Career Advice That Might Actually Apply To Musicians, Volume 1

I’m on a quest to find out if so-called “great career books” can help us musicians at all. Here we go.  

I’m about halfway through Cal Newport’s fascinating book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: How Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. But I can’t wait until the book is done to start writing about it. There’s some stuff in here we’ve GOT to talk about.

Part 1: Passion vs. Craftsman Mindset

Newport’s book is a takedown of what he calls the passion mindset, also known as the “do what you love and the money will follow” hypothesis. Instead, he lifts up the craftsman mindset. The craftsman focuses on developing unique and valuable skills — which he calls career capital — and offering them to the world. “No one owes you a great career,” Newport summarizes. “You need to earn it — and the process won’t be easy.”

Whom does he lift up as the shining example of this hardworking craftsman mindset? Uh, musicians. He visits a successful bluegrass guitarist, observes his obsessive and careful practice, and concludes that more working people need to be like musicians. It’s one of the book’s pivotal moments.

In so many ways, he’s right. Musicians are not afraid of hard work. We know how to get really good at something. We understand what Newport calls deliberate practice, i.e. how to constantly “stretch” and master new skills. This is something that many people in other professions have less experience doing.

Pat yourself on the back, sure. But keep in mind that 50 pages later, Newport will introduce his so-called “law of financial viability”: Do what people are willing to pay for.

Cue freak-out about shrinking markets, folding orchestras, Spotify, Amanda Palmer, etc.

Cue freak-out about shrinking markets, folding orchestras, Spotify, Amanda Palmer, etc.

The conundrum here? As every musician knows, it's making the connection between craftsmanship and money that is our greatest challenge. 

Part 2: Winner-take-all Markets vs. Auction Markets

Later in the book, Newport makes the distinction between two types of job markets in which people “spend” career capital. There’s the winner-take-all market, in which one very specific type of capital is valuable, with many people competing. And there’s the auction market, in which many different types of capital are valuable, and each person might generate a unique collection.

You can probably guess that Newport places musicians in the winner-take-all category. (He puts Hollywood script writers and lifestyle bloggers there, too.) To stand a chance in hell of surviving, we’ve got to be really good. Better than everyone else, in fact.

Of course, this is the premise on which traditional conservatory education is based. For performers, the level of our instrumental skill is of paramount importance. 200 people show up for one orchestral job; we’ve got to just be better than everyone else, right? And that means more deliberate practice, right? The craftsman mentality will work … right?!

I just don't know anymore.

I just don't know anymore.

Newport isn't an arts education expert, so he doesn't deal with this next topic. But this made me think immediately about arts entrepreneurship, which in some ways is the musical establishment's acknowledgment that the craftsman mindset has its limitations. “You do you,” arts entrepreneurship says (in part). “Every musician is a unique snowflake and there’s room for most of us at the table if we can find our niche.”

So, my questions are these:

  • are we seeing music education reconceptualize the arts economy, which they used to see as a winner-take-all market, as an auction market instead?
  • by applying the “unique snowflake” theory of entrepreneurship, are we attempting to sidestep the craftsman mindset?

  • in music, is there really only room for “the best”? And what does that even mean?

TALK TO ME: I read a lot of this career literature nonsense, and this is one of th most thought-provoking books I’ve picked up on the topic. Readers, what are your thoughts? Leave a comment or tweet @ellen_mcsweeney.