It’s funny – I had the opportunity to sing last week for a retirement concert for a mentor. It was a tune I knew, with several colleagues whose company I enjoy, to celebrate a teacher who has made a large impact on my career.
And I politely declined.
I have two degrees in vocal performance. As a student, I loved the study and the collaboration, but what I really wanted was the applause, the fancy costumes, the name on the poster, the roses after the show. The singing was, sadly, secondary to all of the other noise surrounding the act of performing.
Now, I sing all the time. (Ask the manicurist who called me out yesterday for humming along with Shania Twain.) But I don’t sing “for real” anymore…and that’s a very good thing. Singing for other people made me feel insecure in a fundamental way, and in a pervasive manner that was unlike anything else…most likely because it wasn’t what I really wanted to do, but it was the only way in which I could figure out how to be close to the performers and the performances, both of which I enjoyed. And I enjoyed being the center of attention…but more for saying something witty or profound, rather than making a beautiful noise.
I’m happy speaking in front of a crowd, especially when the words are my own. I had the opportunity to address several thousand folks last summer, and several hundred for this retirement concert last week…and found both experiences totally enjoyable. But singing? It’s off the table…happily so, in my particular case.
There are articles upon articles that proclaim that the key to success is Doing What You Love. No dispute, there. But I personally had a difficult time distilling those things that I loved into a career.
Paul Graham wrote a great article called “How To Do What You Love.” And let me tell you, I wish that I had read (and internalized) this in high school. Among one of the personally salient points he makes? (Besides the truth that work should be mostly something that you enjoy?) Is that doing something for prestige (say, for the sound of cacophonous applause after your big aria, or for a sterling review) is in fact doing it for all the wrong reasons.
Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. When you can ask the opinions of people whose judgement you respect, what does it add to consider the opinions of people you don’t even know? 
This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young.  Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like. (emphasis added by the editor)
That’s what leads people to try to write novels, for example. They like reading novels. They notice that people who write them win Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to be a novelist? But liking the idea of being a novelist is not enough; you have to like the actual work of novel-writing if you’re going to be good at it; you have to like making up elaborate lies.
Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.
Brilliant, right? And an infinitely more sustainable approach than trying to enjoy something that fundamentally doesn’t appeal to you.
Interesting thoughts, especially thinking about those insights in retrospect. I wonder how much of that message would really resonate with high school-ish age students. Without the experiences one accumulates through various fits and starts (5 years of college and trying three majors) it can be difficult to see through the visions of prestige to figure out one’s true passions and talents.
Michelle, I totally agree with you – the discerning process is part of growing up. But I also wonder if, knowing that students are in a kind of flux, whether colleges have an obligation to help them? Either by offering some kind of ancillary coursework/symposia? Or to make the cost less prohibitive, so that a student can figure it out without feeling like they must finish a degree/enter a field because they invested so much?