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Irons In The Fire

Recently I had a conversation with a student who was bemoaning the multitude of things requiring attention— assignments, projects, papers, practicing, performances, and outside activities, including the student’s band, which works regularly on the weekends. This is a pretty typical scenario for a college music major, and not surprisingly, music students report feeling stressed out. Sometimes I think the stress is self-imposed due to ineffective time management, and if students planned each day or week better, they would accomplish things more efficiently and with less stress. Merely starting their projects earlier in the semester would be a huge improvement.

So thank goodness for graduation, when it all comes to an end, and these poor overworked souls finally have time to relax and get everything done they’ve been putting off.


Any college graduate knows this is false. Life doesn’t slow down after graduation. If anything, it can get busier.

Or can it?

Here’s the thing. If you are a driven person with a desire to excel, you will probably always be busy. But if school is the only thing keeping you busy, then once you walk across that commencement stage, you might become complacent, because there are no assignments or projects to do. There are no deadlines. And therein lies the temptation to rest on one’s laurels.

Now before I continue, let me issue a disclaimer: the goal is not to be busy. I find it slightly off-putting when I ask someone how they’re doing, and they say, “Busy.” Tim Kreider captured this seemingly uniquely American phenomenon in a brilliant New York Times opinion piece.. Referring to people who lament that they’re busy, he said, “I could see why people enjoy this complaint; it makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon…” As a result, saying, “I’m busy” tends to sound insincere., otherwise known as "humblebrag" in 21st century parlance. So let me put to rest that the goal is to be busy for busyness’s sake.

No, the goal is, well, to have goals. What I mean is that for an entrepreneurial musician, it is up to you to generate the work. It's an investment in your future. So, if you want to have a career, you will probably have to make it yourself.

How do you do that?

You create work. One project at a time.

In that sense, college is an excellent training ground for professional life, because the constant stress of balancing competing assignments and projects tends to condition one for an entrepreneurial existence. Now you don’t have to go to college to live an entrepreneurial existence. So however things shake out, the trick is to cultivate an entrepreneurial existence by always giving yourself projects.

Like what?

Like these:

-book a gig

-compose new music

-create arrangements

-record a CD

-send emails

-respond to emails

-write an article

-write a book

-build or update a website

-listen to new music

-go out and see live music

-develop a press kit

-start a blog or create a new blog post

-create a podcast

-post on social media


The list could go on, but overall, there at least four types of projects: a short-term, a mid-term, a long-term, and an ongoing. A short-term project might entail sending emails to industry contacts in a given week. A mid-term project might include learning music for a show the following month. A long-term project might involve recording a new CD within the next year. An ongoing project might be a monthly podcast. Each of these projects may grow from previous projects— perhaps the upcoming show was borne from a project to book more gigs. And some projects will require a series of nested projects— recording a CD will require multiple smaller projects, like creating arrangements, scheduling rehearsals, finding a studio, and so on.

As an example, this blog is an ongoing project. No one forced me to write it. It was initially a suggestion from a professor years ago, but it was only that. So the impetus to write it came from me. But I noticed that blogs were becoming a viable means for reaching people. Thus, as I considered the power of the blogosphere and my professor’s advice, I put it all together and concluded that starting a blog could be valuable. I also observed that successful bloggers usually post at regular intervals. Initially, I posted weekly but realized it was unrealistic given the constraints of my schedule. In turn, I decided to post monthly, which I haven’t quite done, but close. (I did some math. This is Blog Post #15. The first post was in February 2015. Thus, in the 26 months I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve posted every 1.7 months on the average. So yeah, pretty close.)

Again, no one told me to do any of this. To put it plainly, I just felt like I needed to. I have, however, since come to enjoy it. In a similar vein, recording CD’s has felt necessary, because I feel compelled to document my musical growth at various points. But I also enjoy it, though I don't necessarily enjoy the administrative tasks that accompany what turns out to be a massive undertaking. I do, however, enjoy the finished product. Hence, sometimes, your projects will be those you want to do; other times, they may be those you need to do.

In most cases, taking on your own projects will likely pay off in some way. For instance, one of my blog posts was picked up by The Chronicle of Higher Education, which hired me to write other articles. Thus, the blog led to work, which from a financial standpoint, literally paid off.

Now, the blog is a personal project and not a requirement of my job as a professor. So why do it? Well, even though I have a full-time job, I still approach my career with an entrepreneurial mindset. Part of that mindset is to set goals and create work, to have irons in the fire. In fact, being a professor is entrepreneurial in itself. Let me explain.

Contrary to myth, academia is not about teaching a couple of classes and then retiring to one’s office to revel in “the life of the mind.” There is a ton of work that goes on behind the scenes. In fact, only half of my contractual duties are related to teaching; the other half are related to service and scholarship. What does that include? Serving on committees, publishing, recruiting, planning events, and so on. Hence, I’m always balancing multiple projects for my job. And in that sense, it’s very entrepreneurial, because most of the time, no one is telling me what those projects are. I get to create them. It doesn’t matter whether a project is personal or work-related, because I view them holistically— they all contribute to my career. And having irons in the fire is nothing new for me. I did it out of necessity when I was self-employed, but it turned out to be valuable, because it prepared me for my future job as a professor.

Overall, my research on music entrepreneurship suggests that musicians tend to piece together a living from multiple income sources, and they often have to create this work, which then tends to generate more work. In that sense, if you’re not regularly taking inventory and reflecting on what new projects you need to fuel growth, and then actually doing those projects, your career may falter. Whether you are self-employed or work within an organization, consider the types of projects that would be beneficial to your career’s trajectory: the “wants”— things that excite or interest you, and the “needs”— things that you perceive are necessary to grow your career. Ideally, the two categories intersect. But either way, create projects for yourself. Keep those irons in the fire, and when they’re done, take them out and put more in.

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