I MAKE IT A POINT to surround myself in the highest-stakes environment I possibly can. I realized early on in grade school that my self-motivation wasn’t there, for whatever reason, unless the environment around me pushed me forward. (It would be a while before I actually accepted this as simply a quality that I possessed rather than some fatal flaw that I would have to overcome.)
High school exemplified this quality pretty well. I was one of a handful to enroll in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in high school–basically, taking on a hellacious commitment of tests, community service, and essay writing… or Advanced Placement on steroids.
Seems a bit insane for a 14 year old kid to commit to, yeah?
I knew that I would be fine if I just did the “normal” AP stuff. But deep down, I didn’t care, because I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied taking the “easier” option. And, perhaps more importantly, I would be around people who also weren’t satisfied taking the easier option.
Eventually, I figured out a life strategy that’s had a massive payoff: surround yourself with people who inspire you and distance yourself from those who don’t. Now, I’m fortunate to have crazy-inspiring friends here at one of the greatest schools for what I do in the nation. But there are times where I wonder if my strategy has started to work too well.
Here, listen to this rundown of some of my friends that also attend school with me:
- Josh recently had his piece performed by the Minnesota Orchestra.
- Emily, at the age of 25, was offered two principal positions in two major orchestras in the span of a few months.[ref]She is also goofy as hell.[/ref]
- Lauren turned down a job with a military band[ref]Turning down benefits and a salary as a not-employed-yet musician is, some would argue, insane.[/ref] because she wanted her playing to stay true to her true dream of playing in orchestra.
- Nathan has over five million YouTube views and has been featured on an HBO documentary.
- Drew was featured on Instagram’s Music page and, at the time of this writing, has more followers than Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, and the actual Juilliard School account.
- Toby, who happens to play bassoon in my woodwind quintet, regularly subs with the New York Philharmonic.
- Robert, a pianist, organized and performed a packed recital performing on toy piano, celeste, harmonica, melodica, and other ridiculous non-piano instruments. Oh, and he organized a Toy Piano festival because he wanted to, and is currently in residency for a music program in Alaska.
Believe me, this is just the tip of the iceberg.[ref]More things: I play in orchestra with oboists that sub with the Metropolitan Opera. I walk the halls with multiple people, often younger than me, who get GQ-style interviews written about them in The Strad and win international competitions. My friends are invited to play masterclasses with Tabea Zimmermann in Europe and win jobs with the Welsh National Opera. Crazy stuff.[/ref]
I know, this sounds like a giant humble-brag about the great friends I have,[ref]Or a sponsored ad from The Juilliard School. Yeah, I wish. Juilliard, I’ll $ell out for you anytime ;)[/ref] so let me be clear.
This isn’t an indirect ploy to prop myself up via association. I get it–who I am in any given moment does not depend on the accomplishments of those around me.
But that’s kind of the point, right? Because in my darker moments, that’s exactly what I think, except in a not-so-good way. Rather than feel like the accomplishments of my friends are validation of my success, I see them as validation of my failure.
I and many people I know (some of which are on this list!) look at the success of people around us and think thoughts like this:
- Ugh, I’m so glad he got that job. Everyone’s getting jobs. I’m not getting jobs. Why am I here?
- Why are these ridiculously successful people friends with me?
- They would never be friends with me if they knew how untalented I actually am.
- When are they going to find out that I’m a fraud?
- Why do people think I’m successful at all?
Been there? Hopefully that isn’t just me.
I’ve been thinking about this mindset recently, and my thoughts all lead to one specific question:
Why do we use the success of others to make ourselves feel unsuccessful?
Here’s one theory.
I find that many elements of our school system contribute to our obsession with singular excellence. When you have the privilege of being sheltered in a first-world environment, you find that so much of life revolves around how you’re perceived. In the US, we learn early on in grade school through the class ranking hierarchy that you’re below someone, and above somebody else. Someone has to come in first place, which means someone has to come in second, which means that someone has to be last.
We also see hierarchies in a magical event called a competition, where a bunch of people try and do something–spell a bunch of words correctly, run 100 meters really fast[ref]I was pretty good at the former, not so much at the latter. I won awards in neither.[/ref]–and the best person at doing that something is crowned a winner. As you advance through life, the competitions start to be worth more than playground street-cred, and money starts to be involved, or prestige. In the classical music world, winning competitions often signals the start of a career–Think American Idol.[ref]Obviously I don’t mean that American Idol is an example of a classical-music career launching event. Moreso that when you win Idol, you get a lucrative recording contract. It’s similar with major international competitions; talent scouts are always prowling.[/ref]
Thing is, competitions are supposed to better society–until they became application-fee-factories,[ref]Can we talk about how chamber music competitions demand an application fee per member, but don’t give prize money per winner? If my woodwind quintet has to pay $50 per person to apply for your competition, we sure as hell should get as much money per person as a piano trio. So ridiculous. In an unrelated aside, Fischoff competition, please take our ensemble to your next round, I love you and think you run a great organization.[/ref] competitions existed for the purpose of bettering society through incentivization.
The theory is that people do more to better their personal skill sets when you focus them around an incentive like a grand prize. Through preparing for this competition, one, or three, or more people get a payout, but everyone competing undertook preparation and skill-improvement that they would not have otherwise, so everyone is better as a result. Anything rank based–chair tests, class rankings–follows the same logic.
In other words, competition is supposed to be a means to the end, namely, improving the skills of a large group of people.
The problem is that competition has become an end in itself. Media glorifies winners, not competitors. Losing teams and players in the Super Bowl and the NBA Finals are vilified in the press and national discourse for “choking”, not celebrated for the work they have done to get there in the first place.[ref]See: LeBron, Cam Newton, Brady in both SB losses.[/ref]
Because the media shapes so much of how the world communicates,[ref]See: trending topics on Facebook, Twitter.[/ref] it’s remarkably tough to dissociate from this binary view. Either you win, or you’re a loser. Period.
You said it, Donald.[ref]Go to www.loser.com. Thank me later.[/ref]
I call this competition-mentality: the belief that success rests solely on where it stands relative to the success of others.
In other words, with competition-mentality, when other people have success in my field, they’re the winners and I’m the loser.
But why is competition-mentality so prevalent? Why does my brain do incredible gymnastics to categorize my accomplishments as “meaningless victories” and their accomplishments as “giant successes”?
Friend: John! Your blog went viral, you’re so famous! That’s amazing!
John: Yeah, thanks. But what good is having a couple hundred people share some blog post about the Super Bowl when you have, you know, a salary?
I think I know.
We’re just really freaking scared.
A FEAR OF COMPLEXITY
Hear me out.
In the music world, we tend to get trapped in a pretty singular, competition-mindset way of thinking. For me, it started with the chair test. And then all-region auditions, and then all-state auditions, and then school auditions, with competitions all throughout that process. We get it pretty ingrained in our heads that success means playing better or making less mistakes than the next person.
And playing music well is important!
The problem is that people are incredibly capable of experiencing success by leveraging different skill sets besides superior music making. Kimball Gallagher, with an entrepreneurial mindset, has performed hundreds of concerts on all 7 continents despite never winning a major competition.[ref]Obviously, he is an excellent pianist.[/ref] Jeremy Denk leveraged his writing talents to a book deal. Noa Kageyama, a former concert violinist, utilized his interest in sport-psychology to create a crazy-lucrative blog and consulting business for musicians.
These musicians all took their unique sets of talents and were willing to use them all in their pursuit of success. Of course, this makes sense–it seems self-evident that the world is complex and diverse enough for people with varying skill-sets to thrive.
But here’s the thing: complicated is scary.[ref]A Harvard study shows that when we have less choices, we are more likely to make a decision.[/ref]
On some level, even when it makes us miserable, I think we want to see the world as simple. We stay in the competition-mindset because it’s what we know. We understand a world where success directly correlates to the improvement of a specific skill.
Even if we’re not in love with it, even if we love this cooking thing or knitting thing or programming thing a little or a lot more, we stick with what we know because it’s terrifying to go down the road less traveled.
It’s easier to filter the world into “I just have to be good at X, Y, and Z and be better at them than Joe, Jane, and Jeremy, and I’ll find success and happiness and fulfillment.” That is a simpler lens, and gives us more comfortable and processable constraints to work under. But, spoiler alert, it’s hardly how the world works.
Sometimes people find success with less “skill”. Sometimes people with more “skill” come out empty. People that don’t play as well as you but can leverage their looks, or juggling talents, or clever tweets will make more money and book more concerts. The world is tough.
Or, more positively, the world is full of opportunity. The people that seize it don’t have a competition-mindset.
Instead, they have a mastery-mindset. Those who experience fulfillment worry about themselves. Did I do more than I did yesterday? What skills am I lacking that will help me accomplish what I want to in the world? Who can I ask for help?
The people that succeed in the world do so because they admit to themselves that they are the summation of their entire skill-sets. They succeed because they live unashamed of the areas in which they excel, or are humble enough to admit a need to develop new skill-sets. They succeed because they’re willing to take a long look in the mirror and say “am I in love with what I am doing right now?” with the possibility of that answer being “no.”[ref]Breaking down and sobbing uncontrollably optional.[/ref]
So when you think “Why is everyone better than me at what I love?”, you give the implicit belief that you are all competing for the same, highly-specialized definition of success.
But what if you weren’t? What if everyone was on the same team? What if we were all competing to make each other better? Or, alternatively, perhaps the question you should ask yourself is:
Do I even love what I’m trying to be better at?
Thanks for reading. Come back for new content next Monday, every Monday. No clickbait, no fluff, just value. Thoughts? Leave a comment below, or send me an email. I respond to everyone.
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