Success in competitive spheres like academia and music require a singular dedication.
I was talking to the young instructor who was teaching my Psychology of Learning course at Harvard about my songwriting and singing. It was 1964, and while I was excited to be at Harvard for graduate school, I was somewhat caught up in the “folk” scene of the Sixties. My niche was funny songs, which I found I could easily improvise.
People would invite me to parties, and often add, “And bring your guitar!”
At 28 (just seven years older than I was), this young teacher/researcher knew what I did not yet know, namely, that to really make it in the academic world, it had to be your life. So after listening to me talk with enthusiasm about my songs and performing, he said, “Ah, you’re cursed with outside interests.”
I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time, but now, some 48 years later, I certainly do. I am what Margaret Lobenstine has called a “Renaissance soul,” in her book The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People With Too Many Passions to Pick Just One.
Lobenstine feels that there is nothing inferior about people who don’t find a single path, and I agree. But in terms of truly “making it,” the data indicate that persistence at one thing is the name of the game (think Malcolm Gladwell and his “10,000 hour” rule).
I believe that many of us have more than one gift. Which we choose to utilize is the product of many factors, and, in my case, the reason I focused almost exclusively on academics right into my mid-20s was probably due to my father’s expecting nothing less than a superlative performance in school and, at the same time, totally disregarding my songwriting gifts. But this is not to say I hated the academic life. I found research exciting and I absolutely loved teaching. And I would continue to enjoy both through nearly three decades as a professor at an excellent state college in upstate New York.
But early in my academic career, I took the opportunity to sing at a campus-wide talent show, and I did several of my funny songs. It was a packed house of 700 students, faculty, and guests, and, as they say in the biz, I killed. Suddenly, just weeks before my thirtieth birthday, I realized that I really had something.
I began to write more songs and play out more, and within a few years I was playing my songs with some excellent musicians, and singing at coffeehouses and bars all over the area. Sometimes I would combine my two loves, writing humorous songs about psychological topics and singing them to my students at the end of a class.
A young woman became my agent, and started getting us gigs. It was 1977, and I began to feel that I had the potential to “make it” with my songs.
But the money we made was minimal. And I was the main breadwinner for my family. Plus, I already saw that even if my songs were not standard rock’n’roll, they were close enough to make sex and drugs a constant temptation.
There was also my teaching, which I still loved, and a research project I had begun with a colleague in early 1977. The latter turned out to be a quick sell to a major literary agent in New York City, as it dealt with an aspect of sexuality that had really never been covered before—namely, what people do and how they feel right after sex. Our proposal garnered a large advance, and the book Afterplay: A Key to Intimacy ultimately attracted a good deal of media attention, and was issued as a mass market paperback some two years later.
Writing had also always been a gift for me, and this was one that my father approved of and encouraged. So the combination of a “safe” project, a large advance, and the possibility of real fame, led me to tell my fellow musicians that I didn’t think I could keep playing with them, at least for a while.
Exactly one month after we got the contract to do the book, my father died suddenly of a heart attack. And now any interest I had in singing was diminished even further. But we did have to complete the book, with an early deadline, and so we did. And before the book had even been published I had another idea for a book that I excitedly pursued. My songwriting and singing took more and more of a back seat, and I never got back to playing with my musician friends.
But while I markedly decreased my songwriting—going instead to a bi-weekly humor column in our local paper—I didn’t give up on my songs. In the late 1990s (when I was 55) I performed them for a sell-out crowd at the top performance space in the area, and later had this concert made into a CD. Recently, I hired a wonderful young director to put two of my best-loved songs onto YouTube.
Nothing has yet gone “viral,” but I will always wonder what might have been had I put songwriting and performing first. Or if I had simply concentrated on my academic work and had never given up on potentially best-selling book ideas that I didn’t pursue the way a more single-minded person would have. The problem with having more than one gift, as it were, is that if I wasn’t achieving quick enough success with one, I just switched to the other.
I can’t help but believe I would have been far more successful if I had been more single-minded. I do indeed feel “cursed by outside interests.” Or as a highly successful lawyer friend of mine put it years after that assistant professor used those words, I’ve got “the temptations of talent.”
And so I am left to wonder if I have not (yet) achieved the success I once dreamed of because I am simply not gifted enough, or because I did not pursue one thing doggedly the way almost every highly successful person has done.
Image from “Please, Professor” official music video/YouTube