Power of the Project-Based Life
To thrive in the 21st century, we need to rethink our philosophies around how we conceive of success and our methods of making money. What would it look like if we all changed the way we view our careers? What would music schools look like if we changed the way we message vocation?
As a faculty member at Seattle Pacific University, conversations with music students around “What am I going to do with my life?” come up almost daily. The anxiety over which direction to go resonates deeply (as I imagine it does for most creatives) and, in an attempt to console while acknowledging the value of regularly asking this question, I find myself saying such pithy lines as:
“Artists should constantly ask themselves why they do what they do.”
“If you aren’t seriously asking yourself why you are doing this at least once a year, you probably aren’t doing it right.”
While intended optimistically, these aphorisms strike a relatively cynical tone compared to my actual intentions and beliefs.
After years of these conversations, however, I have a few observations. Our mainstream American ideas around work and success are a bit misguided and are reflected in the silent (and not so silent) messaging of the university and conservatory systems themselves. While the ivory tower in many cases really is the bastion of independent thought, critical thinking, and fearless experimentation that we want to believe it is, from the perspective of a parent’s bank account its goals need to be much more pragmatic.
As higher education is slowly responding by retooling programs to address the much-needed vocational skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century, we are also going to need to rethink our philosophies around how we conceive of our careers and our methods of making money.
Young musicians in particular are overtly encouraged to follow their “passion” but cautioned that they must realize that they will probably starve along the way. Maybe they should consider that business degree so that they can have a desk job to cover expenses and then keep music as a hobby. Or perhaps they should go into education because it’s just too hard to compose or be a performer—as if choosing one path would negate the other.
This way of thinking creates a duality mindset implying that our creative calling into the arts is at odds with the realities of making a living and so we are encouraged to choose one (I can be either a teacher or a performer, I can be a composer or in arts leadership). I think that the fundamental problem here is that these ideas all stem back to a flawed concept of work and success. Somewhere, deep down, we as a people idolize the idea of the single paycheck and the lifetime job. It goes something like this:
Step 1—Get into a good college, pick a track, and pop out the other side with skills and credentials.
Step 2—Get a job that will support your lifestyle and become your identity/source of your life’s purpose.
Step 3—Retire happy at 65 with full pension and healthcare, closing the book on your life’s work and a job well done.
The problem, of course, is that this is overly simplistic and, honestly, not really how it works for most people. Yet our capitalist system encourages this mentality and our universities are becoming increasingly more vocationally focused to meet the demand for increased value for dollars spent. This builds tremendous pressure to “go get that job” and to demonstrate your success as a musician with big commissions or a single W2 (teachers/orchestra musicians), or—maybe easier—with fame. This sets up a system, however, that is really hard to thrive in when the 21st century is so far trending in the opposite direction. As someone who spent years on the audition trail, I came to realize that the landscape really wasn’t what I had thought and that I had so much more in me to give.
Vocation and Career might not have to be identical
Typically we all view vocation and career as virtually the same thing and both words are usually used in the context of describing how we bring home the bacon. We often use the words vocational training and career development interchangeably and confusingly talk about our vocational careers, that in some contexts describes a way of making money that is within our chosen discipline.
This is admittedly a slippery slope, but I think that there can be great value for 21st-century musicians in reframing the differences between vocation, career, and our perceived relationships to money.
If our careers are defined as our overall work in a chosen discipline or disciplines, then think of vocation as the big picture vision of who we are and our overall vision (or purpose, or calling) for our lives. Vocation becomes a larger, more holistic view that includes both the work of our careers and the whole of who we are. This includes what we do for money, what we do with our off hours, who we choose to connect with, who we love, and how we choose to spend our time in music. For example, I would describe my vocation as growing to become the best human I can and to help make the world a better place by advancing the cause of music and art. A lofty mission statement such as this is very broad and many diverse careers could support and uplift the values of this vision.
In contrast to vocation, try thinking of career as the sum of our daily practices and the thousands of individual projects we create along the way. These projects could be as simple as putting on a concert or building a teaching studio or as elaborate as building a business or working for a tech corporation for thirty years. With this definition, our careers can even involve the noble blood and sweat of our daily routines and struggles. Steven Pressfield, in his beautiful book The War of Art, describes the daily battle with our own resistance as key to our professional careers. And thankfully, some of our projects are even monetized. But it is important to realize that our projects do not need to bring in money to be considered as part of our careers. Our careers are ultimately built up from what we do on a daily basis and our careers fit into the bigger picture of our vocations.
Not creating a clear distinction between vocation and career can lead us to conflate what we do with who we are, often with the even more damaging conclusion that how we make money defines who we are. We carry with us the embedded message that our “vocational skills” and “entrepreneurial training” are here to help us succeed in our careers and in our lives. However, it is so crucial to remember that we are more than what we do to earn a paycheck.
A great deal of liberation is possible when we view vocation as our big-picture vision, purpose, or calling, letting go of career and money’s tendency to dominate. In the big picture, I am a musician, a teacher, a friend, a husband, a father, a son, a neighbor. I cook, eat, drink, travel, love, go to concerts, and make music. I cry, whine, laugh, joke, and play. Oh…and yes, I do make a bit of money in there, too.
Meanwhile, my vehicle for making the moolah is constantly changing. Even with the cushy academic job (project), I have countless 1099s, W2s, and hand-written checks to process. Artistically, I get my fix from a diverse range of projects from playing with the symphony downtown to recording a flamenco record, composing for my new music ensemble, or running a non-profit. No doubt all of these activities add to my career as a musician but not all of these bring in money—in fact, often times, they cost me money. The money factor is simply unrelated. Sometimes it is connected to what I do, but it does not define my career. Someday, I might adapt my career and may go get a desk job or open that restaurant. I used to think this meant that I was falling short of success, but now I just don’t believe it. No doubt if the way I make money changes, I will still be generating a plethora of projects to advance my cause of music and art. My career is just bigger than how I make money. It is built upon a series of projects, sometimes one-week long, sometimes spanning years. By linking these projects in interconnecting circles we can build toward a brilliant career. Look at Charles Ives and J.S. Bach… those two understood this concept of career and vocation.
Thinking of our work this way helps with the frantic urgency we feel around publicly proving ourselves by supporting ourselves financially with our chosen profession. We struggle daily between the concepts of patience and urgency—and I would argue that we have it backwards most of the time. We want to rush into our success with our fancy new entrepreneurial skills and spend much time and energy nurturing the idea of our rigid career tracks. Yet, because of our anxiety over career, money, and demonstrable success, the real work of actually pursuing the creation of our art is often done with a lackadaisical, distant, or fearful approach. By reframing the scenario around a project-based life, we can now approach each day, and the challenge of one particular project, with urgency and fervor. And what we do with our present day ultimately becomes our life in music. This way we can find the patience with our careers and earn the peace of mind that comes with fully and intentionally engaging in today’s work.
Maybe it is strange, but I think that satisfaction in our crazy profession comes down to deeply embracing the concept of a project-based life. What would it look like if we all changed the way we view our careers? What would music schools look like if we changed the way we message vocation? I plan to work and to create until the day I die, and honestly, my project list is longer than anyone could complete in three lifetimes. I dream of being able to quit my higher paying projects so that I can work harder at others. I believe that the quicker we can all lose the idealized fantasy of American success the better. If, instead, we fully embrace the ideas and the flexible glamour of the project-based life, the question of “what am I going to do with my life” moves from some imaginary point in the future to “what am I going to do with today.”
Brian Chin is the founder and artistic director of Common Tone Arts, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring positive change for our diverse world through arts education and music. As an international trumpet soloist with the Yamaha Corporation and advocate for new music, Brian has commissioned and premiered many works for trumpet and is the creator of the Universal Language Project, a concert series creating new music and multi-arts programs. Brian is also an executive leader with the UNITY Arts Alliance, a national collective of non-profit organizations dedicated to social justice and to demonstrating an alternative model for working artists. His two solo recordings, Universal Language and Eventide are available on Origin Classical.