Jackson Jackson was a good kid
He had four years of college and a bachelor’s degree
Started working when he was 21
Got fed up and quit when he was 43
He said, “My whole life I’ve done what I’m supposed to do
Now I’d like to maybe do something for myself
And just as soon as I can figure out what that is
You can bet your life I’m gonna give it hell!”
– John Mellencamp, “The Real Life”
While the previous posts in this series attest to the fact that I have struggled for decades with answering the Question that titles them, I have fortunately not put my life on hold in doing so. Whether or not they have intersected with my ability to earn income (the overwhelming majority of the time they have not), I have steadfastly pursued my interests, curiosities, and passions all the while.
The Guitar, Rediscovered
In the fall of 2002, I went to see a guitar player named Laurence Juber, who was holding a clinic at the Hollywood Guitar Center. I was already a fan of his amazing fingerstyle guitar work, not to mention a huge fan of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles group, Wings (Juber was the band’s lead guitarist for the tail end of their run). I had a couple of LJ’s solo CDs, and even an instructional video tape I had worked with to an extent back when I lived in PA, but I had never seen him in person before. That night, in between discussing all things guitar and taking questions from the audience, Juber performed his musical magic right in front of my eyes. I was, in a word, mesmerized. Looking back now it seems to me that that evening reawakened my passion for the guitar.
It’s not that I hadn’t played at all in the five years since leaving Nashville. I had taught lessons and even performed now and then when opportunities arose. But compared to the eleven-and-a-half years prior to that, I had all but stopped. To some degree, I think I actually needed to do this. My entire sense of self-worth had been wrapped up in this vision I had of myself being a singer/songwriter/guitar player and, importantly, being “successful” at it. Success, to me, meant being both artistically successful in the sense that I was proud of my creative work, and commercially successful in the sense that I was at least able to make a living at it, even if only a modest one. I had set myself up for what was probably an inevitable fall, because a large part of my “success” (and, in effect, self-worth) was dependent upon the whims, opinions, and actions of others – none of which were within my control (while true to some degree in many occupations, this seems to be disproportionately the case with careers in the arts). Try constantly seeking the approval of others to validate your “worthwhileness” and see how healthy and whole that leaves you feeling. (Actually, don’t try this. Trust me when I tell you that not only do you not need it, but no amount of it will ever be enough to reassure you, if you are counting on such reassurance.)
In the aftermath of what I now lovingly refer to as my “nervous breakdown” post-Nashville, I needed to learn that a) I was an okay person completely independent of that identity and those particular skills, and b) it was actually possible for me to be “happy” or “content” outside of all of it. For me, this was hard-won wisdom. I offer the same notion to you (however it may apply) free of charge.
Anyway, I completed my collection of Juber’s recordings, saw him live at every opportunity (since he is based in LA, there were many), and binged on his instructional materials, teaching myself a dozen of his tunes and arrangements for solo guitar. It was a big deal and great delight for me to reconnect with my love of playing the guitar, and the joy of progressing at it, simply for its own sake.
With my passion for music reignited, I became an avid concertgoer of small venue shows all over LA to see many other (mostly acoustic) guitar virtuosos and instrumentalists. I even began playing out again myself semi-regularly (most frequently at a place called the UnUrban Coffee House in Santa Monica) just for the fun of it, and would often include Juber pieces in my sets.
Once I learned that I could be reasonably content without such a strong attachment to my identification as a musician, and that I could have a sense of self-worth beyond this, it was a real blessing for me to be able to reintegrate at least the playing and performing (if not the writing and recording) of music into my life, seeing as how these things had long been such a huge enjoyment of mine.
Eric T., Revised and Expanded Edition
In my thirties, in addition to reconnecting (on a less ambitious, but seemingly much healthier level) with my love of playing and performing music, I also discovered new interests and outlets for my curiosity and sense of adventure, which have contributed greatly to my overall joie de vivre:
I did lots more hiking, camping, and backpacking, activities that repeatedly demonstrated to me the rejuvenating power of spending time in nature.
I bought a mountain bike and started taking regular rides to the beach and back. I then tried my hand at a triathlon. And then a marathon. And then a (double metric) century ride. And then a half-Ironman triathlon. And, finally, a full-on Ironman!
I worked on a memoir (about the pursuit of my music dream) in fits and starts. I had lots of ambivalence about the project and though it remains unfinished I did put a significant amount of time and effort into it and, in doing so, reaped the rewards of exercising my creative writing muscle and “examining” my life.
I did a good amount of volunteering, and discovered the secret that – when you find the right avenue(s) for doing this (i.e., activities and causes that are aligned with your values, interests, and talents) – it benefits you at least as much as those you are serving. Thanks to a suggestion from my then-girlfriend-now-wife (more on her soon), I became a “Music for Healing” volunteer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in which I perform for patients, their families, and staff in the intimate setting of patients’ rooms. Surprisingly enough, the hospital has become – by far – the “venue” in which I’ve most frequently performed over the past eight years. It has been rewarding (and humbling) beyond description.
I enjoyed lots and lots of books, movies, live events (concerts, plays, comedy, lectures, readings, panel discussions, workshops, etc.), and time spent with friends (often discussing these things!).
I also started the very blog you are reading from right now.
And though I actively struggled to find some sort of satisfying career niche for myself all the while – and to no avail – one of the benefits of having had jobs that were simply “jobs” has been, for me, the opportunity to live a healthy, active, well-balanced, overall enjoyable, fulfilling, and (I dare say) “inspired” life.
I am grateful to have had the health and good fortune to be able to explore new interests and activities like those above that have given me new experiences of myself, and that have taught me time and again that self-discovery is a constantly unfolding process. There always seems to be more to us (and to life) than we typically expect or imagine.
The Biggest Difference & My Greatest Source of Hope
Perhaps the only endeavor that I have consistently invested as much time and energy in as my search for a Career that truly suits me – one in which I can thrive – is a long-term Relationship that meets the same criterion. (For those reading this who do not know me personally, I hope you will trust that I paid equally as many dues in this department!)
Call it the result of persistence, timing, karma, fate, dumb luck, or some combination thereof, on November 4, 2005, I hit the jackpot. On a Sierra Club night hike on that date, I met a woman by the name of Samantha and, you could say, we hit it off. Being with her has been the greatest source of joy in my life ever since, and has made everything else I love and enjoy that much better. I am grateful beyond words for this, and do my best to let her know in some way every single day.
The fact that I somehow managed to find (and develop) a relationship this satisfying and lasting after so many years of “fruitless searches” (thank you, Peter Gabriel) is the single greatest source of hope and piece of tangible evidence I have that one day I just might find the same in a career.
You never know…
The thing about life, though, is that – death and taxes aside – there appear to be no guarantees. I have known peers, for instance, that ended up not even living as long as I have thus far (not to mention the fact that two of my biggest heroes, Harry Chapin and John Lennon, died at ages 38 and 40 respectively). Life is filled with both unfathomable beauty and absurdity. There is untold joy and anguish in the world, and a boatload of uncertainty. We are born into a situation (whatever and wherever this may be) that we cannot possibly make complete sense of, and only have a very limited amount of time in which to even attempt to do so. We don’t even know how much (limited) time that will be and, despite whatever strong convictions or beliefs we may have about what does or does not happen when we die, none of us really knows for sure.
How, then, to live? How to answer a Question such as WDYWTBWYGU? in the face of this?
In the next – and last – post in this series I will offer some concluding thoughts about this, as well as my latest and greatest attempt to answer the Question for myself.