A college education gets the shaft these days. Student loans have created a financial crisis, underemployment (working a job unrelated to your field of study) snarls young people for years after graduation, and the rise of hustle culture made us grind day and night, only to spawn a burnout epidemic instead.
Liberal arts and fine arts majors are especially cautioned when it comes to employability; in deciding between engineering and music for my college major, I was advised about a thousand times that “one of these careers is a much better idea”, which is why I found this recent piece from the New York Times, which identified that liberal arts graduates’ salaries eventually catch up to those with careers in STEM, refreshing.
One particular skill arts majors refine throughout their study is becoming fluent and masterful in their craft. It requires a careful blend of creativity and practice — and that same skill set is critical to becoming and entrepreneur or pursuing a side hustle.
In 2009, I was fortunate enough to enroll in Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music on a full scholarship for French Horn. I also received offers from the Juilliard School and the Cleveland Institute of Music that year.
My teacher, Houston Symphony principal hornist William VerMeulen, advocated a system for organizing creativity that was simple, yet highly effective. In fact, over 90% of his students went on to win salaried orchestra jobs, an unprecedented number for a pedagogue in the classical music industry.
I didn’t. I’m part of the vagrant 10% in that statistic. Music school helped me realize I loved the arts, but didn’t want to pursue them as a career.
After graduation, I reoriented myself toward business and marketing, and now leverage creativity to help brands and startups deliver great content.
Ten years after Rice, though, my career flourishes thanks to the systems I learned regarding flow state, skill mastery, and performing under pressure.
Here are three buckets we used to organize our efforts and become the best, as well as how you can apply a version of them to any aspect of your career.
#1: Before You Can Organize Creativity, Master The “Nuts and Bolts”
To put it bluntly, this category is where you master your craft — it’s the fundamentals, and you need to practice them every day.
In the French Horn studio, we had subcategories like ‘long tones’, ‘intervals’, ‘patterns’, and my personal favorite, ‘miscellaneous drills’.
The same applies to other areas of your career. For example, within my skill of writing, I can study headline writing, conversion copywriting, story pacing, voice, tone, and a host of other nuances, all of which will make me a better, more focused (and more employable) writer.
By slicing up the fundamentals of your skills into different granular elements, you discern what you’re naturally great at, what things slow you down, and where your attention needs to go to ensure maximum growth.
When you have the nuts of bolts of your skill set locked in, everything becomes much easier.
#2: Know Your Repertoire (Without Neglecting Yourself)
At any given time during a semester of music school, you’re juggling a ton of repertoire: orchestra and chamber music parts, audition solos and excerpts, etudes, and recital music.
At the end of the day, you’re on the hook to know this stuff and nail it. Repertoire, however, can be a trap.
If you only ever practice your repertoire, you’ll get straight A’s, but not actually improve much in the things that truly matter.
For example, I practiced the same Mozart concerto for four years before auditioning for music schools. You can bet I knew that concerto like the back of my hand.
But I had spent so much time working on this one piece, I hadn’t spent that much time developing the skill of light, gentle brass playing, which was key to playing Mozart in general.
So when I arrived at music school, I promptly got my butt kicked my players with better fundamentals who had focused on knowing the music and developing mastery.
The same holds true for your career. While clients or job deliverables are obviously a high priority, it’s important to not forget about developing yourself.
When I began freelancing as a writer, I had deadlines to hit and brand voices to mimic. I spent huge amounts of time wrapping my head around my clients’ brand and “vibe” so that I could communicate what they would have said seamlessly.
I eventually overloaded my plate. 100% of my time was spent writing other people’s stuff, and I never focused on sharpening my own skills. Over time, I became sloppy and unfocused.
(And when you’re building other people’s dreams for a living, it’s important to keep feeding your own as well.)
You do need to budget time to know and own your current repertoire. Don’t let it completely consume you, though.
#3: Incorporate — And Prioritize — A “Fun Session”
I had practiced my butt off to get into Rice and other conservatories — so much so that it began to strain my health and relationships. Ambition can strangle you if you’re not paying attention.
So when my mentor at Rice informed me that one-third of all my practice time should be fun and pointless playtime, I gagged. How does this get me to the top, again?
Here’s the logic: your love of your craft is paramount. The moment resentment creeps in, your productivity plummets, both in time invested and quality of work.
Energy matters, and attitude is everything. The fun session was so important, in fact, that we were advised to prioritize this session first if we only had time to fit in one practice session per day.
I can still play Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster album front-to-back in any key signature (In French Horn solos, of course), a byproduct of several well-spent fun sessions.
The same holds true for any craft you’re looking to improve on and master. If you don’t keep your fire burning bright, the time, energy, and money you’ve invested in your pursuit will go down the drain. Avoid resentment at all costs; the way to do this is to bring in fun and passion.
You’ll be able to customize these three buckets for whatever pursuits you have in life. Remember:
- Define your nuts and bolts.
- Know your repertoire.
- Prioritize fun along the way.
Adopt this approach, and you’ll be surprised to discover how quickly you improve and progress in your craft.