Category Archives: Professionalism

Taking the Captain’s Chair

It’s been a little over a month since I’ve left my full time job.  I’m slowly discovering how to live a life that is sustainable both financially and for my well-being.  For the record, I am still not where I want to be yet, there are days when I get overwhelmed with how much I need to do, and there are days when it’s just not fun at all.  There are not, however, days in which I regret leaving my job.  More about that later.

Capdan Picard

Capdan Picard makes it so… frightening.

One of the interesting shifts in my life has been the new role of leadership I’ve taken on.  I no longer have the “luxury” of sitting back and letting someone else choose the direction I should be going.  I now have to choose my own path and make it so, or else nothing gets accomplished.

Back in 1999 I was working over the summer at Sesame Place.  The previous two summers, I had played in the park band, the Sesame Brass, and this year I was hired back as the band captain.  This was mostly more of the same stuff I had done the last two years, with a few new responsibilities thrown in.  Without going into too much detail, it was one of the most traumatic summers of my life.  I was unable to balance my role in what was essentially middle management with the relationships I had with my coworkers from the previous summer.  Add to it teenagers, drama, and clashing egos, and I vowed never again to work in a place where people above me told me how to treat people below me.

From that point forward, I avoided leadership roles in the jobs I took, instead choosing jobs in which I had a specialized skill-set that often translated to a moderate level of autonomy.  Looking back… wow, that was almost 15 years.  Thanks Sesame Place!

I even avoided leadership roles in music.  I played in a series of different groups in which someone else wrote the music (for the most part) and someone else booked the shows.  Certainly I added my own flair and intuition to whatever I played, but I was a far cry from directing any of the ensembles or bands I was playing with.  Whoever happened to book the show determined the time, location, and pay.

When I started performing my own music about 5 years ago, it’s true I was leading the band… but it was a band of one.  And man was I a taskmaster to that one lazy band member!

In more recent times, though, that has had to change.  While I was still taking orders at my old job, I began doing a lot more booking for the different groups I played in.  As I was playing mostly as a side project to my full-time employment, I wasn’t so worried about money; rather, I wanted to just get out and play with as many different groups as possible.  So for my songwriting project Neon and Shy, I would call the venues, book the shows, and (often) become intimate with the cold gaze of rejection.  I began to make connections to book events for  Four Lads Insane (Bowie tribute), Three Men and Three Women in Black (Johnny Cash tribute), and Late Night Double Feature (Rocky Horror meets Rocky Balboa tribute).

PolkadelphiaProbably the biggest change for me came when I formed the modern polka band Polkadelphia back in March.  For the first time, I was leading a band that involved other full-time musicians. Just like my time at Sesame Place, I found being squeezed between two groups of people: this time it was between the musicians in the band and the venues that want us to play.  The squeeze comes when I have to choose between pushing a venue to pay us what we’re worth, or turning around and asking my colleagues to play a show for a wage that is an insult to their talents.

The big difference for me is how much control I have in this situation as opposed to as a 21 year-old at Sesame Place.  I get to choose the venues to play at, I get to choose what we should earn, and I get to decide whether to stand my ground or find some leeway.  Half of it is dizzyingly scary.  I can’t tell you how many times I have paused before emailing a quote for the band, steeled myself, held my breath, and tapped the send button.  However, I am equally elated when the client or venue comes back to me with respect for the number that I believe we should earn.  Because not only does it tell me that I’m on the right track, but it gives me the opportunity to tell these people that I play with how much I respect what they’re doing.

Around the time I left my job, I also started getting more freelance computer gigs.  A client would ask me the process for going about distributing video online, and with this kind of stuff there isn’t a manual or a standardized best practice to reference.  I’d have to decide the best plan of action to accomplish what they wanted to do, then help the client to follow that plan of action.  Once again, it was scary to have to put it all on the line, but ultimately rewarding when it worked the way I anticipated.

This became especially magnified when working with my first web design client.  This time it wasn’t just a singular component I had to plan.  I had to solicit my client’s vision for what he wanted his site to be, and temper it with my own design sensibilities and the limitations of the medium.  There was a lot of back and forth about certain web components that I was convinced would look better one way versus another.  I was able to present my image of how his website could look its best, and we found common ground in the few places we disagreed.  There were scary moments in which I didn’t know if I would ever finish the project or even overcome a simple obstacle like lining up all the text in one area.  However, my previously acquired computer skills, my eye for the aesthetically pleasing, and my understanding of organizing content all came together to make our vision a reality.  In fact, today we just launched the new site over here.

So back to why I don’t regret leaving my job.  There are plenty of reasons I feel this way, but probably the biggest has to do with how I’ve revisited the role of leadership in my life.  I’ve taken everything I’ve learned since 1999 and beyond, and crafted it into a way to direct the projects in my life.  This time around I’m making sure that I have both control over the types of projects I lead and mutual respect within the projects I’m leading.  The most exciting part is finding that I don’t have to just be in charge.  I can also, dare I say, enjoy it.

Connecting the Dots (La la la la)

Oh diligent readers of my blog… you may not have noticed, but over the past year I’ve been dropping hints about a new direction my life has been taking.  Have you been connecting the dots?

In Minecraft: Starting from Scratch, I talked about the overcoming the fear of starting something new.

In Networking for People Who Cringe at the Word “Networking” I discussed innovative methods for expanding my professional network as an introvert and as a musician.

In The Triple Threat to Performing Music as a Career, I interviewed several musicians about how they made their livings as musicians

In Experiments in Productivity, I cataloged an experiment into what life would be like if I did music full-time.

Which is why I’m nervous, excited, and really proud today to announce that I will be leaving my full-time job to pursue a freelance career in music.  This is a direction I have been working towards for the past 2 or so years.  I’ve been writing more music, performing regularly with area (and outside the area) groups, and expanding my contacts; all in all, I’ve been building a bridge to a new career, and today I’m ready to make a big leap.

In many ways this is a leap of faith.  This is not like leaving a job to go to an established new job.  I have the framework in place to start building my new business, but there are plenty of missing pieces.  For example, I want and need to be performing more frequently than I am now, I’m looking to acquire private students, and I have large gaps in my schedule that will be open once I leave my 9-5 job.  I have realized though, that I have come about as far as I can while constrained by a full time schedule.  I need to trust that my hard work and diligence will allow me to fill in those missing pieces over the next few months.  I’m delighted to be devoted to working toward something that means so much to me.

In addition to finding work playing and teaching music, I plan to utilize my other skills as income streams as well.  I still enjoy teaching computer classes, and I plan to offer private consulting.  I have been teaching web design for the past 4 years, and I feel confident offering my services to people and organizations looking for a web presence.  I have some high-end skills in some specific computer programs as well that can be valuable in a consulting context.  And most importantly, I’m ready to adapt to whatever difficulties I face by shifting gears and trying other ways of doing things.

I have only told a few people about my plans, and the responses have been overwhelmingly positive.  My good friends Samantha and Rachel both have careers made up of a series of different income streams, and they have been both realistic sounding boards as well as sources of kindness and support.  In April my friend Dave began a blog called I Refuse to Wear a Tie, in which he discusses his journey of self-realization after leaving his job in the pharmaceutical industry after 10 or so years.  We had a great talk about what we were going through, what we wanted, and how we were hoping to achieve it.  And yesterday afternoon I spoke with my former tuba teacher and good friend Jay about my decision.  He gave me a smile and a gentile punch on the arm, then told me: “Good for you!  Life is too short.”  Hearing that meant quite a lot to me.

Some friends have been a little more worried about my decision.  After all, I have a steady income, excellent benefits, and job security.  As one friend told me, “why would you want to give that up?  The job market is terrible these days!  Can’t you just do music on the side and keep the job?”  And despite shaking my confidence, he made some valid points.  Points that I’ve been struggling with for a few months now.

See, in 2004 before I got my first full time job teaching computer classes, I spent a long time unemployed and directionless.  I took a series of temp jobs to sustain myself (with plenty of help from my parents).  So when I think of leaving my current job, there’s a part of me that thinks that if I ever wanted to enter the mainstream workforce again, I’d have to settle for a series of menial jobs to eke out a living.  Stocking grocery store shelves is the one that always pops into my mind (with apologies to any aspiring shelfers).

My friends and support network have fortunately been able to convince me that I will actually have more options than shelf stocker.  It’s that voice of uncertainty from many years ago that is telling me that’s what my life will devolve to, and I’m ready to stop believing it.

Napolean Danomite

I’ve got skills.

So let’s say that my efforts into doing music full time turn out to be unsustainable, whether due to the market, my interests, or my talents.  I have faith that the skills I have will allow me to find work somewhere if I need to.  I’m a valued employee with quite a few desired skills.  If I find myself one year from now back in a full time job fitting music in where I can, at least I will know that I am there by conscious decision.  I can also take pride in the face that I am someone who is always looking to improve the quality of my life, and this was just another step along that path.

It sounds like I’m pessimistic of my chances here, but I’m overwhelmingly excited to get out there and see what I can do. Whether this endeavor is successful or not is irrelevant; I’m ready to devote myself to something new.  This entire process has been thrilling; coming up with ways to develop musically and as an entrepreneur.  I look forward to continuing the tasks I’ve already started and finally being able to pour myself wholeheartedly into the projects I have developed and set up for myself.  You can expect more stories from the outside, more about the journey toward my potential, and lots of cautionary tales about the mistakes that I’m making (there will be plenty!).  Thanks for being with me up until this point.  Onward to the future!

A Modicum of Effort; an Avalanche of Opportunity

In an effort to exhaust some of my remaining vacation days, I took this week off.  Across the week I have a smattering of projects and appointments I’ve set for myself, but for the most part I have unstructured vacation time on my hands.  This is proving to be trying, as without structure I tend to not get things done.

I tend to get really hard on myself.  I look back at my experiment in structuring time earlier this year and feel like I’ve gone backwards.  I had set up a system of accomplishing many tasks, taking on new projects, and making sure I keep on top of things.  Now that I’m not in experiment mode, I feel like I’ve forgotten the benefits I received from setting up my own schedule.

I also feel myself on the verge of productivity, but not making the final step, the final commitment to myself.  It’s even a small step!  For the last week or so, I’ve been telling myself I should make a list of things to do and cross them off.  Once I kick that off, everything else becomes easier.  But something is holding me back.

I’m reminded when I visited Katie the other day and her housemate was trying to remove a splinter from her six year old daughter’s finger. The young girl’s anxiety of how it might hurt was completely overwhelming her.  I wanted to explain that sometimes we build an experience up as a huge scary event, when in reality it’s a brief moment of discomfort followed by relief and happiness.  If I carry this metaphor over to my own situation, it’s also followed up by accomplishment.  It’s a modicum of effort followed by an avalanche of opportunity.

Hayley's BBBQ

What does that extra B stand for?

On Sunday I was at a BBBQ at my friend Hayley’s house and we started talking about ensembles we play in.  Lately, I’ve been hankering to get a brass quintet together, as there are often gigging opportunities with that kind of ensemble.  Hayley expressed interest in being the trombonist in such an ensemble, which would be great.

Often when I’m having such conversations, I’m feeling things out and testing the waters.  Frequently, I quickly move on to other ideas that are more within my comfort zone instead of taking initiative and making it happen.  The barrier that appears to be insurmountable and scary is often just a speed bump.  Once I get over that initial effort, everything falls into place.  I’m not saying that the work stops there, but the path is usually clearer after you cross over from thinking (and worrying) into doing.

My initial (self-defeating) reaction to my reluctance is that I obviously have a fear of effort (I’m lazy).  When I take a step back, I realize that it’s not just effort that I’m trying to avoid, but wasted effort.  For as long as I can remember, the act of losing something I put a lot of effort into; or the gut-wrenching feeling that I’ve been trying hard to make something work that was not reciprocated have driven me into berserker rages.  That’s not a justification, but rather a way of deconstructing my anxiety about starting projects that may not go anywhere.

Dan Berserker at Meeting

What do you mean the meeting was cancelled?!?!?

Besides, there’s a big difference between spending hours, weeks, and months on a project only to see it collapse, and the type of effort I’ve been shying away from.  Sometimes all it takes is a to-do list, a scheduled rehearsal, or a date on the books to make things happen.

That last one comes from another opportunity I’ve been leery about following up on.  A friend asked me recently if I would be interested in teaching a project planning software to his organization.  It’s a great opportunity to expand my freelance chops in a safe(r) environment.  All I have to do is schedule it, and it’s mine for the taking.

So for my own benefit and maybe yours too, here is my to-do list.  It’s not a list of things to do today, but it’s a list of how to get lists done.

1. Do it right away

While my email inbox is cleaner than most (5 in there at the moment), I do tend to put off the things that give me anxiety.  That means uncomfortable phone calls, asking for more money, turning someone down, committing to a project I’m not 100% sure on, and starting something I’ve never done before.  Granted, we all need time to compose a thought-out response, but we don’t need 2 weeks.  Besides, getting a phone call out of the way, receiving an answer about money requests, providing closure to a relationship, making a project concrete, and accomplishing something I’ve never done before all feel amazing.  Give yourself a deadline, and meet it.

2. Make it clear

I’ve been reading a book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers.  Probably the concept that has meant the most to me is that we are afraid of the things we haven’t done before.  That’s just the nature of things we haven’t done before.  So much of that fear has to do with not knowing what to expect.  There are two ways to figure out what to expect.  One way is to do copious amounts of research, discuss it with friends who have gone through the same thing, and do our own projected analysis.  The other is to just do it and see what it is I’m missing, then fill in the pieces.  While they both have their benefits, the former can go on indefinitely (how do you know when you’ve finally learned something comprehensively), while the latter can give a clear picture instantly.  So do what needs to be done to make it clear what you’re trying to accomplish.  That way, you know when you accomplish it.

3. Do it with integrity

Whatever you do, do it with the full intent of doing it as well as possible.  My friend Samantha wrote an excellent blog about her experiences as a vendor at a craft fair.  After she ended up not selling anything, she considered that perhaps the things she was selling had no value, or perhaps the nature of the event (rain, poor advertising, etc.) colluded to keep her from selling anything.  But instead, she decided to do the work of analyzing who her customer was, how to reach that customer, and whether it was worth her time to try:

I think this is an approach that artists (and I use that term broadly, encompassing visual artists, writers, musicians, etc.) across the board don’t take nearly enough.  Of course, it’s much easier to take either of the first two approaches when something doesn’t go according to plan.  It’s easy to make excuses, and it’s easy to get discouraged.  The third approach requires some introspective thinking (and possibly some market research) around where one’s art fits into the larger artistic–or maybe even less glamorously, consumer–landscape.  The successful artists have found a niche to fill–a customer to sell to–and they do it in a way that makes it worth their time to produce the art.

Approach your projects with integrity.  Mindless autopilot is not especially fulfilling, and the successes attained from using your full brain power are far sweeter.

4. Explore the branches

This is more of a follow-up, but it’s good to remember that once the things are crossed off your to-do list, the work doesn’t end.  Inevitably, there are new ideas that emerge from exploring the other ones.  These branches can form whole new root systems that open up even more opportunities.  Take some time to explore the directions your new ideas branch to and figure out what kinds of new projects you have on your hands.

So Dan, do you hear that?  Get some paper and write out your to-do list for the day.  Give Hayley a call and find the rest of the players for the brass quintet.  Schedule a rehearsal.  Put a date on the books for your Project class.  Take the effort to flick that pebble down the mountain, and let the avalanche begin!

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