How badly do you want it?

By Caitlin Kelly

Here is a powerful essay by British pianist James Rhodes, from The Guardian, about the many sacrifices he’s made for his music:

Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six
hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a
brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something
that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental
hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of
gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d
envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising,
lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews,
isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches
of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house
slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure
(playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right
fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the
composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices,
my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most
crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect
recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of
self-forgiveness, be “good enough”.

I find this an interesting, and extremely rare, admission of what it’s like to achieve and sustain public excellence.

English: A post-concert photo of the main hall...
English: A post-concert photo of the main hall’s stage inside of Carnegie Hall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We see and hear, and applaud, (or boo or yawn at), the final product of many talented hard-working people, but often have absolutely no idea what it took to get them there — onto the concert stage, into the corps de ballet, onto the bookstore shelf or into the kitchen of a fine restaurant.

I’m fascinated by process, always hungry to hear how others are doing it and what, if anything, they have had to give up along the way. By the time we see someone becoming famous and, possibly, well-paid for their talents, we’re really looking at an iceberg — seeing barely 10 percent of their story, the other 90 percent often being years, even decades, of study and practice and rejection and failure that led up to this moment.

The Passage of Time
The Passage of Time (Photo credit: ToniVC)

I think it’s worth reading these stories as a way of thinking about our own choices:

How much longer will I devote to this project?

What I never achieve my goal?

Are there smaller, more private, less lucrative successes that would also satisfy me?

If not, why not?

What am I willing to give up?

How much will I regret those losses?

I weary of the widespread fantasy that “everyone’s a writer.” They’re not!

It is damn hard to become very good at something.

Here’s a great recent post by a professional conductor talking about this, chosen for Freshly Pressed:

Recent research and a popular book have theorized that it takes 10,000 hours for a human to become proficient and considered an expert at something.  It seems so easy:  Put in the Time, Collect the Dime.  I think most adults can see some truth in this theory based on their own experiences.  Driving a car is a great example.  While we are learning, we are cognizant of every movement, every decision, every possibility.  After time, we become very natural at it.  It almost becomes a reflexive action.  (For example, when’s the last time you thought about—really concentrated on—operating the turn signal?)

What makes it interesting is that it could apply to anything, from knitting to playing the violin.  The implications for an art form are obvious and the research pointers are fairly sound.  However my question is: Is it enough to make good art?

It is even harder, depending on a wide variety of external circumstances — do you have kids? A big mortgage? Student debt? Poor health? — to make a lot of money doing something purely creative, versus working for The Man and taking home a steady paycheck.

I love this multi-media piece about jockeys in Nairobi — the only track for 3,300 miles. They want it badly!

At Ngong Racecourse in Nairobi, Kenya, the only track in a 3,300-mile swath of Africa between Egypt and Zimbabwe, the jockeys struggle to earn $20 a ride, even in the big races. For the country’s biggest race, the Kenya Derby, the winning horse’s owner may take home little more than $7,200. Grooms, who wake up at 4:30 six mornings a week to muck out stables and brush down horses, make less than $100 a month. Yet, the dwindling numbers of trainers, jockeys, owners and breeders in Kenya are deeply committed to keeping the sport alive.

I started working for Canada’s best newspaper, The Globe and Mail, at 26, after applying for a staff job every year for eight years. I eventually wanted to come to New York and so, after a day’s work, also worked as a stringer (contacts I sought out) for Time, The Boston Globe and the Miami Herald. I needed to find American editors who liked my work and to up my game.

Knowing I planned to leave Toronto within a few years also meant not settling down and getting married and having kids, (not a dream of mine anyway.) I moved to New Hampshire in 1988, leaving family, friends, career and country, then moved to New York just in time for a horrible recession, with no job. I got one after six months, earning $5,000 less in March 1990 than I’d made in Montreal in September 1986 — in a much costlier place to live.

Every move we make is a choice that carries consequences and every one carries a cost — physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, professional. Sometimes all of those at once!

That’s why they’re called sacrifices, and why it’s so much nicer to just avoid them. And the worst fear, perhaps, is that you make a ton of them and still don’t get what it was you really wanted.

So it helps to figure out what you really want — the fancy job title and shiny new car or a life with enough room in it to travel three months every year? A bunch of kids or the creative freedom to fail at new ideas and still pay your monthly bills? A loving spouse or the sort of work that moves you from one conflict spot to the next, in an NGO or aid work or journalism? (They are not all either/or, but they will enact sacrifices.)

No matter who you are or where you live or what you hope to achieve in life — non-materially — the fewer your financial obligations, the easier it is to focus on that.

Do you have a specific dream you’re trying to achieve?

What are you willing to do — to give up — to get there?

35 thoughts on “How badly do you want it?

  1. Your post was just what I needed to read tonight. My project has been my own mental health, and sometimes I wonder about the sacrifices I’ve made for it. I know I might be in a better place in my career or in my personal life, I might have achieved other dreams if this one hadn’t been such a priority. Your post reminds me that there isn’t a single “right” dream to have. And whatever dream you have involves sacrificing other things that might be nice to have.

  2. Good to hear that!

    Without your mental health, what else could you accomplish? I have so many things I’d like to do/have/experience and am constantly, daily, choosing between them. It’s a little sucky to say it, but (unless it is a true life/death struggle), this also forces us to set priorities, which is not a bad thing.

  3. I read the book about 10,000 hours: The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Ironically, I didn’t want to read it because I thought it would be one of those easy-to-success how-to books, but it was connected with work so I took it home and read it. Gladwell argues that success is a pretty delicate thing, given over to many circumstances we can’t hope to control no matter how hard we work or sacrifice.

    But in consideration of your post as a whole, I can’t answer in a few words. This has been a reoccurring question in the blogs I read. It seems to come down to the question of ‘who do you want to be?’ more than anything. Big questions about self-identity, to which no one is immune from doubt and second guesses.

    1. External success — fame, fortune, fellowships, acclaim, etc. — is indeed uncontrollable and you can make yourself (and others) utterly miserable in pursuit of same. I’ve lived it, done it, been the victim of others’ need for it.

      So, yes, you’ve nailed it. I may write another post about identity/self because that seems to be the root of it. Who am I if I am not “successful”? (And by whose measures?) Some people consider me highly successful and I am working at a pace I find unsustainable to earn what I made in 1989. Not for any lack of hard work or talent, but an industry “in disruption.” So the whole thing is ever-changing for some of us these days.

      1. This is a lengthy reply to several of your posts, and follow-up thoughts on our conversation about American versus Canadian attitudes of failure. I’m putting everything together today.

        I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the mothers’ day posts–yours of this year and last, mine–and the question of loneliness and vulnerability, as well. One thought connects to the next, and I’m back here considering that narcissists are immune to self-doubt, and they hate to be questioned. Thus I retract the statement, “no one is immune from doubt and second guesses.”

        There are mental illnesses in which narcissism plays a role. I read Karyl McBride’s book on healing daughters of narcissistic mothers and was overwhelmed by the similarity of patterns she describes and what I’ve experienced in my own life. I’ve seen my mother play people off of one another, creating tremendous havoc in the family system. She often doesn’t have friends, but she uses her children to enforce rules of inclusion/exclusion. What you write about your mother’s ‘friend’ stirred up strong emotions in me; I can relate to being caught in situations like this with my mother. It’s commonplace for family to act as her enforcer, and there is no limits to what crap she’ll say to trigger reactions from others. I don’t have contact with anyone in my family of origin now; sometimes it is painful to be alone, but I am relieved to be unencumbered.

        On the rare occasion when my mom was involved with ‘friends’ (using them as she did family), it hurt doubly because she chose non-family over me, and she betrayed the intimacies of our mother-daughter relationship by speaking so viciously of me to others.

        I believe my own humility grew from this dynamic. Being humble is necessary for surviving the reality of life’s ups and downs, but humility is a conscious choice to practice being different from my mother. Every time I receive a critique, I feel relieved that I can listen without hostility or jealousy, and achieving this feels like the best success I can have in life. Some of my projects may be doomed to fail, but I’m okay.

        Thanks for your posts, which has been food for thought. I’m going to try to cobble together my thoughts into a post of my own.

      2. Thanks for such a long and thoughtful comment.

        As you and I (and others) know, there is a lot we will never discuss publicly or on-line, but which has absolutely shaped many of our behaviors, reactions and choices. My mother spent many years accusing me of having no sense of politics or social justice — I’ve served for years on several volunteer boards and was (for 18 difficult months) a Big Sister. I suspect some of this has been in reaction.

        It’s a sad commentary on the sanctimoniousness over “family” that some of the worst behavior I have ever witnessed has happened in my family’s homes or in mine while interacting with them. I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to be compassionate in the face of it and am at a point I say “Fuck it. Get therapy. Grow up and stop hurting everyone else and blaming it on them.”

        The energy I spend/waste on this is insane. I have often wondered what sort of career I might have had without these distractions — now trying (hah) to resolve the latest contretemps (love those French euphemisms) with my father. This shit never stops, unless everyone walks away without a backward glance.

      3. Compassion is as much about boundaries as it is about care; we aren’t told this in the families we come from.

        I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what it would have been like if I had the energy I spent on parents to use on my work. I’ve sometimes felt angry about the lack of return on my investment in this area of my life. But I also see that I’m so much more than a job–the volunteer, the friend, etc–so maybe in some indirect way, the energy spent on family came back to me in these other facets of life.

      4. Indeed we are not. It has taken me decades to figure that out, personally as well as professionally. I look back on what I doormat I have been and want to scream.

  4. When I first read that Guardian piece, I fell a little bit in love with James Rhodes. My god, the man has a beautiful… soul. So inspiring. Thanks for reminding me of it, and for reminding me why I’m here 🙂 xx

  5. I have had 10,000 hours of practice in cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. as well as working in jobs I didn’t like. I have sometimes thought about all those hours – what if I had given them over to drawing, painting, writing? Where would I be now? I know there are millions of us, men and women, who cannot give the ten thousand hours but I think there are even more women who have had to put off their dreams because they can’t walk away from their responsibilities. I know it is a choice; but the other choice is sacrificing marriage and/or children. I may never realize my dreams at this point in my life, but I am pretty happy working towards them.

    1. Why is it that women, then, (true?) face this choice more than men? I chose to never have children for a few reasons, but career was one — journalism (like other fields) is stupidly demanding and I knew I would never have the life and work I wanted at the same time if I had kids; journalism pays badly and I could not have afforded a home and help that would have allowed me to work at the level I wanted and not live cramped and worn out for decades.

      It also really raises questions about how much a partner or spouse is willing to give (up) to allow us to just get on with it, uninterrupted by laundry, shopping, cooking, soccer games etc. Some are, many are not. You have the $$$ to buy the help or your partner steps up or you try to do it all — or something gives. The larger issue is that excellence is rarely quick or easy, even when people wish it were.

  6. Yes, Caitlin, journalism is a whole different ballgame – very demanding of time and necessitating much travel. I often think of the men – the Great White Geniuses – who have made it because of their total focus on their work – in the background the sounds of women and children taking care of the chores. We know there have been women who have made it but almost always without being domestic or maternal.

    I think sometimes I haven’t allowed the spouse to take it on because a) I am too controlling and b) I just do it better and faster. That has changed recently. This particular spouse encouraged me when I decided to leave a well-paying profession and go back to college to realize my dream of a four year degree. I doubt that I could have done it if I had been the sole support of the family. I have no doubt that a good partnership and the right person allow us to have each other’s back in supporting our goals.

    1. I have a very vivid memory of my Dad leaving for another extended overseas trip (as a filmmaker) while his girlfriend and I unpacked all the boxes from a move. He was gone a lot (pre cellphone and internet) and it was hard.

      Being domestic is one of my greatest pleasures but I finally hired a house-cleaner last year 2x a month and it has freed me from a lot of busywork. I love to cook and decorate, but those are different from toilet-scrubbing. I am very lucky that Jose does all the laundry (which he enjoys!)

      To achieve major success requires tremendous focus — and focus, obviously, requires eliminating a lot of other distractions (whether people or other pursuits.) I am embarrassed to have almost no hobbies…nothing I have deeply pursued. I do draw, paint, take photos, read, cook, antique…but desultorily.

      I am very lucky that Jose’s job offers us subsidized health insurance and a solid income, allowing me to do this work. I do not earn pennies — far from it — but would likely be making 50%+ more in a “real job” and not necessarily doing work that really matters to me personally. We are fortunate in this respect. (Trimming our sails financially also makes this possible.) I work to live. I do not wish to work to sustain a Big Fancy Lifestyle.

  7. You know my dream is to be paid and published as a fiction writer. I’ve given up countless hours of sleep, learned to swallow, smile, and say thank you regardless of feedback, and keep plugging away.

    1. I hope it is worth all that…?

      I am really glad I have been able to publish two well-reviewed NF books. But I have found myself really foot-dragging on the next proposal and I know that I am weary of being broke for the “privilege” of being published.

      1. Worth it? Not yet, but I’m not ready to give up, either.

        I wonder if it’s worth spending some time thinking about the proposal for the next NF book when you go away, time to think about if it’s what you want to do, and why/why not. 🙂

      2. True. I had planned to work on it but I want a total break from any sort of production pressure.

        I have no other idea right now, have been “saving string” on it for many months. I am stalling at the annoying fact of having to produce a sample chapter. I hate writing unpaid.

      3. The proposal is mostly written already. I am just mulishly/lazily balking at also having to write a sample chapter without doing the interviews and research I would/will do once the book is sold. I just can’t take that sort of time unpaid. I can probably get away with a sample chapter of 2,000 words or so, not the 5,000+ I would normally produce.

  8. welshcyclist

    Great post! It makes me realise, though, I have to say, very grudgingly, how ordinary I am. Gone are the lofty dreams of childhood, to be a professional footballer, rugby player etc., just happy to keep an income coming in to support a grown up family? Not enough quality time to share with my life partner, even now in our sixties. I constantly dream of getting on my bicycle and just going for a ride around this world that I have seen far too little of. Sadly, it will always be but a pipe dream, unless lady luck smiles on me. I believe to achieve something great one has to be totally selfish, singleminded, and perhaps very lonely. Of course there are those who have it all at their fingertips, with enormous talent, they are those special human beings, who have it all on a plate, lucky so and so’s.

    1. I think there are indeed people utterly driven to “succeed” — but some of them are indeed terribly lonely or have awful relationships and/or poor health. So the great challenge is to enjoy every minute we are given!

      Thanks for sharing!

  9. My biggest goal right now is to become a marathoner and eventually conquer an ultramarathon. I’m in college and willing to give up a major part of my social life, unhealthy foods and restful mornings. This post was definitely thought provoking and interesting when looking at the role incentives play a role in our motivation as human beings. Loved it!

  10. I found this post incredibly interesting, as I am at the point in my life where I am trying to figure this stuff out…and driving myself crazy in the process. Some of these things are easy — I don’t really expect to get married any time soon and plan on using my twenties to travel and explore and be as selfish as I like before I choose to settle down. I also don’t care if I’m poor…as long as I can support myself. I’d rather do a job I love than work somewhere that pays really well — I’ve always known I was going to be a poor artsy soul. That said…dreams and how hard I will work to achieve them is a lot trickier. I have always had many interests, and choosing between them is always challenging. At this point I’ve realized what things really make me tick — music, writing, travel, etc. but I don’t know which will end up on top, so I’m still testing the waters before I dive in. That said, I send out applications and samples everywhere and try to find and take advantage of opportunities where I can. Hopefully in the next year I’ll gain clarity about what I want to focus on. Until then, I’m going to keep working hard, taking music lessons and benefitting from professor’s critiques of my writing. We’ll see where it gets me.

    1. I like the sound of this.

      Having a lot of irons in the fire, to me, is NOT at all being unfocused or misdirected, but being smart about multiple income streams, a good way to explore new avenues (some of which will, of course, turn out to be dead ends) and to discover what you like most. In the past few months, I’ve been trying out some totally new-to-me ideas, (which, oddly, the blog has given me the confidence to do) and it’s really fun.

      The challenge of being a “poor artsy soul” is that I think people assume poor = not working very hard = an easier life. As if! It can mean working your ass off for decades in a field that simply does not pay very well or never “making it” materially.

      Glad this was helpful!

      1. Thanks for such an inspiring and reassuring response. I’ve already started to get the “oh, you just spend all your time writing/reading novels,” comment a lot. Thanks guys…you try writing every day and see how it goes. Luckily, I love it, and am learning to let that criticism go.
        It’s nice to hear that some people don’t think I need to cage myself in yet. I like to think it’ll mean more options and a more full life later.
        Also, I’m sure you know this, but you are such an inspiration to me and I really appreciate your feedback, so thanks! 🙂

      2. Thanks for the kind words!

        You do have to focus to some degree, but this economy, I think, demands more than any other skill the ability and willingness to adapt and adapt and adapt — the larger your skill set, the better. I could panic, but with two languages, the ability to sell well, to write and communicate and teach and take photos. etc. I don’t. I know I can always find some sort of work.

  11. I think the 10,000 hour-to-competence argument is broadly true – though, of course, it has to be 10,000 directional hours. Take writing. I always wanted to write books and publish them properly with one or the big houses. I’ve achieved that goal, but I’ve sacrificed quite a bit to be able to do it. I also had a few lucky breaks, which counted. But in general it didn’t just happen, it had to be worked for. But nobody has really noticed. Writing – like history, the field I’ve written most in – is a field that most people “think” they can do, simply by sitting down and doing, and I find time and again I’m confronted with the assumption that a book is something I just sat down and did.

    Actually, getting to the point of being able to do what I do has taken as much time and effort as it does to become a concert pianist. And cost, in more than monetary ways.

    1. It’s amusing to me the presumption that writing is easy….keep hitting a keyboard and you have a book! NOT.

      I could keep hitting a piano keyboard and make a lot of nasty noise. But no one seems to get that crucial distinction.

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