“Don’t worry about what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ~Howard Thurman
From center stage I looked out into the crowd as the stage lights warmed my face and did their best to obscure my vision.
In the half-light of the seating area I spotted the faces of family, friends, many other members of the local jazz community, and other people who had come out to support me. Smiling. Clapping. Congratulating.
I didn’t feel happy. Not exactly. The situation was too surreal to do much except just notice it. Nor did I feel relief that the event had more or less gone off without a hitch.
It was the final concert that every jazz performance student at my university has to put on at the end of their third year. For me, it was particularly special because of all the obstacles I’d overcome to get there.
I’d been accepted into the school having played guitar for two years, when most of the other students had been playing since the beginning of junior high at the very latest.
And I’d only been accepted because the guitar instructor, who I’d taken a couple lessons with, told the judges panel during my entrance performance that I’d made the most week-to-week progress he’d seen in thirty years of teaching.
At that time, I could barely even read music. But I knew my instrument well and was ridiculously driven.
I also had chronic tendonitis.
That year, I had only picked up my guitar for classes and performances. Otherwise it was too painful to touch. To practice, I would visualize the instrument and play in my head.
Naturally, my outlet for my frustration over the situation was the very thing I couldn’t do.
It had been the most challenging year of my life. In third year the gloves came off and we were expected to become true professionals.
My friends would pull the occasional all-nighter to write an essay or finish a project. For me, practicing until five in the morning had become routine. I would have to laugh to myself when people told me I had it good—that I got to play for work.
Yet, for that one night, on stage with some of the best musicians in the city—leading them even—I felt like I was truly one of them. The long days and longer nights spent practicing had been validated.
It would be my final concert. My injuries were too much to continue playing. In hindsight, the growing problem had been incredibly obvious. But at the time, I wanted it so badly I pushed through the pain and threw out the long-term repercussions.
When I finally stepped off the stage my friend LadyBird ran over and engulfed me with a huge hug, gasping “You did it.” She had been the one who convinced me to pursue music when I was in my last year of high school, and we’d spent countless nights together practicing over the last few years.
Even three and a half years later, thinking of that night makes my eyes misty. A mélange of joy and sadness.
The whole experience in the jazz program and the aftermath taught me an incredible amount about myself, life, passion, and persistence. Here are 7 of the main lessons I learned along the way:
1. Only you can decide whether you’re “good enough” to do something.
Everyone was a beginner once, and it’s better to start late than never.
2. Be patient.
Life will do funny things to throw you off course, but you have your entire life ahead of you to pursue your passion. Things don’t have to happen right away. Take care of the current situation, keep moving forward each day, and you’ll be happy where you end up.
3. Don’t get so caught up in your passion that you neglect the other important areas of your life.
I neglected my health and to a lesser extent, my relationships when I was pursuing my passion for music.
Passion, that fire that burns brightly inside us, can push us to incredible heights. But it can also consume and destroy.
Leading a well rounded life will make it easier to appreciate your passion and share it with the world than locking yourself away to pursue a narrow, single purpose.
4. Ask for help from people have gone through what you are.
Often we feel like asking questions is a sign of weakness, like we’re admitting our own ignorance. Nothing could be further from the truth. We’re admitting a willingness to learn and displaying humility.
5. When you’re at your lowest moment, you’re near a huge breakthrough—even if it’s not the one you expected.
It’s how we handle the worst moments that ultimately determine our success.
6. Appreciate how amazing it is that you even have an opportunity to pursue a passion.
That puts you in a minority of all the people who have ever lived. You don’t have to hunt/gather food, farm the land, or otherwise spend every moment focusing on your survival.
You get to do something for the pure and simple fact that you enjoy it.
And that’s amazing.
7. Never, ever give up.
I lied earlier. It wasn’t actually my last concert. Only the last one until the next one.
Photo by Shan Sheehan