He walked over to his tiny instrument and hauled it and himself up onto the couch. He positioned a pick between his thumb and first finger and started strumming. We’ve been playing guitar together since he could hold one, but this was the first time he’d made up a song on the spot. The lyrics: “Sometimes you’ll be angry, or sad, or mad, or you play guitar, like me … More harmonica!”
Oh, my God. He’s a musical prodigy, I couldn’t help thinking. My brain flashed immediately to private lessons and performing arts camps and sold-out concert halls. At the same time, I wondered why I was even considering setting him up for the potential distress I experienced in college over not making it doing what I loved.
I spent much of my childhood playing music: piano, guitar and viola. By middle school, I was focused exclusively on the viola. I had a good amount of natural ability, but I was also driven. I didn’t have to be persuaded to practice. I loved playing and I was determined to make it as a professional musician.
I quit viola after a miserable freshman year of music school, where the intense pressure of performances and auditions sucked all the joy from playing. I was so sure back then that the only route to happiness was music that quitting at 19 left me feeling completely lost, not to mention like a total failure.
I was raised to believe in the meritocratic promise that hard work + ambition = success. “There will always be people who are better than you, but there should never be anyone who has worked as hard,” my dad used to say. He’s a recently retired film professor who loved what he did for a living and believed that one’s job and passion could and should be aligned. I believed it, too.
Even more than when I was a kid in the 1980s and ’90s, we now live in a self-help “you can do anything!” culture. We’re told to put in our 10,000 hours and cultivate grit and never, ever give up. When we do have setbacks, we’re urged to rebrand them as opportunities instead of feeling disappointed. Fail up, fail smart, fail forward. Get your vision board. Get your gratitude journal. Get your can-do attitude and mantras and wash your face, girl.
But in the midst of all this well-meaning encouragement to follow our dreams, I think we often neglect to give kids the skills to deal with what happens when things don’t go according to plan. So many of us — the vast majority — hit a ceiling for one reason or another when trying to professionalize our passions. Sometimes we get what we want only to then realize it isn’t going to make us happy, so we quit later on in the journey. This is totally normal, yet my peers and I are so hard on ourselves when it comes to moments we feel like we failed. We are constantly measuring ourselves against what we think our lives should look like. And it’s not getting any easier for younger cohorts.
I often contemplate how to encourage my kid’s burgeoning talents and interests in a way that also leaves room for him to healthily quit or change course when it’s the right time to move on. Is my job as a parent to tell him to dream big? To give him a sobering reality check? How do I convey the nuanced message: Work hard for as long as it takes to see a project through in a way that feels satisfying, keep going after that if you still feel driven and fulfilled, and quit if you don’t?
I want my son to be able to quit something gracefully without feeling the deep failure I experienced in college. I want him to be ambitious and goal-oriented, but also to be somewhat detached from the outcome of his hard work because there is no simple formula for success — despite what the Internet tells us. “Making it,” if there even is such a thing, depends not only on putting in your 10,000 hours and having grit but on trickier variables such as talent, ambition, money, luck and personality.
The psychology professor Carsten Wrosch has found that people who are “better able to let go when they experience unattainable goals” have “less depressive symptoms, less negative affect over time. They also have lower cortisol levels, and they have lower levels of systemic inflammation, which is a marker of immune functioning. And they develop fewer physical health problems over time.”
We have countless articles and books on hacking our productivity and achieving our potential. We are all greatness in waiting, according to the self-help section. How about some books focused on gracefully giving up on something? Or books that celebrate the freedom of letting go of our dreams and moving on to something else where we won’t have to beat our heads against the wall? Or books that say it’s natural sometimes to hit the limits of our ambition, talent or desire? How about we stop telling people that they failed because they weren’t determined enough or didn’t believe in themselves enough? Sure, sometimes that’s true. But not all the time. Probably not even most of the time.
We’re obsessed in America with progress and growth and linear success. But the truth is there are plenty of moments in our lives when we will be better served by quitting than persevering. I sometimes give my music school days the romantic gloss of the suffering artist, but the reality is I was literally sick to my stomach most of the time. My shoulders and back ached constantly. My entire body was screaming at me to quit. There has got to be some distinction between the kind of resistance you can persevere through as part of your tale of triumph and the kind that indicates you’ve had enough and it’s time to head in another direction.
More and more I’ve come to believe that true grit and resilience are defined by flexibility and adaptability, by not holding on too tightly to any one story line about who you are or what your life should look like.
For now, I’ve vowed not to get ahead of myself in terms of my child’s potential abilities, musical or otherwise — no small feat in the intense Brooklyn parenting wilds. There is time, I tell myself, to let my child’s interests and desires unfold organically, to figure out as a parent when to push and when to pull back.
In the meantime, as my son would say: “more harmonica!”