What's your internal deadline?

Many early-career musicians have internal deadlines for achieving their goals. They think they have to win an orchestral position or get a college teaching job by a certain age in order to have “made it.” And if they fail, they plan to quit music and go to law school—or pursue some other profession. What’s your internal deadline?

When I was young, pinning all my hopes and dreams on attaining a specific kind of job in music seemed like a good idea. But now, when I’m working with a client who has a very narrow view of what success in music looks like, I start to get nervous.

It’s not because I don’t believe the musician can achieve their goal. It’s rather that they may not actually like the life that goes along with that goal. And if they have only one acceptable version of success, and it doesn’t work out for them, they’re a failure. To me, though, the real failure here is one of imagination.

When I was in grad school my goal was to get a tenure track college job teaching cello—that was my holy grail and I couldn’t imagine anything else.

I believed that once I got that kind of job, I’d be set for life—that there’d be no more struggle or uncertainty. I had student loans to pay off and I wanted job security. And because I loved grad school, I thought I’d love being a performance faculty member. That it would be happy ever after time.

I found out otherwise. First, I learned that NO job or title can provide “happy ever after.” Second, that I needed to imagine my way into a new life for myself. And the third thing I found was that there’s a problem with having an extrinsically motivated goal.

What motivation is fueling your music career?

Extrinsic goals are focused on achieving status: gaining external validation or approval. We want to have “made it,” to have a position and a title, to have influence and respect. We want to be perceived as worthy.

Of course we all fall into these habits of thinking at times—that a job or title will make everything better. But even believing that any job will provide real security, that, too, is a fantasy.

Because tenured positions—whether with an orchestra or a university—don’t provide immunity from depression, institutional politics, performance injuries, job disenchantment, or job elimination due to restructuring.

There’s no real security. Life doesn’t come with guarantees. The belief that winning a certain job will solve everything is an example of magical thinking—it’s the realm of illusion that author and therapist Phil Stutz warns us about. And it’s the road to heartache.

If instead, you are willing to live in the real world, you must face the fact that life will always include pain, uncertainty, and the need for constant work. It doesn’t matter how rich or famous or accomplished you are, you will still have to deal with these realities.

And because we don’t have a crystal ball to know how much time we actually have left in life, it’s fair to say we don’t have time to waste on pursuing the “wrong” goals.

So what’s the alternative to extrinsic goals and the fantasy of happy ever after?

It’s this: to be INtrinsically motivated. Having an Intrinsic goal means you’re more focused on the process, instead of obsessing about the results.

Examples include committing to your life-long artistic growth, to serving others, creating community, and making a meaningful contribution. It’s the idea of having an ongoing artistic or spiritual practice, of being dedicated to something greater than yourself, greater than winning a job, earning money, or becoming famous.

That sounds idealistic, I know. And of course, we still need to pay the rent and put food on the table. So you might be wondering . . .

Is it possible to be intrinsically motivated and still be a successful musician?


It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s the intrinsically motivated musicians who hang in there and go the extra mile. They’re the ones who find more creative solutions, who work in a wider variety of contexts, who initiate new ventures that answer the needs of their audiences—and they’re the ones who find fulfillment and joy in doing the work itself.


Because they aren’t driven by their egos. They aren’t focused on proving themselves, or playing it safe. They take risks and identify more opportunities to make real contributions.

Intrinsically motivated musicians have more sustainable careers because they dare to go further to find success on their own terms. But the success they experience along the way is a by-product of their lifelong commitment to their artistry, it’s not the goal itself.

To orient your path towards a more meaningful and fulfilling future, answer the following . . .

3 internal deadline questions: your legacy starts now

1. When you are gone, how do you want to be remembered?

2. What work are you doing now that both feeds your soul and contributes to the wellbeing of others?

3. If you only had a year left, how would you choose to put your music talents to use?

And if you’d like to have an introductory coaching session to help clarify your goals and motivation so you can get into full forward motion, book a time with me HERE.

Let’s get you on track for your better future,

Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well


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