When is it time to throw in the towel?

I’m sure every career path is hard. I have no idea what it’s like to go through years of medical school, residency and work 12+ hours shifts on my feet tending to patients whose lives you hold in your hands. I do have an idea what it’s like to be a teacher, as I’ve meddled in it, but I’ve experienced nowhere near the level of will it takes to power through school year after exhausting school year, influencing 30 impressionable minds at a time.

I can, however, speak to how hard it is to be an “artist,” specifically, a performing songwriter. For one, there’s no structure. No job interview, no boss, no written dress code, no regular paycheck, no included benefits, no built-in culture, no set schedule, no at-will employment, no performance review, no clear milestone markers. As brilliantly described in a lyric by Bahamas, “There's no company car, there's no passing the bar, there's no end in sight.”

A lot of that sounds great, right? The problem is, YOU are your own boss, YOU are responsible for bringing in the paychecks, YOU figure out a way to get past the gatekeepers, YOU work the number of hours it takes until you reach the milestones YOU have set yourself, YOU have to decide whether you have succeeded or failed and if the latter, YOU have to decide if it’s time to put in your notice.

That’s a hell of a lot of pressure. There’s no clocking out. It’s a special kind of exhausting. And every day you fight a war with yourself: “Am I good enough? Am I cool enough? Do I have the gumption it takes? What do I have to sacrifice to achieve my goals?” Sometimes it seems as though the whole thing is a contest of who can hang on the longest. The last man standing wins, sometimes regardless of talent. He wins because he’s still there. Everyone else loses by default because they are no longer present. But hold on a second - what does he win, exactly? A record contract? A world tour? Global music distribution?

The vagueness of the measure of success is maddening. And I have to admit that my own goals are probably not as well-defined as they should be. That being said, how would I know when I’ve “made it,” and how would I know when I’ve failed and should call it quits?

Some of the people I admire the most have grappled with this very question. This can be at once reassuring and discouraging. It’s reassuring because it’s nice to know you’re not the only one suffering from debilitating self-doubt. It’s discouraging because if someone whom you consider better than you in many aspects (talent, drive, business-savvy-ness, “coolness,” etc.) is doubting themselves, what hope is there for you?

At this time I must apologize if you came here to read this post in search of an answer to the question in the title. I don’t know how to tell if it’s time to quit. I still don’t know if I should, period. I do know that I probably can’t. I have to keep moving forward. But I have to figure out a way to diffuse my disappointment if I don’t achieve the goals I have (or will) set for myself. I have to figure out my definition of success. And I have to learn how to be content with what I do achieve, because the truth is, I will probably never quit. I will always pursue music in some form, even if it’s simply writing, performing, recording and distributing to small audiences. It’s such an integral part of me that without it, I am not me.

*Photo credit: Barbara Brands at Opening Bell Coffee