On smugness, searching, and self-reliance.


There’s a lot of advice about following your dreams and loving what you do.

I think it mostly comes from an empowering place…spending 40+hours something you enjoy can only enrich your life, your relationships, right? For those of us who have lucked into/sacrificed for/found one of those jobs, it seems pretty smug to preach about the importance of adoring your professional life. I mean, who wants to spend their workweek doing something that they hate? Um, nobody. Even if the perks or money are compelling for a while, sooner or later an exit strategy is developed, a parachute is crafted, and a departure is engineered.

However, doing that thing that we love can come with some serious baggage in the form of financial hardship. Student loans, a rough (to be generous) job market…if you’re in the arts, you’ll also factor in the cost of living, which will likely be on the high side since metropolitan areas are usually the places where culture thrives. (Not always, for sure…and there’s something wonderful to be said for those communities who embrace art-makers as an integral part of their fabric.)

So, how to reconcile following the career that makes your heart sing while also being able to live? And really, to live, not just survive?

Million-dollar question, that.

I came across this quote:

…The first step is creating a foundation of self-reliance: a survival dance of integrity that allows you to be in the world in a good way—a way that is psychologically sustaining, economically adequate, socially responsible, and environmentally sound.

I think it’s absolutely true that you cannot make your best art, or your best effort, when you’re not feeling safe. There’s a reason that the trappings of security are the foundation of Maslow’s pyramid: if our basic needs aren’t met, we can’t function strongly in society…we can’t contribute creatively if we can’t feed ourselves!

But, and here’s the bigger question: Do we dive in and hope for the best? (We are artists, after all…there’s a certain amount of grace for those who make beauty for a living, I think.) Do we defer the dream for security? How do we find a balance, find that self-reliance?

There are some great stories on this site of folks who have found that balance…and they’ve done it in as many different ways as there are people profiled. If you have a similar story, I’d love to hear it- you can find me in the comments here, or at indirectroutes@gmail.com.

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5 thoughts on “On smugness, searching, and self-reliance.

  1. I think the Life Deferment Plan is as entrapping as the Follow Your Bliss Plan. That’s why I love the metaphor of a dance…sometimes you move left, sometimes you move right. Tacking (okay, now a sailing metaphor) across the surface of the lake is a much better way to engage the wind.

    Moreover, what is often overlooked is the depth and bliss of learning to engage with work, with the larger world, when pursuing the Survival Work. The Buddhist notion of Right Livelihood isn’t limited to work which others consider important or meaningful. Right Livelihood is about bringing a deeper self–even if you’re pulling lattes at Starbucks.

    • Jerry, I totally agree – there’s a lot of give-and-take.

      I feel that, for those folks pursuing a performing career, there’s often a pressure to either stay in the field and “stick it out” until you’ve achieved the level of recognition/level of gig you’re looking for, or else get wholly out of the field. There’s a middle ground that’s not often addressed, but is viable and can be deeply satisfying. And this middle ground can be anything from performing locally to teaching to songwriting…there are a million ways to keep one’s hand in.

      Any thoughts on how to recognize those left/right turns?

  2. “Do we defer the dream of security?” I think in some ways we do, if we really want to work our way up in the music world–when I first got out of CMU, I worked every church/chorus/dance class/voice lesson job I could find, just in order to make ends meet. It took several years of that to start making enough to do more than survive, but it also taught me more than 4 years in college did. Plus, my father got upset every time I changed cities/career paths, every time saying, “But you’re finally starting to make money there!” To me, it was more important to improve and move on to find out more than it was to be secure. So I left Pittsburgh to get a Masters Degree and then started out in Opera Young Artist Programs and eventually contract work in opera, even though it would have been more stable at the time to remain where I was. But in the long run, all the moving around and change of teachers/colleagues/scenery was necessary to make me the artist that I am today.

    Of course, now I work for an opera company in Germany, where there is much more stability, and I’m very thankful for that in this work climate! I don’t know if I would have the possibility to make the same choices now, just because there are far fewer opportunities available, but all the same, I wouldn’t change the path I followed for the world. And, oddly enough, when I told my dad that I was going to audition for a job in Germany, rather than freaking out again, he said, “Well, you’ve always known what was best.” Now I’m working at the Semperoper and just bought an apartment here in Dresden–so maybe the dream of security was defered a little, but it is still possible!

    • Ellen! Thanks for writing!
      I remember those gigging days too…in fact, I think that this job marks the first time in my adult life that I’ve only had ONE job! So, when did the security become attractive? (or maybe I should ask, *has* the security become attractive?) Is there an opportunity or circumstance that would push you to leave your stable gig?

      Hope you’re well-love hearing from you!

      • Hi Lee Anne! 🙂

        I can’t even really say that I have only one job now–I love the security of my job with the Semperoper, but I also have my podcast (The Diction Police, all about lyric diction, which is another passion of mine), plus I accompany recitals, coach my friends privately in my free time and give master classes at universities in the States once or twice a year as well as at several European summer programs. Keeping my fingers in all these different facets of my field helps keep me fresh.

        The security became attractive right around the time I turned 40 and started thinking that someday I might like to retire (although I really doubt that I will ever actually stop working–but it might be nice to not HAVE to work!). The good thing about it is that I get to work with top-notch singers at a level that challenges me, and I still have time to pursue my outside work in my free time. The downside is that I don’t get back to the US as often as I’d like and of course I miss family and friends.

        But it’s funny that you ask whether there’s anything that would get me to give up my stable gig, because it’s a question I pondered long and hard before I decided to buy an apartment. The only answer I have come up with is: it would have to be the right job to get me to give this up. I think in the States the only comparable position would be in a university setting, with the added bonus of being HOME 🙂 So for now, I’m very happy where I am, and as long as I feel that I can continue to improve even by staying in the same place, I’m satisfied with the stability!

        Love your blog! Always fascinating!

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