Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Worst Good Advice

[I have no idea when I wrote this, but I found the draft buried amongst other posts when I was going through old writings the other night]

My grade 12 graduating class sat on stage under enormous bristol-board letters: "Shoot for the Moon; even if you miss, you'll land among the stars." Aside from being blatantly false, it seemed like a good slogan at the time. Optimistic, encouraging, like an anthem to carry forward into some imaginary rose-coloured future where the sky was no limit. It's the kind of advice all youngsters are fed; anything is possible, chase your dreams. Well sure, I grew up in lucky times and am grateful for it. When food is abundant, war is overseas, health care is free, and going to university is a given, the future is pure potential waiting to be realized.

But there are things that throw a wrench into the future. Bad experiences throughout your youth that shape your personality in a way that's detrimental to your own future. Personal traits that aren't compatible with some types of work. The sudden onset of a debilitating medical condition that gimps your capacity to do things. Circumstances in your personal life that create competing claims on your priorities. Things that just don't pan out; goals you just can't afford to attain. They say you can do anything, but you can't.

I can't remember now if I worked hard in high school. I did my work, for sure, and I got top marks because of it, but it came easily. The first couple years of university weren't much different; although I was told to expect a 10% decrease in grades, it wasn't the case. My first year English prof read excerpts of one of my essays in class as a model example, then went on to tell the class as a whole that the essays were almost universally abysmal. When I applied for music performance the next year, the department was awed by my "perfect theory test" and audition. When I moved on to English I got several writing prizes, and then during my final year's foray into the sciences for fun, I consistently got top marks in both coursework and labs.

During that brief but magical year of Music Performance, I sang at a vocal masterclass where the clinician advised us to be very sure that we wanted to be performers; if we weren't, we'd best back out now because it would eventually break our hearts. That summer I had the good fortune of being chosen as my province's soprano for National Youth Choir. Although it was the best two weeks of my life and I came home inspired, I couldn't help thinking that my university's department just wouldn't get me as far as I would need—there was only one voice instructor in the department at that time, for one thing. I contemplated going to another university, but in the end chose to switch faculties. The truth was, I didn't want to perform (at the time; now I'm undecided), and I unfortunately was under the impression that musicians must perform. The dept head did mention composition during my parting meeting, though, which I later followed up on in my own way.

People are full of the best-intentioned advice, but most of it has turned out neither helpful nor comforting:
  • You just need to "find yourself." It could have been the complete lack of career guidance, but I had no idea what I wanted to do after school. If I could have had my way, I probably would have been happy to stay in high school forever, even though it has its own subsection in the "worst years of my life" category. But I didn't worry about it, because everyone said I'd only find my path after I'd taken a year of general classes. Ten years of "finding myself" has slowly painted me into an increasingly narrow corner. At some point, you need to make a (good) decision and stick with it.

  • You're so smart, you could be anything you want. I've heard this a lot, and it infuriates me. It's particularly unhelpful because it insinuates that you don't even have to try in order to succeed; it will just come to you because you're so clever. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though I have to say, my whole family is very hard-working; I don't know how I turned out so unambitious.

  • It's never too late to change your career. While this is technically true, it completely disregards the practical concerns that eventually catch up to you. Even if you're a hopeful new grade 12 graduate set to enter university on a full scholarship, with the next four years neatly paved out in front of you—once you realize your error at assuming your mind wouldn't change during those four years, you realize that you'll have to pay out of your own pocket to fix that error. After one degree, you get exhausted just at the thought of going back to school for something entirely different. After two degrees, it becomes unthinkable. That inner clock ticks more loudly the older you get, and it can easily work you into a frenzy. Besides, someone who hasn't even had a successful first career doesn't exactly have the means to indulge in being a dilettante.
The internet compounds the problem; it makes it seem like anything really is possible.

When I was younger, I was an anti-feminist; I just didn't think they had an argument anymore. My upbringing was just that liberating, that I thought of myself as equal to anyone. In recent years, the internet has destroyed that idea; in certain circles I feel embarrassed just for being a girl. I remember the first time I encountered the internet. It was in the early years of high school, and a friend and I logged onto one of the new computers during lunch and I caught my first glimpse of Metacrawler. The internet seemed much smaller then, a tool rather than a space of social interaction.

At one point when I used to take composition lessons, my instructor told me that I probably wouldn't ever hear most of my work performed; that most of the time, composers have to live with hearing their music in their own heads. That was one of the most discouraging moments of my life. I don't even believe it's true; in undergrad the composition students wrote for and were regularly performed by a small new music ensemble. But for a struggling no-name composer who has never been in an instrumental ensemble and can't even write an instrumental part in the right transposition, there's more disappointment than hope. I didn't understand how hard one has to work in order to succeed (but that you could). All along I had been led to believe that I could be anything I wanted—yes, a successful composer—simply by willing it to be so. I gave it up as an impossible feat.

Once, a couple years back, my Dad gave me some actual good advice. I was still foundering at the question of what I planned to do after finishing my MA degree, and he said something like "You have to figure out what to do and do it, because life is passing." I have a bit of a phobia of temporality, and my fear of time passing can surface and derail my productiveness for weeks years at a time.

This is all very rambling and un-cohesive, but the point is that the norm of being overly encouraging and optimistic to new graduates is a disservice. I'm not saying they should be deliberately intimidated—there is enough intimidation as it is in high school to alter a person's future, as I well remember—but rather instilled with the desire to achieve that optimistic future, not unconditionally promised it.

And, too, all of this could just be my own misinterpretation of that slogan emblazoned on the wall.


Amy said...

I found the same trite advice throughout the school system. I actually heard some good advice from a student when I was teaching. His parents advised him to find something he was interested in and work for a few months or a year, then go to college/university/whatever to get training in it. That way he would know if he actually liked it.

I seriously wish I had been given that advice in high school, and then that I'd had the courage to take it. Now I'm right there with you, feeling like I have to continue in something I don't particularly like just because of previously unhelpful/uninformed choices.

Anonymous said...

first off, love this blog!

secondly i think a large part of the whole problem is that success is defined by being famous. media, society, whatever make you feel like you can only live a happy life and be successful if you're on top. but that just doesn't work in todays world.

imagine you would live in a small village, no TV, no internet... you would be the most awesome person in music, writing, etc. i also think that that way of living would be natural way to live.

now, we're connected to the whole world. there's about a hundred bands and musicians throughout the whole world that really can claim awesomeness status. but! that's not (solely, essentially) because they're good musicians (or rather better musicians than all the others). that's part of it. but another HUUUGE part is luck, the position you're born in, money, etc. These guys on the top may be awesome, but there's millions more that are just as awesome, they just didn't have the luck.

That kind of celebrity worship is in my eyes a real problem in todays life. It makes you feel shit no matter how much you achieve (in terms of artistic development, not fame). So ditch that.

You can't live without some peer recognition, actually peer recognition and social stuff generally is really important, but you shouldn't measure yourself to those "on top". I think a better thing to do would be to try to find people who do the same thing you do, collaborate, do cool stuff, find your own style and try to create a local culture.

Evolution never meant for us to live in million-people megacities connected to the whole world. I'm not one of these nutters saying we should go back to living in caves, but I think living life connected to the people around you - locally - is a very important thing.

just my thoughts :)

also: sorry, my english really sucks today.