Making music, making a career: Why 'follow your passion' can be hard advice to follow

October 23, 2014
Choosing a path can be difficult
Choosing a path can be difficult
Meg Martin/MPR

People who wonder how to go about pursuing or creating a satisfying career will find no lack of advice. Libraries could surely be filled with all that's been written on the subject.

One piece of advice that is often touted as both concise and comprehensive is "follow your passion." While I'm not naive enough to think that any three-word phrase could provide all the answers to as complex a matter as finding personally meaningful work, something about "follow your passion" troubles me.

Growing up, music was always one of my biggest strengths, and I believe it continues to be. Arriving at college, I knew I wanted to major in music and English, and that's what I did. For better or worse, I chose my majors based solely on my interest in them and without regard as to how I could forge a career from them.

What always nagged me, though, was a near-total absence of ideas as to how I would take the knowledge I'd accrued from my studies and put it towards a career. While I knew music to be my biggest passion, I also knew I didn't have much desire to pursue any of the common careers for a music major — such as a teacher, performer, or perhaps some combination of both.

What I've come to grasp is that "follow your passion" leaves out much to be considered. So music is my passion. Does that mean I'm a failure if I don't find a way to make that the way I earn my living? This makes me think of Charles Ives, whose provocative and wholly original music led him to become one of the first American composers to receive international renown. What many people may not know, though, is that he had a successful and lucrative career in the insurance business and pursued music as an avocation. His example reminds me that our lives need not be defined by our means of financial support.

When I graduated from college, I felt adrift and uncertain about what kind of employment to seek. My journey since then has included experiences that have shown me what I don't want to do, and that can be just as important as learning what I do want to do. I have a suspicion that, despite the musical gifts and skills I know I possess, I shouldn't ignore my other gifts and skills as I figure out how best to support myself. This realization should be not construed as resignation or defeat. In my pursuit for knowledge of self, this discovery is actually a considerable victory.

Though I probably risk sounding trite or saccharine, sometimes I think I want to keep my passion for music pure. I want it to be something of an oasis in my life and not something associated with the frustrations of a job. I also firmly believe in the values of hard work and of helping others. When I consider many career musicians, I can clearly see they embody both those values, and this brings me joy. However, I've come to realize that there are certain things I want out of life, and I may not be able to achieve those things trying to be a professional musician in any conventional sort of way.

But as I move forward, I worry less about what my future will hold than I did a few years ago. Income source aside, music is already a part of my life every single day, and I still believe I may yet find a career that both accommodates my goals and involves music. I just don't know what that might look like — and that's fine.

David Lindquist is a writer, teacher, and singer living in Austin, Texas.

Interested in writing about classical music for Classical MPR? Have a story about classical music to share? We want to hear from you!