It's that time of year when high school seniors are getting ready for that big event, graduation! I remember this time vividly. I conducted the premiere of my first piece with large instrumentation, performed by my high school concert band in my final ever concert as a high schooler. Getting that standing ovation further validated my decision to become a music major. I went on my first trip to Washington D.C., a good bit farther away than from where I live now. I played the piano for my baccalaureate and graduation services. There are so many memories, and they're all from exactly 30 years ago!
Most of truly impactful changes in my life and my mindset have actually occurred after the age of 30, and I began this blog with an even longer list of things dating back 20 years, but I also wanted to celebrate this happy time. I've never once wished I could go back to high school, and I felt like my life was finally beginning when I graduated, and it was...in some ways I expected, and some I didn't.
Like any adult looking back on the past, there are lessons I learned that I wish I could have learned the easy way, although maybe I wouldn't appreciate them as much if I had. Nevertheless, here are 30 things I would tell myself 30 years ago, in no particular order.
(TO BE CLEAR: These are lessons I would only tell MYSELF, not necessarily things I would tell YOU. This is specific to my life, but I hope you may agree or be able to apply some of these)
1. Go all-in with Investing in Yourself
There are a lot of ways you can spend your money aside from basic needs, and when you're young and trying to build an income, it can seem like there is little left at times. Consequently, it's easy to look for the cheapest and most free options when it comes to your needs, but don't do this. Get the best instrument you can afford. Get a good computer with good gear. Get some lessons with a good teacher, or advice from a good coach. If there's a $200 course or piece of gear that will truly make your skills more advanced or your life easier, you should do it. For one thing, it gives you what's known as "skin in the game". When you don't spend money on your tools, accept the free versions of apps (with ads), and try to teach yourself everything, you don't really feel any pressure to stick with your goals. I think of how long I kept going with limited data plans or choosing phones with a low amount of storage and strategically skimping to make it work...when for just a few more dollars each month, I have everything I need. Pay for it, then do the work to make it worth it!
2. But Save First!
I'm not saying to ignore my first bit of advice until you do this step, but you should minimize it. In the 30 years since high school, my number 1 source of anxiety (and there isn't a close 2nd) has been financial stress! A few years ago, I cured that stress with a 3-fold system.
I built an emergency fund to cover at least 6 months of barebones expenses.
I started budgeting for large expenses and buying only things I could afford either in full or mostly paid off already.
I automated money towards retirement.
It has meant a WORLD of difference! I no longer panic when a few students quit within a short time. I don't panic when appliances quit (fun fact: our refrigerator, stove, and dryer all quit within a 7 month period in 2022 after voluntarily buying a new dishwasher, and we had $3500 of car repairs over the summer...and yet we were prepared). Money in the bank gives you FREEDOM to be creative and to get what you need!
3. Your Friends Don't Have to Also Be Your Fans
Every musician needs to learn this lesson the hard way. There's no getting around the disappointment of doing a live gig and not seeing anyone you know in the audience, or posting something about your music on social media to your friends and getting crickets. You'll even see your friends (who don't come to your shows) posting about all the other bands they see in concert including big-name artists where it cost the same as about 20 of your shows.
It's okay. Your friends are not your friends because of your music. They might appreciate that about you, but they like your personality, or your sense of humor, or any number of factors. Your fans are ones who get to know you because of your music. They might know very little about you other than your music. Sometimes your friends become fans, and you may meet fans who become friends...but you should not expect them to be both. Again, this is okay.
4. Practice as Much as Possible Before Graduation
Unless you are one of the fortunate very few who can earn a great income from just performing and still designate large amounts of time to practice, you'll find that this available time greatly diminishes after you become a working professional musician. Treat your practice time like a part-time job until you get that last diploma. My musicianship is much more advanced than when I graduated with a Master's degree, but my performance skills are only marginally better. What you accomplish on your instrument before you enter the real world, for most of you, will set the standard for much of your life. You can still improve, but you'll find it harder without a job that allows you ample time.
5. Consistency Matters Most
Practice every day. Composers, write every day. Post something on social media related to your art or business every day. It all adds up, even small efforts. I can post 20 videos to Instagram, for example, and 15 might not do much of anything. 3 do pretty well, and 2 do very well. If I keep that up for 100 days, I end up with 10 videos that did pretty well. But the thing is...I don't know what or why I have success until after it happens. It's not easily predictable. What is predictable? Your effort. Show up daily!
6. Be Concerned with Too Few of Failures, Rather Than Too Many
Not too many years ago, I was feeling like a loser after losing out on the opportunity to score a film. In my mind, it seemed like that getting rejected or fired (as happened once) was happening once or twice a month. But while lamenting, I somehow decided to start counting, and I had actually only been rejected 7 times in 5 years. In that same span, I had successfully scored 5 short films (nearly 50% of my attempts). I immediately realized...rejection not only hurts more when it happens too seldom, but taking too few of chances is ignoring the math of probabilities. You didn't make the cut on an orchestra audition? Audition for 20 more! A publisher didn't accept your piece? Try 30 more! I like to gamify my chances and see how quickly I can get to 100 failures. The fact is that, if you know your craft or are working to improve, you're bound to accidentally find some significant success on the way to allowing yourself to fail.
7. Bad Dietary Choices Add Up
I used to think I was blessed with great metabolism in my late teens and early 20's, but now I think it was a curse. Over a weekend, I'd drink 6 of 7 cans of soda, eat a whole family-size bag of chips, have 4 fast food meals...and do that for more weekends than not of a year. That was college. I never gained a pound. Well, that was 25 years and 45 pounds ago. I struggle with inflammation and other ailments caused by excess sugar and processed foods. I eat better now, and I'm still in good health overall, but bad choices (food or otherwise) add up. Indulging in a pizza is fine. Making it or the caloric equivalent your normal choice will add up in a way that will take work to reverse.
8. Realism is Best
Don't see the worst or best outcomes of any situation. It's healthy to be a bit skeptical. It's also fine to be optimistic and positive in how you respond, but accept each situation for what it is. In other words, if there's a recession, don't shrug it off with the proclamation that "It won't affect me". Also, don't start expecting that you'll lose everything. Accept the situation, and calmly look at what is within your control, and plan accordingly. I'm a big fan of removing the words "always" and "never" from your vocabulary because the labels are "almost always" hyperbolic. Think in terms of probabilities. A great book to introduce you to this way of thinking is Thinking in Bets: Making Smart Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts (by Annie Duke).
9. Don't Be Surprised at What Life Throws Your Way
I genuinely am puzzled by the response to any misfortune or tragedy of "What did they do to deserve that?" Unless you're talking about a crime and the legal punishment, the answer is usually...nothing! Life doesn't play favorites. Nature is as violent as it is beautiful. People are kind and also mean. The economy is great and then it's not. People die young. Jobs get lost. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't grieve accordingly, but we're not being persecuted when it happens. I grew up in Florida where the most beautiful sunny day was likely to have a torrential thunderstorm around 3pm. Storms come unexpectedly. Expect that anything you can't control is possible and not all of it will be pleasant.
10. Be Confident in Yourself to Handle Any Situation.
I'm an advocate of stoic philosophy, which teaches that the only indestructible freedom you have in life is how you choose to respond. When things come up, know that you can handle it. It might take longer than you'd like, but you can see it through.
11. Your "Dream" Career Might Only Be a Starting Goal that Gets Detoured, and That's Okay!
This took me a LONG time to accept! It's hard to have a dream, invest in the education (often for many years), and then someday say that for whatever reason, you've changed your mind. It's far easier to keep telling yourself that your break is coming, and keep dreaming the original dream. But...do you really think you know what's best for the rest of your life when you're 18? Or 21? or 25? You will change your mind about a great many things in your life and realize how misinformed you were. It's okay to pivot and, odds are, you will continue to use your experience to help your new direction.
(A variation of this from a friend of mine: Not all careers are linear. Sometimes you'll move horizontally or even backwards to position yourself for future growth.)
12. Accept People's Different Tastes. There Aren't Many Happy Elitists.
I've found myself in conversations (in-person as well as online) where someone would rather tell you about how much they don't like a movie, a series, a book, a musician, etc. Sometimes it's easy to find yourself not liking something and spending so much time making fun of someone who does like it, or even thinking less of them. This happens with people who really love one genre of music. There are still classical fans on Twitter who call film composers "hacks". There are lots of "today's music sucks" chanters. I'm not saying you have to like everything, but allow others to like it without judgment. Elitists struggle to find friends except the few likeminded people they can find, and that is a very narrow and flimsy foundation for any kind of friendship.
13. Be Early to Adapt, and Let Others Moan About How Wrong Something Is
When I got the first version of my website in 2005 (which I think was very late for me), I had a teacher tell me that they were still convinced that the internet is just "a fad". I've never held that attitude, but I've often been late. If I had began a podcast when I first had the idea instead of 2-3 years later, I would have been in a better position to succeed. There are people who moan about social media, while others are getting on and succeeding. Recently it was TikTok, but soon there will be another big thing that people will wait and see while early adapters will find success. Right now, it's AI. There are certain jobs, even within music, that are in danger because of AI. Are you going to be the type of person who sits around and complains about how unfair it is, or accept it and learn how you can pivot to be more valuable in the present?
In a similar vein, keep up with updates. Don't be the person who keeps their computer 5 years after it stopped updating its software. Updates usually benefit you, and you're dealing with less than you need to by hanging on to outdated tools.
14. Keep Up With Your Friends
Write down 10, 15, or 20 friends that you genuinely care for, and go schedule some time with a reminder for you to text them, call them, or try to have lunch. It's hard to imagine when you're 18, but it's easy to let YEARS go by without touching base. You can't keep up with everyone, but don't allow the relationships that matter to you to go dormant.
15. Curiosity is a Superpower
When you change your reaction from "that's horrible" to "that's interesting" and approach everything like a curious cat...or a scientist...you'll find that it is an antidote to stress, anxiety, and depression in a majority of instances. Get excited about discovering new things! Curiosity is the engine behind every invention, every great work of art, every scientific discovery, every great relationship, and more. Be curious and stay curious!
16. You Might Change Your Mind About Everything, and That's Okay!
There's a trap that I had to overcome with my life, and that is allowing opinions to become part of my identity. People hold onto allegiance to a political party, for example, because they strongly identify as a member of that party rather than having a core set of values and being willing to go another direction if the party doesn't always align. (It's just an example. This is not THAT kind of blog). Separate who you are and what you value from what you believe or the opinions you hold. Always be willing to ask WHY you believe something, and if it doesn't hold up to your deepest core values, it's okay to change your mind.
17. Stay In Touch with Pop Culture, at least a little
If someone raves over a movie or TV Show, it doesn't take more than 5 minutes to go watch a trailer or read a review. If there's a new song that everyone seems to love outside of your preferred genre, it wouldn't take much of your time to listen at least once. Stay connected to what's going on. It matters to some people that you know, and it keeps you in the loop.
18. Become an Expert in Marketing Yourself
Nobody will get you work more than yourself. Learn WHY you love music and WHAT you offer as an artist or an educator, and learn how to share that with anyone. Learn how social media platforms work, and share yourself, your art, and your services!
19. If Your Rates Never Scare Anyone Away, You're Not Charging Enough
This was a very hard lesson for me! I've actually heard "that's a bit much" and offered a discount (cringe), and then lowered my rate for the next client who asked (double cringe). There's a simple test: take note of the next 5 people who ask for your services. If none of them flinch at your rate, it's too low. If they all accept even reluctantly, it still might be low. At least 1 or 2 should be scared off. If more than 50% are scared off, you might be too high, but the right market value won't be right for everyone and you should be a little too expensive for some but not all.
20. Solve Money Problems Through Income More Than Through Expenses
Too often in my life, I've looked at how I can reduce expenses (as I mentioned under the 1st lesson I mentioned here). It was 2014 before I got a smart phone plan. I used to get the least expensive prepaid phone plans with phones that were vastly inferior to the market standard. There's a fine line between cutting out what's unnecessary and the depressing steps of just looking for ways to save a few dollars here and there. You might have to reduce expenses in times of emergency, but this should always be second to the goal of increasing your income. For every 1 hour you spend auditing how you're spending your money, spend 3 hours researching what you can do to improve your income. This is the best way to solve your money problems!
21. Don't Take Time Off from Physical Fitness
You'll get busy. You'll take breaks from things. Don't do that with exercise. Whether it's weights, calisthenics, riding a bike, running, or walking...stay active! There will come a time where a month off feels like you've regressed by years when you come back to it. Give yourself breaks when you get ill, but come back to a routine you can sustain of staying active.
22. Whenever Absolutely Possible, Accept Every Invitation to Socialize
As a lifelong introvert, I've responded to many invitations of going out for a drink after the show or to a party with excuses that could be easily rescheduled, and I've experienced the natural consequence of this...when most people stop inviting me. For some of us, being social is an effort, but socializing has a profound effect on human health. We are social animals, even us introverts, and people who avoid it struggle with depression more often than those who stay engaged. You may be tired, you may just want to go home, but if it's an option, say yes to those invitations!
23. You Should WANT To Be Criticized By Strangers
One of the things that keeps some people from putting their music, or their videos, and sharing their expertise out in the world where the public can comment is the fear of being disliked or criticized. This fear can lead to not sharing, or it could also lead to compromising your approach in the effort to be universally liked. Unfortunately, avoiding that dislike button on YouTube and some snarky comment on TikTok can only happen if you're not sharing or only your friends are seeing. It's playing it safe. If enough people see ANYTHING, it will have people who don't like it and want to let you know. Do you need proof?
IMDB is a website where people can rate movies and find out more information about them. If you love something you can rate it 10 stars, and if you hate it you can give it 1 star, and anything in between. Let's take 2 movies that seemingly everyone likes: "The Wizard of Oz" and "It's a Wonderful Life". For the first movie, 5,386 people and counting have given it a 1-star rating, and for the second there are currently 6,794 1-star ratings. How does a beloved book like "The Little Prince" do on Goodreads? Yes, slightly more than 1 million gave it the highest rating, but 33,567 readers rated it 1 star. These are among the most beloved works of art. If you put yourself out in the world, you'll be criticized. Universal appeal is only possible in a very limited sphere.
24. Your attitude is self-fulfilling prophecy.
This might be the most controversial advice I can give. There are people all over the world who will tell you that your attitude is shaped by your circumstances. If you're poor, if you struggle with physical or mental health, or if you are just unlucky, then you are understandable when you complain or have a negative view of yourself or the world. If you're rich, or if you're in good health, or you have a lot of friends, then you naturally will come across as joyful.
There are others who will say a joyful and positive attitude will leave you open for opportunities, perseverance, and cause you to be a magnet for collecting friendships...while a "woe is me" or defeatist attitude invites more negative events in your life. Camp 1 says that your circumstances shape your attitudes, but Camp 2 says that your attitudes shapes your circumstances.
I am fully in Camp 2. I feel confident in saying that for 2 reasons. First, I've seen it in myself. I've been the "woe is me" person. Ask anyone who's been Facebook friends with me for longer than 5 years. The negative energy gives birth to negative matter which then further makes you miserable. But then I decided that nothing will rattle me, that I expect the best of myself and people, and I expect to be joyful and optimistic regardless of the situation...and good things just happen more abundantly and moments of crisis are fewer (largely because I'm now able to see true crisis from just a difficult day.). The second reason is that I see it in others all the time. I see the person who always is lamenting their life and their life never gets better, because it's like their thermostat is set to "this stinks". Then there is the person who savors moments, sees the good in others, is thankful for what they have rather than constantly complaining about what they don't, and they just seem to attract more great opportunities and relationships. Set your emotional thermostat high, and I'm willing to bet your life will have more highs than lows.
25. Constantly Read Books That Improve Who You Are
I've read a ton of books over the years, and have had my fill of science fiction, horror, thriller, and mystery novels. There's nothing wrong with diversionary fiction. But take time for other types of books: classics, well-regarded literary fiction, but also non-fiction related to psychology, business, music, and other aspects of your life. Biographies of successful artists are also great. What you read will shape your life. As an additional note, don't read fast just to check it off and say you read x number of books in a year. Read as slow as needed, take notes or make highlights, and if it's good...plan to re-read it soon.
26. You are what you do, not what you think or plan to do.
This might be tough for you to read. It was tough for me to learn. If you call yourself a "composer" but you spend little to no time actually composing, then...I hate to break it to you...but you're not a composer. You might envision yourself living as a composer, having a career in that area, and you may even love the "idea" of it...but that's just a fantasy. If you aren't living it with action, then you don't value it as much as something else. If you want to learn your instrument well but you're not practicing often, then there is something you value (self esteem, comfort, etc) more than becoming a great performer. You can apply this to each walk of life. If you're eating junk food, if you're not working out, if you spend an excessive amount of free time on social media or streaming series and films, you are saying that you value what that offers more than the alternatives. If your actions don't align with your thoughts, dissect them closely to figure out why there is a disconnection.
27. Never let a month go by without attending live music or theatre.
Much like accepting invitations to be social, you should support live music and theatre as often as you can. If budget is an issue, go to smaller and more local shows, and perhaps trade it for another expense. Besides exercising the habit of being supportive, the live experience can never be duplicated by consuming YouTube, TikTok, or listening on Spotify.
28. If an opportunity is given where you feel slightly unsure, you should take it!
To clarify, if you feel wholeheartedly confident against an opportunity, you probably should avoid it. But if you only accept opportunities when you already feel prepared, you're missing on several opportunities: the opportunity for growth and the opportunity to learn something new about yourself. Working with musical theatre was a suggestion that was given to me in 1996 that I ignored. 13 years later, I was urged to try it by a production that was desperately seeking a music director. I didn't know what I was doing, and it ended up starting a whole new chapter of my life.
To be clear, not all such opportunities lead to fairy tale endings. I was offered a chance to play for a Broadway tour in 2021, and asked to not come back by the end of the rehearsal. I was uncomfortable going in, and it turned out to be a good reason. I wasn't ready. And yet, I learned what the process is like. I learned exactly what I'd need to do to be prepared for the next time. I also learned (rather than having to wonder) that it wasn't something I wanted to pursue any further than I did. I made an immediate pivot in my energy, and have never regretted it. I only regret the things I never tried.
29. Approach your life with general values rather than specific goals.
As most good career coaches will tell you, the WHY is the most important part for you to figure out. For years, I thought seeking to be a film composer was essential to personal success. But I never asked WHY I like it. One of the reasons was shallow: I wanted to become a household name in that field and win an Oscar for that category. Once I realized that there was no value in that reason, I thought about what else captivated me. It was collaboration and the chance for dramatic creativity. Well...I get that very joy as an arranger for other writer's musicals. I get to take their baby and make it better, and I absolutely use all my film scoring skills when I do! Don't think about WHAT you want to do with your life, but WHY you want to do it. The WHY will lead you to places you never dreamed, but the WHAT could become a crutch.
Do likewise with every decision. What kind of goals do you have that are general? Maybe it's to be a good friend, maybe it's to be a positive example in lives that may be lacking, maybe it's to create great art that affects people. Do you see how this opens doors, and also clarifies whether any action you take is a good one or not?
30. "See the World as a Poet"
I saved this for last, because I think it's one of my most recent revelations and one I can credit the book The Daily Stoic for showing me. If you're spiritual, this may come more naturally, but even if you're not... get outside and don't play anything from your phone. Appreciate the sound of the birds and frogs. Notice how the light reflects off the tree. Admire the angles in a variety of architecture. The next time you go on vacation, don't plan more than a few things in advance but, instead, seek out things to do spontaneously. Actually smell your soap in the shower. Allow yourself to be moved by music. Chew your food thoroughly and savor each bite. Life is worth living in profound moments that happen all the time and every day, not the monumental achievements which are so allusive.
Adult readers, what would you tell the high school graduate version of you if you could go back in time?
You can hear the podcast episode based on this post here:
If you missed my conversation with Anže Rozman and Kara Talve, the composers of Prehistoric Planet (a series on Apple TV+), you can check this out here: