March 12, 2013
A friend recently emailed me with a question: His little cousin was being pressured to go to medical school, but the cousin wanted to be a musician — did I have any advice for him? I get questions like this not infrequently, probably because I started off in the same position but wound up in a much different place: I headed off to undergrad intended for medical school (via computer engineering); years later, when I should have been in my second year of residency, I was in a rock band with a hit song on the radio. But then, after that, when I would’ve had a stable practice and career, I was back at school getting a second degree. The consequences are still playing out in my life.
I’ve reprinted the correspondence below, with identifying details taken out. If you want, substitute law school / engineering career / business degree / etc. for medical school, and writer / painter / entrepreneur / playwright / potter for musician. Children of immigrants, or any of you being pushed hard to choose “stable” careers early, this is for you.
Advice on giving advice?
I was wondering if I could ask you advice on something.
My little cousin wants to be a musician, his mom wants him to be a doctor and is pushing him pretty hard for med school.
We grew up together, I’m wondering whether I should encourage and help him down the music track professionally, or down the medical track with music as a creative outlet.
Any advice on what I might say (or should avoid saying)?
Not really sure…
Hope all is well,
RE: Advice on giving advice?
Sorry for the delay in getting back to you on this. This is obviously is a bit of a tricky situation; what follows is just from my own experience, and not knowing anything about him or the specifics of the situation.
Being a musician professionally is a hard road — nowadays even harder than it used to be. I would guess your cousin is in college? There is a path for doing what he’s doing, but usually it’s for those writing their own music, and then you just have to keep at it for a looooooooooooooooooooooooong time and be okay with what the lifestyle entails (lots of touring, no stability, no guarantee of success). If you’re at it for long enough you’ll get to a point where you develop a following and your own voice, and there will inevitably be some sort of demand for what you do. But like I said, that is a long road, there’s no playbook, and it’s ultimately about what your vision is.
If he just likes playing cover versions of other people’s music, that’s really a hobby. If he feels compelled to do his own music, and he’s playing all the time even if everyone says “don’t do it,” then more power to him and that’s going to be the answer no matter what you say. Frankly, if he really wants to go for it, he should do it while he’s young. You can always go to med school later in life.
Oftentimes when people are raised with a lot of external expectation, they actually don’t know what they want because they usually haven’t been allowed the space to figure it out. If he hasn’t had a lot of time away from his mom’s pressures, or had time to develop as an individual, I would be leery of trying to push one way or another.
The biggest piece of advice I can give is for your cousin to take his time and figure out what he really wants. I don’t think one should rush into big decisions. If he needs to take some time off and try being a musician full-time for a year or so, he should do that (and try to live off what he can make doing that). If he doesn’t like performing in front of people, hustling for gigs, and all the other crap work that it takes, it’s going to disabuse him of any fantasies he might be harboring.
I would also recommend not going to medical school until he knows damn well sure he wants to be a doctor. I know too many people that have wound up as doctors simply because by the time they realized they didn’t want to be a doctor, it was the only viable way they could pay off their medical school debt. Their younger selves mortgaged their future to for something they didn’t want. Why risk it, why all the rush?
If you grow up living up to other people’s expectations, it’s hard to develop your own sense of self, and that’s the most important thing required to figure out what you actually want. I’ve never seen anyone that’s discovered what truly resonates with them pursue it wholeheartedly and not become a happy, fulfilled* individual.
But I would also add that I’ve met very few people that actually know what they actually want or what actually resonates with them in this manner — it takes time and space. Remember that if you work hard over a long period of time, you’ll likely get what you’re working towards. Why pick something you didn’t really want in the first place?
Hope this has been somewhat helpful,
*not necessarily conventional success, but oftentimes they come together