One of the hardest decisions I have made was to change careers. The hard part wasn’t working out what other option I might take; the hard part was no longer pursuing the career I had set myself. It had been on my mind off and on for a couple of years but I hadn’t ever properly engaged with it. I didn’t feel I was making the kind of progress I wanted, it wasn’t as rewarding financially as I needed it to be, I found adjusting to coming home after long periods away was difficult…
There were many reasons that switching careers was a good idea. But quitting what I had set out to achieve felt like failure. Surely it was through dedication and commitment that one found success? I argue elsewhere on this blog exactly this point: that you can’t achieve anything without discipline and commitment. After all, I had invested an enormous amount of time and emotion in achieving a goal; giving up now was wasting all of that. Perhaps even more powerful was that others had invested financially in my training. Giving up my career would be letting them down.
Not only that, I had had many successes: my name had been on dressing room no.1 of the Royal Festival Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, the Cadogan Hall… I had conducted the Royal Philharmonic, Welsh National Opera, the English Chamber Orchestra, the London Philharmonic… However I might feel about myself, this was already some achievement. Surely if I kept improving, kept working I would eventually achieve my goals? Indeed, had I not achieved some of them already?
In my head, at the time, walking through a different door meant closing off everything from my past. Because my sense that I had to change my career came at the same time as a deep depression (caused, in no small part, by my career), it was staggeringly difficult to find any clarity in understanding my present or my possible futures.
The reality for me was that I decided to quit pursuing conducting as my sole career because it was impossible to make a different choice. I had allowed my professional issues to become so overwhelming that continuing was probably suicidal. At the very least it would have destroyed my family and it could quite easily have taken me too.
The period leading up to that decision was enormously destructive. Psychologically, I was in chaos. I have enormous reserves of willpower which can be a great source of strength but when I lose sight of the bigger picture – which can happen as a result of my depression – that willpower can become a significant problem. Singlemindedness is hugely valuable when pursuing a goal but when that focus blinkers out wider vision it can become dangerous.
Pulling myself out of that state was very difficult. It took many conversations to even begin to understand where I was and what the motivations were that had led me there. Needless to say, there were myriad reasons that I had found myself in such a bad state but most significant among them was the perceived need to please others, to fulfil what others told me was my potential.
The key bit about this is that, despite my very real love for music and for performing, a great deal of why I was so determined in my pursuit of a conducting career was to do with other people. Partly I didn’t want to let people down, but also I had had the belief instilled in me that I needed to be ‘successful’ which – in my case – seemed to mean reaching the very highest echelons of one of the most inaccessible of all careers.
I was pursuing something that not only required enormous skill and dedication; it also required good fortune and – most crucially – the support of those in positions of influence. It is very easy to feel that one is in a weak position in life but in a musical career, and in conducting in particular, playing the game in the right way and having the right people on your side is often decisive.
If I am honest with myself, though, I knew it was time to quit some while before I actually took the decision to do it. The question is, why did I wait? Those who know me even a little will know that I’m not afraid of a decision and certainly don’t lack willpower. So what was going on?
I’ve thought about it a lot and I’m still not completely clear on why I experienced such intertia. Having spoken to a good number of other people who have been in similar situations, I’m clearly not the only one.
For me, everything came crashing down and, looking back, it feels as if there was a moment in which everything changed. In the immediate aftermath of this, the most significant change I made was to try and forget what everyone else thought of me. It took a great deal of effort and was a difficult, often traumatic process. The upshot was a realisation was that I really didn’t know what I wanted; I had very little idea about what really drove me.
That – as you might imagine – was quite a shock.
I don’t know, yet, how common that feeling is. It may be that many people don’t really take the time to truly work out what they want from their life. It’s easy to say that life is so busy and filled with distractions that being able to think about it is challenging. The truth, I suspect, is more prosaic: that thinking about it is hard. Avoiding thinking about it is just easier.
So, I think there were three factors that stopped me from making a change to my life sooner: perceived pressure from other people, inertia, and not knowing what I wanted.
When its written down like that, it seems like an easy fix, but in the chaos of everyday life it is much harder to find focus. In the chaos of everyday life combined with the fog of depression, it is exponentially harder.
There is one additional factor that comes into play here. Along with everything else had to be added the power of habit. I will explore the value of habit more fully in another post but – much like willpower – its great power is also its great danger.
Habit forming seems to be a natural process. It is a means of becoming more efficient, of streamlining processes. At its best, habit forming allows us to improve valued skills and to embed them into everyday life. At its worst, it is pathological. Enacting a habit becomes compulsive – it can even release chemicals in the brain designed to make us feel positive (according to research by Charles Duhigg).
A deeply engrained habit, such as the pursuit of a long-term goal, can become obsessive. At this point it is hard to see past the habit to an alternative version of the future.
Change is hard for many reasons. It is hard to see that it is necessary and even harder to enact once you see it has value. But change is essential to all of us. For me, the greatest challenges were understanding that I had to do something and working out what I actually wanted. Once I had those pieces of the puzzle, setting positive habits was (relatively) easy. But getting to that point was enormously difficult and nearly cost me everything.
The greatest lesson I have learned is to live each day as it comes. Aim to end the day in a better position than you started it – set yourself goals and try to achieve them. If you don’t, understand why and try differently tomorrow. If you do, congratulate yourself and set up for another day the same. Once I have the every day sorted out, things further afield start to become open to me. But it all starts with the every day.
You’re not going to take over the world in a single day. Equally, you’re not going to transform your life in a single step. It will take time, and hard work. It will take dedication, discipline and understanding. It will need constant evaluation and re-evaluation. But as long as you don’t lose sight of the value of your goal, all options are open.