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On Dreams, Music School, Being a Small Business Owner, and Why Talent Doesn’t Matter

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Well, here you are, reading my first blog post! I never intended for this to be a 3,923 word essay, or a blog post at all- I started writing this as part of the #marchmeetthemaker challenge on Instagram, in which you post a photo and answer a different prompt related to being a maker every day throughout the month of March. The day 14 prompt was “dreams and plans” for your business. Right around the time that #marchmeetthemaker started, we found out that Tyler and I would be moving from Florida to California in August so he can start his new job in the Air Force Band of the Golden West, and my dreams and plans became more complicated (and yet much more simple, in a way). Since then, both of us have been fielding a barrage of questions about our future, with the most-asked question being “Will you finish your degree/how will you finish your degree?” I’ve given some vague, non specific answers to some people, some more definitive answers to others, but without further ado, here is my very long and thorough answer to that not very complicated seeming question.
This post has been a long time coming. As I sit here to write this, I have such a mixed jumble of feelings about my dreams for my business and my life.
I’m going to tell you something that I’ve only told a handful of people, and something that’s really difficult to talk about: I have decided to put a hold on getting my doctorate in music, either for a short period of time or potentially indefinitely, so that I can pursue my small business with all of my energy and dive in headfirst to full time self-employment.
Wow, that is so scary and so exciting to say! If you’re thinking “NO! Elyse, how could you do such a thing?! You love the flute so much, and it’s your passion!! You’re giving up on your dreams!” Don’t panic, my friends, and keep on reading. I feel very vulnerable sharing these feelings with the world, some of which have been building up for years and years, but I think it’s really important that I do.
I struggle with the simultaneous feelings of happiness, relief, and guilt when I think about the possibility of choosing to go a different path than the one I’ve been carving out for the last eight years of my life, even longer if you consider that I’ve been training to be a classical flutist since I was 9- but the negative feelings all stem from the fact that I’m thinking about what OTHER people want, and the projected (and real) judgements of others in my life, rather than what my intuition has been telling me about myself for a very long time now.
For the past year or so, I’ve been slowly gaining awareness that I’ve created something very special in Tidy Clutterings, not only for myself, but as something that others recognize as unique and valuable. There are many factors that have led to my decision to go full time into this venture, some which are INCREDIBLY exciting that I can’t even go into detail about yet, but throughout this journey my heart has been pushing me to go into this with everything that I have. As my business has grown, I’ve felt increasingly anxious about the impending “decision” that I felt would have to be made- nobody can give their full energy to two monumentally different things at the same time, and I’ve been exhausting myself trying for the past two years.
Also, to give my decisions some context, it helps to know that I started my doctorate in a very different way than most of my colleagues. I did not take the normal steps of
  1. deciding that I wanted to do a doctorate in the first place, and
  2. making an effort to submit applications and take auditions for doctoral programs.
The opportunity to do this degree was unexpectedly presented to me, no strings attached, during a very vulnerable and transitional period in my life. My major professor and mentor offered me the choice to stay at FSU and do my doctorate almost exactly two years ago, mid April of 2016, and I was shocked- it was something I had abstractly though about but never seriously considered doing. It did not seem like the choice between “do you want to get your doctorate” and “do you not,” but rather, the choice of comfort and security versus unknown amounts of emotional and financial struggle. All I had to do was simply say yes, and I would be able to stay living in the place I was comfortable with, with friends and people I knew, plus an assistantship and a stable and consistent income. At that point, about to graduate with a master’s degree but with pretty much no idea what I actually wanted to do with it, I could not imagine turning down an opportunity that seemed so serendipitous. To put it plainly, she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I distinctly remember that she supported me in making my own decision, regardless of what it was, uninfluenced by any external factors or other people- and she made sure I knew that if I decided to start down this path, there was nothing that obligated me to continue if it didn’t make me happy.
Am I “quitting music?” Am I throwing away all the energy, money, and time I’ve put into getting a doctorate? I say no, absolutely not, although it’s hard to get non-judgmental answers to these questions from people.
Just to say it upfront, so you don’t feel the need to say it to me after reading this post: this is not a “phase” I am going through. This is not the result of being burned out from being in school my entire life (although I AM burned out and need a break if I’m going to continue). This is the choice I’m making- a choice to step back and reevaluate who I am and what I really want my life to look like.
I do know that I never want to stop playing music, and I do want to continue performing, practicing and teaching- but I also know that I don’t want music to be my entire life or the main focus of my life.
Deep down I have always known that, but I recently had a profound realization and was completely honest with myself for the first time in my life. I love the end result of being a musician, I love the rush of performing in front of an audience and the high you get after a great performance- truly, there’s nothing else like it. The problem is that I just don’t love the whole process. I am not (and never have been) in love with the struggle. I don’t enjoy (and have never enjoyed) regular practicing. I’ve spent practically my entire adult life beating myself up over my lack of consistent practice routine, the fact that I have never been able to do more than a few hours a day at the most. I don’t want to generalize, because I have been a part of some truly supportive and kind groups of musicians, but I don’t love the community of classical musicians as a whole and the attitude towards competition versus community in the music world. I don’t want the lifestyle that comes with the reality of attempting to be a self sustained musician in today’s world- the constant travel to perform and teach and compete and audition, making barely enough money to live above the poverty level even though you have a ridiculous amount of education, taking audition after audition with the smallest chance of success.
When I was struggling to make myself fit into the mold that I felt I should fit into as a music student, I honestly felt like the worst version of myself: lazy, completely unmotivated, and totally lacking in work ethic.
For years I told myself that these were my worst personality traits, and truly believed it- if someone had asked me, I would have told them that the thing I hated the most about myself was how lazy I was. This was reinforced by a series of relationships with the type of person I desperately wanted to be: deeply passionate, wholeheartedly in love with music, never having to question whether the struggle was worth the end result, because the struggle was the thing they loved most. I constantly compared myself to the people I was surrounded by on a daily basis, and while I was very good at blending in and even excelling in my field, I knew that I would never feel the same way they felt about music, no matter how much I wanted to. Music is a very difficult career path, and even though everyone tells you that as a young musician, it doesn’t really sink in until you find yourself trying to go down it and feeling distinctly wrong for some reason- like being the only one in the marathon trying to run through molasses, not understanding why the run seems so enjoyable for everyone else. It doesn’t matter if you’re a naturally talented runner or not- it’s going to be hard. I’ve always been a very “in the present” type of person, and I find it incredibly difficult to think about and plan for the future until the future becomes the present- one of the classic struggles of an ESTP personality type (any other Myers Briggs obsessed makers out there??). Maybe this is why I couldn’t clearly see the path my choices were leading me to, and conceptualize how unhappy it would make me, until I was expected to start going down it on my own.
It’s both terrifying and freeing to admit all of this and to know, deep inside me, that it’s true. It’s so frustratingly rare to hear anyone talk about these feelings in the music world, and it’s the reason that people like me end up getting to the age of 25, or 30, or 40, before they actually know what they want and how they feel.
These raw, subconscious, and unrefined feelings all came to a head when I read “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***” by Mark Manson recently (a fantastic book, by the way). I felt knocked off my feet in chapter 2, where he talks about his lifelong dream of becoming a rock star:
“Despite my fantasizing about this for over half my lifetime, the reality never came to fruition. And it took me a long time and a lot of struggle to finally figure out why: I didn’t actually want it.
I was in love with the result- the image of me on stage, people cheering, me rocking out, pouring my heart into what I was playing- but I wasn’t in love with the process. And because of that, I failed at it. Repeatedly. Hell, I didn’t even try hard enough to fail at it. I hardly tried at all. The daily drudgery of practicing, the logistics of finding a group and rehearsing, the pain of finding gigs and actually getting people to show up and give a shit, the broken strings, the blown tube amp, hauling forty pounds of gear to and from rehearsals with no car. It’s a mountain of a dream and a mile high climb to the top. And what it took me a long time to discover is that I didn’t like to climb much. I just liked to imagine the summit.
The common cultural narratives would tell me that I somehow failed myself, that I’m a quitter or a loser, that I just didn’t “have it,” that I gave up on my dream and that maybe I let myself succumb to the pressures of society.
But the truth is far less interesting than any of these explanations. The truth is, I thought I wanted something, but it turns out I didn’t. End of story.
I wanted the reward and not the struggle. I wanted the result and not the process. I was in love with not the fight but only the victory.
And life doesn’t work that way.
Who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for.... People who enjoy the stresses and uncertainties of the starving artist lifestyle are ultimately the ones who live it and make it.
This is not about willpower or grit. This is not another admonishment of “no pain, no gain.” This is the most simple and basic component of our life: our struggles determine our successes. Our problems birth our happiness, along with slightly better, slightly upgraded problems.
See: it’s a never ending upward spiral. And if you think at any point you’re allowed to stop climbing, I’m afraid you’re missing the point. Because the joy is in the climb itself.”
I’ll never forget the feeling I had after reading those few paragraphs- it was like being given an exact diagnosis by a doctor after years of struggling with mysterious physical symptoms. The lightbulb goes on, Aha, finally, it all makes sense!
When you’re quite naturally talented at something, people will assume it’s your life’s passion and purpose.
They’ll go on assuming that and telling you that, until you have unconsciously convinced yourself that it’s true (which isn’t entirely wrong)- but more destructively, you can convince yourself that you’re not really good at anything else. I grew up and built my life’s foundation around being “talented.” I enjoy playing music because it’s fun, I’m good at it and always have been, to a certain degree. But does that really matter, in the long run? No. Being talented doesn’t matter. Working hard matters. If you’re only doing something because you’re good at it and it’s easy for you, you can get very far (consider that I’m almost finished with my doctorate in music performance and had my solo debut at Carnegie Hall last year), but you’ll hit a road block at some point, and no amount of talent can compete with true passion combined with hard work.
The truth is, in my opinion, music is too difficult of a career path to go down unless you KNOW you’d be completely miserable doing anything else. If you CAN do something else that you would be happy doing, do that thing. Some may disagree, but I’ve told this to some of my younger undergraduate students, many of whom are questioning the decision to go to graduate school for music, and have been following the same path I did- blindly being led by their natural talent without thinking realistically about the struggle they want and are willing to work for, or listening to the terrible no-pain-no-gain-esque advice of forcing yourself to practice even if it makes you miserable, checking the arbitrary box of getting in four or six or eight hours a day. It kills me to watch this- it’s like going back in time and seeing a younger version of myself, wanting to shake her and make her understand that there are no shortcuts, that talent isn’t enough, that more hours of practice won’t help unless it’s meaningful and focused.
When a gifted student quits music or drops out of the studio, I’ve caught myself in the past saying “Oh no! That’s such a shame, they were so talented and so musical.” While this seems to be the general reaction from everyone, it’s so harmful, and honestly very frustrating. I celebrate these students and their decision, because they had the self awareness and maturity to know that talent means nothing if it’s not supported by hard work.
Just because someone has the ability to do something does not mean they should do it, and this has been the hardest lesson to learn.
What has tortured me consistently throughout music school is the knowledge of how amazing I had the potential to be, if I would only practice more, care more, work harder. I have always known, with 100% certainty, that if I put in the same amount of dedication and time as many of my peers, I would rise higher than anyone could dream of. The problem was... I just couldn’t make myself do it. I didn’t want it enough, I just liked to imagine it.
Let me tell you: when you find what you are passionate about, you know it, and it’s undeniable- much like being in love, or discovering the person you want to spend the rest of your life with.
The growth and success of my business cast into sharp relief all of the negative feelings I had towards being in music school, academia, and the one-dimensional career musicians around me. I’ve expressed this (kind of cliche) sentiment before, that my business seemed to fill a hole inside me that I didn’t even know existed, but I truly didn’t realize how unfulfilled and jaded I had become in the music world until I had something else to contrast it with.
Have you seen the Venn diagram where one circle represents what you’re good at, the second represents what you love, the third is what you can be paid for, and the intersection of all three is your ideal career/purpose in life? This is the truly amazing part about my business, to me: not only does it more than satisfy the first two requirements, but people want to pay me for things I create, and I feel more financially secure than I’ve ever felt in my life. I’m confident in my ability to make money for the first time ever, and wow, that makes a big difference.
For the first time ever, the work I was doing to improve and expand my business didn’t feel like “hard work,” although I was spending objectively more time, energy and effort on it than I had ever put into practicing on a daily basis- and at some point, I realized that I WAS working hard... it just didn’t feel like work because I felt so compelled to do it. Not compelled by any outside forces, but by an internal motivation that I had honestly never felt before. For the first time, I was staying up late to work, actually working into the wee hours of the morning on many occasions, because I cared that much about what I was doing. For the first time, I felt like I actually deserved every success that I experienced and every dollar earned, because I worked my ass off for it, building something from scratch from the ground up. For the first time, someone else told me that one of the things they admired most about me was how hard I worked- and I now KNOW that I have a strong and fierce work ethic that just needed the right motivation to show itself. For the first time, I can very clearly picture what I want my life to look like in five years, ten years, twenty years... And for the first time, I feel like the best version of myself, doing what I love (which of course includes playing music) without having to give myself any forced external motivators. I love being self employed, I love having the freedom to create anything I can imagine and sharing my creations with the world, I love the incredibly supportive and amazing community of makers and small business owners, I love that I get to spend my days (and late nights) painting and sculpting and making beautiful things and that I get to call it “work.” And I can’t even describe how good it feels to realize this change in myself.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the negatives at this point of change in my life, like feelings of fear, insecurity, and uncertainty based on the fact that I’ve spent a consecutive eight years of higher education studying to make a career out of one very specific thing, or the fact that I am now in debt a literal mind-blowing amount of money to the government, or how I am potentially disappointing my family and everyone who has ever supported my career as a musician.
But the fact of the matter is, I am not quitting or giving up on anything- I am gaining something monumental, opening my arms and my heart to fully embrace the good things that are happening and what I know I am meant to do.
The puzzle pieces of what I want my life to be made of are coming together- music is just one piece, my art and business are another piece, and just because I’m saying yes to one thing doesn’t mean I’m saying no to something else.
None of this is sad or uncomfortable for me to write about, and I don’t mourn the loss of my daydreams to be an international soloist, or one of the world’s best flutists. Of course, it’s objectively frustrating that various mentors and friends DID tell me things like “talent won’t get you very far” and “being a musician is really hard” years and years ago, and I even listened to them, I just couldn’t internalize the advice at the time. But that’s just life, isn’t it? Everyone has to make their own mistakes in order to learn. It’s like I had a blindfold on, and only by integrating something different into my life was I able to remove it and see myself and the world clearly for the first time. I don’t regret anything about the path my life has taken me down. If I didn’t come to FSU for my master’s degree, I might have never started my business, or met the wonderful man I’m getting married to.
It’s basically taken me the last eight years of my life to arrive at this point of understanding and self-awareness, and as Tyler and I prepare for this huge life change- getting married, starting new jobs, venturing into the real world (where we’re no longer students) for the first time ever, moving across the country and finally back to the west coast where our families are- it occurs to me that my family has been more supportive both emotionally and financially than anyone could ever hope for. I can’t say thank you enough to my parents and my grandma who bought me my flute, enthusiastically supported my choice to go to grad school, always came to every performance they possibly could, and most meaningfully of all, never questioned the practicality of my decision to go into music as so many other families do. I know how lucky I’ve been to have a family (and a future husband) who lifts me up rather than tears me down, and encourages me no matter what venture I am embarking on. And of course, I would not have made it to this point without the guidance and mentorship of my professor Eva Amsler, who has been a huge factor inspiring my growth as a human throughout my time here, and wholeheartedly supports my decision to go in the direction my heart is leading me.
If you made it to the end of this post, thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts! Some truly exciting and amazing things are coming, and I can’t wait to see where this journey takes me.