This is a big topic for me. One I never thought I’d talk or write about. Because it’s trained in us, from a young age, to want to ‘be the best.’ But ever since 19 or so when I started reading Taoist literature and Buddhist things and taking the words in my original Presbyterian faith more seriously (first not, but then again at 22)…I realized capital-a Ambition doesn’t line up with these. But this caused a divide in me because I’d “won awards since elementary school” (in quotes because I always say “yada yada” after I say stuff like this…not because it isn’t true, but because I love saying this story)
Let me list my awards. Mind you, at age 10 I hadn’t researched competitions, this was from other people seeing my talent and skill and hard work and unique-to-the-area obsession with songwriting…and they thought proposing entering competitions and winning awards was the right use of such talents and interests (in hindsight it was probably more detrimental than good, in my opinion).
I am listing to get this out of my system once and for all. But also to brag, because it’s what ambition did to me, and I think that’s funny and sad and almost tragic. It gave me awards and talent and skill and obsession with being good or better than others, and what do you do with that other than brag or subtle brag about it? it’s the seed of my undoing…because I live in a world that hates bragging, hates jockeying for position, though we all do it, and doesn’t trust people’s motives and the past 10 years people can undoubtedly feel my split (do I want to help you, or be better than you? do I want to be real, or be recognized for how real I am?…etc)
-Kindergarten, my music teacher pulled me aside to tell me about my talent, asked me to perform a solo in the talent show. Family told this story for YEARS after. It WAS cute, the song was called “Me, Myself, and I” (also prophetic…as I had a hard time collaborating, both from my obsession with being the best and being in charge, and also cuz I advanced my music skills so high I didn’t relate to the people I’m most like)
-Elementary School, 4th grade, told my original songs are great, music teacher (different one) helped me score one on staff paper. When a friend passed away (this is the real story, and where my heart is), I wrote a song for her. But the people around me saw this as talent not heart, and while they did a good-for-me heart thing (have me share it with the school, among tons of other songs I wrote), they also encouraged entering a statewide songwriting competition. Helped me make sheet music for that song too. Then I won, and went to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, for my award. It was strange. I got a medal on a rainbow ribbon.
-Oh I have some swimming awards too by now, all taped to my bookshelf. Mostly 2nd places but some firsts. But they are so cool to me. I liked being recognized and remembering how well I did at things. Also by now I’d gotten As on papers, projects, worked hard, was passionate, wrote stories about the life of a roll (a dinner roll), my creativity had a home and was validated – elementary school was a good fit for my whimsy. So all in all, I became feedback obsessed, accomplishment obsessed, being good obsessed…I don’t know if I needed it to be better than others. But slowly over time, doing something that’s all about winning, makes you seem and sound that way. I could have lived in my own private universe (like I do now) and had it be all about rising to personal challenges and accomplishments. But the people around me loved the winning, and maybe I did too. It felt good to make them happy.
-By this same time, I’d played a few kiddie piano recitals, and my teacher was excited about that too. And flute. Tried to stay 1st chair my whole life, no matter how hard it got, and mostly succeeded. Piano competitions, having to be good at songs to ‘do well’ at competitions and recitals, even if I hated those particular songs, was a regular piece of my childhood at this time. I would work on pop/rock songs, and write songs, and sometimes my teacher was cool and we’d work on that too. But the theory/technique/lesson books were the backbone and we moved fast and it always led to competing. I hated failing or doing less-than-well, but sometimes I just really didn’t like the songs, and I really hated the serious tone of lessons and being corrected all the time. It was overwhelming. I didn’t want to quit piano, but I hated how hard it always felt. In hindsight I would have loved a teacher like me – lesson books yes, but no competitions, tons of accommodating to style (pop/rock) but still distilling basics and core concepts, and trying to help kids warp speed advance in their area of interest. But hey, this is me trying to be the best again. There are flaws with an approach like this too (certain kids need more structure and more negative feedback than I can give).
-In 5th grade, going back a bit, I won my first big award – not just the statewide songwriting award, followed by an offer to play that song and others in front of the whole school, but also asked to write a 5th grade graduation song. Holy shit did that go to my head. Oh I was the lead in Alice in Wonderland too (well, first act Alice – they wanted the lead part to be shared, maybe there was a life lesson in that – I was actually fine with it, just doing half, but I remember others liked to compare and judge us against each other, and tell me who was better…). Anyway, I loved it. Loved the challenge. Loved being center of attention. Loved how hard I had to work. Loved the opportunity to shine. People supported me too at first. It was lovely. I felt a social shift for the first time around then…mild and subtle at first, but once they asked me to “make 4 part harmony” for the graduation song I wrote, and cast people in it, and teach it to them (I went to an arts school, we did 3 hours of Chorale 3x a week, and harmony singing was a big part of it), I ended up being called a bitch behind my back. Probably was blunt and not a kind teacher. When it wasn’t right, especially over and over again. This haunted me and made me afraid of groups and peers. But honestly, I probably a) was being a bitch, or b) was impatient, frustrated, not sure how to teach people who weren’t getting something, and c) only in 5th grade so it was a tough position to be thrown into with my peers (to be put above them and made their teacher). I attracted and sought softer kinder people after that, knowing I was so dominant and “bossy” (another word for it – but Girls Rock type groups try to get us to be okay with these qualities, but honestly when it’s 10 people in one room, someone has to back down and follow, which I also later did in group situations, to be liked or keep the peace)…anyway, this one led to performing that song with my own mini-choir (I sang/played piano). And at the end of that 5th grade graduation ceremony, I co-won the “renaissance award” that my school gives out. An award for people who excelled in the arts. This was the beginning of me hating awards. At the time I liked it, dopamine high, feeling “the best” like “I did it” but over time it was an insidious seed of poison to my entire being. 1) because I co-won it with a now-friend (co-uncle to our married siblings) so we grew up distantly knowing each other after we moved to different schools…and I barely knew him in elementary school, but when we co-won it was strange because he had never done anything flashy or showy, like I had, or won awards like I had, but they split the award. Whereas my brother had won the award all by himself, one year earlier…and he also didn’t do anything as showy as me, like win statewide awards first or write and perform a 5th grade graduation song. Do you see the beginning of that seed? I was confused, rightly so, as kids should be, at “what I did wrong” to not win the award by myself. Or by, “what’s wrong with me” that they split it. Or a strange feeling of “not good enough”. Which makes no sense after all that stuff, all that sharing, which was originally about my friend who died, and it should have ALWAYS been about that. And the 5th grade graduation song could have been just about feeling sad we’re moving on, but instead it became about how to work with others and being called a bitch, and then being excited to share all this stuff I did and seeing not everyone was as excited about me as I was about myself. Kinda normal 5th grade stuff…our parents build us up, in certain types of homes, and the world lowers us down a few pegs, cuz no one loves us as much as our parents* do. And that’s a hard lesson to learn. (*of course this isn’t true in all families, but it’s a cliche for how often it happens) I just learned this lesson very quickly and very loudly and very, for me, embarassingly. Plus, my family loved and celebrated awards and success and good grades. So the emotional message at this time was incredibly mixed.
-When I was in middle school, I kept submitting to these competitions, and won statewide two more times. The new school made an even bigger concert for me, of my songs, and even better my peers liked em and asked me to play before choir started each day. Until they suddenly didn’t anymore. I never knew why. Also that mixed with friends who wrote me kind notes and called me a “sweet girl” but said they weren’t going to be my friend anymore. I was shut out from the cool kids and inside crowd multiple times, I thought I had done something wrong (and maybe I had) but finding old notes showed how nice they were about it…it was still wrong. And hard. And not wrong at all. Maybe I talked about things they didn’t care about, maybe I didn’t get into the music of the times enough. My friend from Massachusetts always sang harmonies with me when she visited her grandma down the street…that was such a good friendship. It was always just harder for me to find people I connected with. Maybe cuz I always wanted to write songs. But I wonder if the way ambition affected me, plus getting good grades, made me see the world in, I’m either succeeding or failing. Like, did I tell these friends at the same school that I ‘failed’ when I got a good part in 6th grade (Minnie Faye in Hello Dolly) but a ‘bad part’ in 7th grade (chorus, and as a man, in Calamity Jane). I was hyper aware of doing well, being the best, being average, being rejected…how did I learn this? Is it societal? I think it’s school and family. I had success-oriented adults all around me in both fronts. The ones who weren’t REALLY stood out too, and I loved them (Mr. Murphy in 6th grade – loved you most, so cool! Mrs. Lenart in 4th grade too)
-By middle school I had so many 1* rankings at Solo & Ensemble for flute and piano, so many 1s for piano competitions that I don’t even remember…accompanied others for their parts too, and made $20. Kinda like what I make as a musician today (kidding, sort of…). It was fun to make a CV later…it had a HEY LOOK WHAT I CAN DO feeling. And whenever I was isolated, or an island, I liked these awards. They affirmed someone thought I had value. Meanwhile I kept being voted off the island socially…finding new friends, usually one-on-one cuz the big social groups were hard in 5th and 6th grade, being sort of asked to leave by a note from one or two of them, when I could tell some people in the group still loved me and liked having me around, it became easier to forge one on one friendships so I didn’t have to deal with all that. But I think I often lacked play dates, and played or biked alone a lot, in my head, writing songs, maybe we’re all lonely a lot…but all thru middle and HS I changed friends so much. Not sure why. Maybe they left me, sometimes it was schedule, or maybe I left them…maybe I didn’t like being hurt. Maybe I never got close to people after the initial heartbreaks in 5th/6th grade (and yes, people, childhood social pains are real and will define you for your whole life, if you don’t look at them…or even if you do sometimes).
-Back to awards…so much. So much. Grades, AP classes, Chopin competitions, winning a scholarship, oh in 4th grade I was “one of only two people picked to go to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago for a day-long field trip.” In High School I was “one of only two people in my whole class of 400” picked to represent our HS at Badger Girls State, a week of learning about politics, mock style. I liked being good at things, not science or politics in general. But people saw my passion for learning almost anything, and because they didn’t see me all day, didn’t know I was always like that. First chair flute, solos at the state level, 1*, anything that made me feel like I’d won or was better. I don’t know if I felt like I had a choice. I loved winning. It filled something in me. 8th grade was the first year I submitted and DIDN’T win the statewide award for songwriting – AND IT CAUSED ME TO STOP WRITING OR SHARING SONGS FOR ALMOST 4 YEARS. That’s the problem. That’s the whole problem. I let other people be a measure of what I did. I gave so much weight to other people’s opinions, specifically in the form of awards or other big social validation, like valuing crappy Simon on American Idol. He’s one person, they were one peoples, everyone judging me. But anytime something went wrong, I stopped taking risks. Socially, competitionally….and that’s the story I used to tell.
But I’m starting to tell the story of, there’s something wrong with ambition in the first place! For me to “win” others have to lose. For me to be the best, who are all the many not-bests?! And if it felt so bad for me to lose that one time in 8th grade, to shut down for 4 years, how many potential songwriters were shut down each year I won in 5th, 6th, and 7th grades? Yes I got to tell that one “I’m a winner” story for 3 years, and let it serve my identity. But if you look at my story, it only built up my success into more of a big deal, which made failure more of a big deal too. So either way I left discouraged from all the comparing and offering of awards. And meanwhile, when I was in 8th grade, ONE other person got to feel that high, while the rest – including me – thought we did “something wrong.” This can be subtle, like “I wonder what wasn’t as good about that song” to “I guess I’m not meant to be a songwriter”…when in reality, it’s crazy that we’ve created a world where HUNDREDS (or thousands? millions?) of people create, write, share, and we say “okay now only one will win this time, and the rest of you should go home and think about what you’ve done wrong (aka that wasn’t “good enough”)”
THIS IS CRAZY.
This doesn’t even reflect the business world. Where you should live in a town with lots of piano teachers if you want to be a piano teacher. And don’t try to be the best (first of all, don’t “try” in that way…just focus on personal best and quality), just find your niche. How are you different, unique, and then your base will come. People who need what you are/offer.
This is true with the real music industry and scene too. Not everyone likes my music, or my friends, or their friends…taste is unique and individual, and I am not “winning” and neither are others really. Even those with million dollar recording contracts, many times are sculpting something to fit the most people’s interests, like market research. Whereas I’m whimsically being myself, as are a lot of the non-ambitious musicians I know. We fall in a “maybe they’ll like me, maybe not” category – while others market and watch when and where people clapped the most (which songs, etc, I used to do that back in Chicago, when I was more driven), which ones land. Then I almost violently changed, forcing audiences to accept me playing my slowest least flashy songs. I needed to do this for me. Just cause I have a conservatory degree and can “wow” with piano chops, I didn’t (and often still don’t) like that feeling of “wowwing” an audience. It brings me back to all this ambition stuff. And in my experience, people don’t listen as much to the words – or the emotion – when the main thought is “wow” and the main emotion is “impressed.”
So here I am with my Chopin and Beethoven loves, some injured arms, sometimes I like playing flashy stuff still…but I mostly like music for its emotional soothing/healing potential. Or just its emotional resonance in general. Highs and lows. Not, did I impress you, not did I win awards – or the social/financial equivelant of an award.
I wanted to wrap up but I left some out.
-Scholarships to college
-a fellowship awarded to me for my “unique talents and interests” which funded a semester in London
-Best music in the Nashville Film Fest and people writing big reviews about us nationally
-rave reviews of my original musical in college, for which I “wrote, directed, played piano in” and it was my “first musical” written “at age 21” (in quotes not because not true, just because I liked these sound bytes and seeing people’s impressed faces…)
-got into Tisch in NYC on scholarship, “famous people sung my songs” there and later, future Belle in Beauty and The Beast, I was “Sebastian Arcelus’ music director” (he’s a lovely human – but did become Roger in Rent, and the lead in Elf on Broadway, etc),
Wendy Robie from Twin Peaks, Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda and I shared earbuds while I taught her to sing my songs for the movie, which won awards all over the country…these things filled that bucket, of am I good enough…
-being offered a production of our grad school musical, paid $1800 royalties just to let them perform it, right out of college. They “flew us out to see it” and paid for us to stay in fancy hotels for their awards gala. All while under 25. (I’m trying to say these things in impressive sounding ways)
-there’s so many more from music directing, including knowing or working with famous people…it dwindled after that… especially after I left the educational world of constant feelings of being awarded/rewarded, and entered the world of “that’s great, but how will you pay for life?” (most of these things were unpaid or barely paid, or paid in one lump sum, not in an easy-to-pay-for-life sort of way…)
OH here’s more
-wrote a musical long-distance and was paid royalties to have them perform it (adaptation of Christmas Carol), which I did just so I could say on my resume that I’d had original musicals produced on “both coasts”
-music directed on off-off-Broadway, and understudied as pianist/music director for Off-Broadway’s Hello Muddah Hello Fadduh
-told by legendary Broadway directors/professionals that I was “going somewhere” and had them gush at me for transcribing their revue…
(FOOD for that ambition brain)
(am I bragging now? or showing you the confusion? I don’t know…I think it’s both, it’s gross)
-music directing in Chicago too, but needing to earn money, got confused…how to live (MD positions were contract, and life requires work at all times…didn’t have the stamina or schedule flexibility to work all the time for a stipend, AND still pay bills including grad school loans)
-Offered an internship in Dramaturgy at the Goodman Theatre. Unpaid tho, 6 months. Couldn’t do it. Started with Child’s Play Touring Theatre instead, almost moved more into that world, Second City, etc…but again. Money. Found my way to the much less glamorous ‘teaching piano’ and I’ve been here ever since (except a brief pause of working as a pianist for a HS choir – some glamour, inside glamour, and the Travel Channel filming us and zooming in on my hands, and using a version of Jingle Bells that I arranged…but overall, I couldn’t apply my ambition-obsession to a tiny town/school in West Michigan, after such heady experiences with it in NYC, Chicago, more…and by then, I realized how ambition juxtaposed with how to support yourself, and how to be yourself…
I even used ambition to avoid writing songs, and sharing my real passion (which was clear to me in 6th grade and earlier), of being a singer-songwriter…and returning to it wholeheartedly at age 25 felt like coming down off the success-ladder I’d been on, all that NYC music directing and awards and back pats, and starting to climb a new ladder of being a “real” singer-songwriter, and being a “no one” at open mics at 25…I dealt with those feelings of inferiority the whole time starting out in Chicago, after already building such a huge resume in such an unrelated topic (despite having secret private songs I’d written since high school, after the 4 years gap, but just stopped sharing and got no sense of “success” from…only shared with 1-2 people and even they occasionally turned on me, or got sick of my sharing them).
So I probably lost my love of success a bit when I had all that success on the wrong ladder. It’s why I tell people to cut and run if it’s the wrong ladder, because climbing more once you know it’s wrong for you doesn’t help anything (I was being pushed to be a professional music director of other people’s shows – but I knew I was a writer/performer of original stuff, at heart – so all the MD success impressed people, but made me feel a bit empty, like I was working hard at the wrong dream). Even this paragraph feels empty, cuz it’s a story I USED to tell…telling people to cut and run so they can get on their right ladder, to hurry up and FIND SUCCESS. And I just don’t believe in that version of success anymore.
I dunno. I just think when it comes to “success” and “failure,” especially in the arts or other historically low-paying fields, I worry that it’s unintentionally cruel and unkind that this world creates pockets of success in small towns, especially while kids are in school and have no bills to pay, and lets those kids think they’ll “make it” somewhere, then if it’s arts they might move to the big cities with those dreams, only to find there’s often no money in it…so if they have intense stamina to also work full time, and aren’t saddled with debt, they can sometimes do it on the side…but to succeed you need that full-time hustle…sooooo it doesn’t work out for 90% of us or more perhaps…THEN wasn’t the real problem the words said to these kids in the first place? Or left unsaid, but just implied by constantly pointing out to them that they’re “the best”? Even with getting all As at school. Isn’t that creating a self-expectation, for who they “should” be in the world? What about emotional issues? What about practicality of the field they’re in? What about arm pain in their chosen field? I care because it’s not just me. If it were just me, I’d whine all day and you could laugh at me. But it’s all of us. It’s sooooo sooooo soooo many of us. It’s a common story. The failure story. Which isn’t looking honestly at how the failure is just a violent swing of the pendulum from the “success” story. And both get in the way of authentically finding yourself, and being yourself.
Ambition is a strange drug….
It’s toxic, it pits you against other people, even just in your own mind.
It makes you want to be “better than” and makes you hyper-aware when you are “less than.”
Neither are true.
Both are lies and hurtful to your sense of youness. Your humanity.
Everything I read in those wisdom books, feels true. Worst part is, those books exist because someone was so wise they ended up celebrated and that looks like ambition.
Had to take a call…it’s on a similar topic. All my 20 years of piano training makes it hard for me to be in bands, without being impatient or not on the same page as others. Things that come easily to me now, as a musician, only do because of all this training…but socially, and as a bandmate, this doesn’t serve me.
So I guess it’s been a heavy year, realizing all this. Charisma and other things make bands successful, not just someone with conservatory chops. And what IS “successful” anyway? Is it money? Is it recognition? Does this all fall in the category of “success” (money or fame or followers) that later disappoints, because no one has it for all time? It always eventually goes away?
I’ve looked at fame as a strange drug for a long time now. Long before sharing so much, so publicly. This is like, this year, or two, is like me reverting to my childhood self – sharing a ton – but without the clear goals or ambition. Except, if I’m honest, a vague one, that all this sharing of music can lead to an improved resume that’s more accurate to my passions. I.e. if I never “get followers” or “make money” (haha that one shouldn’t be in quotes) from my original music – as is, without changing the music to be poppier or more commercial (more polished, yes, but that’s hard and costs money and overwhelms me, I’ll go back to trying on that someday)… if ALL that “fails” , i.e. doesn’t produce any results except more people knowing me, more authentically, including the embarassing parts, the failing parts, the confusing parts, the condemnable parts…then at least I could do a little library tour to small towns or maybe big ones (more people doing somthing, i.e. big cities loving creativity, means more demand) and teach about how to not have writers’ block, how to be prolific, and how to use the creative process as your own personal therapy.
Haha could “at least” do something like that? When if I’m honest…it’s what I REALLY want to do. I want to inspire people, to make to do to create to be themselves. Make up recipes, make a colorful home, or an all black-and-white one, you do you! This is my biggest passion in life. All those “shoulds” – including competitions, getting As, winning awards…both confused and alienated me. Like an addiction. Success is an addiction. Yes I need to make money. I need to find people who need what I have to offer. Then I have to value myself enough to charge for my services. Need to be realistic that gas costs money, time off work costs money, car repairs and payments cost money, healthcare, etc…and all that together, means I need to ask for a certain amount, and if a library or arts organization can pay it? And/or charge people $10-12 to come do a workshop or class with me? Like a yoga class? Meaning they value it too, help with creativity, and don’t need it to be wholly free…then maybe all these forces converging is just what money and “success” really is. (money should be in quotes too…it’s just trade, trading energy and effort, helping each other, the one helping is pausing their growth to give back, and the one receiving is growing…or maybe both grow, I don’t know, maybe the growth and learning IS really in the giving…I don’t know what I’m rambling about anymore…I have so many things to do, should probably go do them.)
Thanks September for helping me see my own flaws and ambition. For helping me see the ways I’ve wanted to be “better than.” The ways I need to at least make money (including darn loan payments) but the ways, for my ego, I don’t want to be celebrated…because eventually it dies or turns on you, and that feeling causes as much blockage as never being celebrated in the first place. Think of old rockers, confused why no one is as excited about them anymore, hiding in their apartments or touring to casinos…dealing with all those feelings of being a dying star. I already feel like a dying star, and have since 6th or 7th grade. I just now have some words for it.