There’s the story about the kid in fifth grade who thought he had the best teacher ever. The teacher always had a kind word for his students, and even when the student would turn in a sub-par piece of work, the teacher would find some angle to praise it. Everyone loved this teacher, and he believed he was doing the kids a favor by bolstering their self-esteem.
This contrasted with this student’s English teacher a scant year or two later. The student went into this class thinking it would be a breeze. After all, according to his previous teacher he was a pretty good English paper writer. Imagine his shock and consternation when his first paper came back filled with red marks, with an ignominious “F” at the top of the sheet. How dare this teacher do this to him! He was a great writer!
But he wasn’t. His fifth-grade teacher, in an attempt to boost his students’ self-esteem, actually left them with an overinflated ego and an unrealistic opinion of their own skills and abilities.
I read this story a long time ago, and I wish I could find the actual story to post here instead of paraphrasing it, as the message is much more succinct, clear, and powerful in its original incarnation. But the basic moral of the story is to not have unrealistic expectations of your own abilities, nor build them up in others, for eventually the world will crush those expectations, leaving you having spent a lot of time and energy believing a falsehood, and therefore unable to improve yourself and truly achieve greatness. You can’t rise above mediocrity if you can’t even recognize it.
Lately I’ve had the sneaking sensation that a lot of the praise I’ve received over time, especially in regard to my musical and/or performance abilities, has been akin to the experience of this fifth-grader. My abilities certainly exist, and objectively they’re not bad. However, am I really this great musical genius that some people (especially certain relatives of mine) make me out to be? Perhaps the praise comes from a) people not wanting to hurt my feelings, b) people who are close enough to me to see everything I do through rose-colored lenses, or c) people who truly can’t recognize the difference between mediocrity and greatness.
Consider this. I tried out for the Playmill not long ago, to go this summer. My sister was absolutely positive I’d make it. After all, both she and my brother had made it in previous years, and she knows the owners quite well, therefore she had good reason to be confident. In addition, I’m a pretty good actor and singer (not so much dancer, but then, neither were Kjersti or Ben). However, despite her confidence, I wasn’t included on the cast list this year, plain and simple. How could my sister have been so confident as to be flippant about it? Simple. Rose-colored lenses.
I’ve written a lot of music over the years. Most of it has not been heard by critical ears, but even people I know who hear it and say things like, “That’s pretty good, Jeff! You gonna be famous!” and so on, don’t really ever *listen* to stuff I write on any sort of regular basis, nor do they recommend it to their friends, or request copies of it for themselves. Why can’t people just say, “It’s OK, but it’d be better if you did this and this,” or “The middle part needs work” or whatever? Why must it all be guesswork and inference as to people’s real opinions? It may be that they believe the work really is top-notch and can’t tell the difference. I don’t believe this is a large number of cases, though. Even a person with the most untrained ear can still say, “I don’t really like this part” without knowing what exactly is wrong. What’s the problem? They don’t want to hurt my feelings. They want to be like the optimistic fifth-grade teacher, buoying a person up without helping him to improve.
Honesty, please. I would rather hear that all my songs suck (if they do, which I don’t believe), than that all my songs are top-notch (which I believe they also aren’t.) At least in the first case people are being honest. The best-case scenario, however, would be constructive criticism, so I know what to do to improve.
Why do I place this much importance on what other people think of my art? If it were simply a hobby perhaps I wouldn’t. However, the more I learn about the music business the more I learn the importance of staying competitive, and the best way to do that is to continually improve oneself. I don’t feel that my compositional skills have measurably improved since high school, and the amount of self-reliance, drive, independence, business skill, and competitive spirit needed to make enough money in the entertainment business to support a family is overwhelming, and I don’t feel up to the task. The simple fact of the matter is, my future family is the most important thing in my life, even though it technically doesn’t exist yet, and when it comes down to it I would rather sacrifice an entire music career to save my marriage. And with what I’m learning now, I may have to sacrifice a music career before I get married for my marriage’s sake. However, I’ve always felt a sense of responsibility when it comes to my musical abilities, mainly due to the praise I get regarding my musical talents. If I don’t go into the music biz, it’d feel like a waste of my God-given talents.
It’s that time of life everyone warns you about: when you make that career decision that will last you the rest of your life. And I’m becoming less and less enthused with pursuing music as a day job. I may be able to subsist if I stay single forever, but I don’t want to drag a family through poverty because I had some random talents, but lacked the skills, drive, or initiative to fully exploit those talents.
Maybe I should just scrap it all, make music my hobby, and go be a pilot, like I’ve contemplated in the past.