“Hey Uncle. Can I ask you for some advice?”
The Facebook instant message popped on my phone and when I saw that it was my nephew, I was surprised. We don’t really talk that often outside of one or two annual family things, and by “that often” I basically mean never. I quickly answered — I always do anytime someone messages me — and though I was being sought for advice, I came away from this conversation having learned something myself.
He wanted to know how to become a professional musician. He is quite good at several instruments and has developed a real passion for music, so he has decided he wants to pursue it as a career. I am, uh, NOT a musician, so I wondered why he would reach out to me.
“I know you are a writer and I was wondering if you could tell me how to get started,” he began. “This is really what I want to do with my life.”
I was just about to type out a brief note to him about how this isn’t my area of expertise when it hit me. OK, so I don’t know anything about music, right? I mean, the only instrument I have ever played was the radio. But I *do* know something about chasing dreams. As I began typing, I was surprised at how easily the advice came.
The first thing I told him is that no one will likely pay much for a vague idea or for talent at playing something that they’ve already heard.
“Michael, I know you play in a band outside of school and that you have caught a passion for that,” I said. “But there are thousands of cover bands all over the place, all trying to get noticed for playing something they heard on the radio. If you want to get noticed, you need to write your own music. Have you done that?”
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he has been writing songs for a while and had as much of a passion for that as he did for playing. He understands that he has to grind and put in the work if he wants to chase his dream. Putting in the work is a good way to succeed, but it can also be a good way to learn from failure.
I wanted to be a professional basketball player when I was growing up, and I put in hours and hours and hours of work to achieve that goal…only to top out at high school junior varsity before my career was over. I learned from grinding and putting in work that even though it was my dream, it was not my future. Which led to lesson number two for my young Padawan.
“I also advise you to have a backup plan,” I continued. “Dreams don’t pay the bills — especially while you’re chasing them. If you make it, then you have a character-building experience of having to really push to support yourself while also learning your musical craft. If you don’t, then you at least have a skill or trade that you can fall back on.”
Again, I expected him to balk — teenager, remember? — but he didn’t. He understands that chasing a dream doesn’t guarantee you’ll catch it, and that he has to balance his life between that pursuit and common-sense living.
The last piece of advice that I had for him really hit home for both of us. I told him that no matter what he does, he needs to do it for the right reasons.
“Michael, don’t chase music, don’t write music, don’t play music just to get paid or become famous,” I said. “Do it because you love it and because you have something to say. If you have pure motives in chasing this dream, the rewards will come. Those rewards may not be money, airplay or girls, but they might just be a sense of pride that you created something that speaks to who you truly are. If you really consider yourself an artist, then create art.”
May we all chase our dreams because we love what we do. What can be more fulfilling than that?
Frank Vaughn is a regional Emmy Award- and Associated Press Media Editors Award-winning journalist. His first book, “0.4 to Graduation: How to Finish College in 17 Years or Less” is slated for release in Spring 2018. You can connect with Frank at his Facebook page and on Twitter.
The October sun beat down on my head with a relentless anger that seemed out of character for that time of year. As sweat beaded on my head and ran down my face in tiny streams, I continued to pull the rake back and forth across the ankle-deep leaves on that five-acre patch of land behind an old farmhouse. I was a starving college student in Arkansas in my early 20s, and the $100 I was promised for this particular task seemed like a small fortune—until about four hours into the job.
The man who hired me was a ruddy farmer who almost exactly matched my preconceived mental image of his weekly attire with old, faded coveralls and a straw hat to match a face and forearms that throbbed in a hue of dark red that reminded me of an overripe apple. I met him at a church I just started attending, and he seemed a genuinely nice sort who just wanted to help a youngster out with a temporary job. I learned a lot about him the first day I was there.
He set a platter of sandwiches and a jar of lemonade on the splintered and weather beaten picnic table on the side of his house and gave a loud whistle for me to stop and grab a bite. The whistle was quite unnecessary, as I was standing maybe 20 feet from that table. As I dropped the rake and stripped off my work gloves, he clamped his hands to his wide hips and shook his head slowly as if the burden of the world had suddenly descended upon him. His first words were jarring.
“Boy, you ain’t worth the skin God printed you on, you know that?” he said in his low, gravelly voice. “If you was my son, I believe I’d drop you off at a bus station somewhere and wish the world luck with you.”
Gone was the sweet, smiling older gentleman who welcomed me to his church only a few weeks before. His upper lip was curved in a sort of menacing grin that told me these next few days were going to be the longest of my new tenure in adulthood. As I settled down at that old, rickety table to hush my stomach with the help of a few ham and cheese sandwiches, he continued to stare holes through me.
“Seriously. What have you been doing all morning?“ he asked in a growl that dripped with disgust. “You should be halfway through this job by now and you ain’t got 20 feet from this house!”
He paused his tongue lashing long enough to bless the food, and once he uttered “amen” (in Jesus’ name, of course) the verbal flogging resumed. Each bite I took through that entire meal was punctuated with some new commentary on my work ethic, the way I gripped a rake, the size of the piles I made with the leaves in his yard. I waited through the entire meal for some nugget of encouragement, but none came.
The verbal beat downs continued each and every day for the entire week I worked for him. I went to bed each night with blistered hands, a throbbing back, and a wounded spirit. By the time the week was over, his entire property had been raked, an old storage shed had been torn down (and the rubble hauled off), his house had been repainted, and that old picnic table had been fortified, sanded down, and repainted.
At the end of the last day, he called me over to get my check before I left. My shoulders slumped as I trudged over to receive my remuneration—and probably one last commentary on how I represented the most worthless generation he ever witnessed.
I stopped in front of him and noticed immediately that the man I had been working for all week was gone. In his place was the warm, smiling man I met recently at a country church. As he handed me a folded check, he gripped my hand tightly and thanked me for all of my hard work. As my face turned into a soupy mess of confusion, he patted me on the shoulder and gave me one last speech.
“Son, I believe in hard work. Always have,” he said. “You were doing okay from the start, but I knew I could get a lot more out of you with the proper motivation. No matter what job you are given, you owe your best. All you can give. That will always be rewarded.”
As I climbed in my car to leave, his words continued to ring in my ears. I started the engine, but before I shifted into gear, I took one peek at the folded check from that old farmer with a unique motivational approach. He had doubled my promised pay, but I earned much more than a couple of hundred dollars that week. I earned a life lesson on the importance of pouring my all into every responsibility I have.
Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.