits of all that work. They're still expanding, learning, growing, and their careers are at a healthy early-middle to middle stage, with good options for growth and moving forward -- and, they make at least three times what I do in a year, for almost certainly less work than I do. I've basically peaked in my current job, and almost peaked in my profession; unless I want to tour (which would feel like a step backward) or start a business, I'm as far as I can take my career.

I know a huge number of professional musicians. Most have day jobs, and of the rest, most are either living hand-to-mouth or have a spouse or partner who covers a lot of their financial needs. Music just doesn't pay well. And I know one musician in town, a sax man of much skill and talent, a few years older than me. He's not a full-time musician; he's a doctor, in a good specialty. He takes a lot of vacation, and when he does, he might go to New Orleans for a week and play sax with some serious blues musicians. Or he'll go to Chicago and study with jazz masters, or go to New York and take lessons and jam with some of the best musicians the city has to offer. Music is his hobby, but a serious hobby, and money is no issue. When he performs, he hires in some of the best backup musicians in Indy, even bringing in other horn players from out of town; he doesn't make anything on the gig, but he gets to play, and he pays his band well. He gets to be a serious musician, and he doesn't have to worry about making the mortgage payment. Plus, he has enormously more freedom than most professional musicians; he doesn't need to take bad jobs or work with jerks, because he doesn't need the money. His path strikes me as close to ideal, though it might not have when I was eighteen.

I have a moderate degree of envy for these people, really. I don't know if they are happier than me or lead better lives, but their collection of problems is different than mine. I occasionally wonder what my life would be like had I made different, smarter choices when I was younger. I wonder if there's an alternate-universe version of me who stuck with the original collection of science majors, who ended up starting a company and selling it for a fortune, who drives a new car and has free time and can travel at will and doesn't worry about the things I worry about. I'd like to believe that the alternate-universe me would feel a little envy for his alternate-universe clone who worked in the arts, the guy the band waves to when he walks into a bar....

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