Why Balancing Happiness With Ambition Is Crucial For Musicians

What inspires lifelong musicians to keep creating and performing year after year for decades? The answer depends on the musician, but ambition is what drives us to sustain our careers throughout life. For some, ambition means striving for conventional success in the music industry. Other musicians are purely driven by the need to create meaningful work that challenges their listeners as well as themselves. Whatever your goals are in music, you’ll need ambition to succeed. However, this doesn’t mean music career ambitions can or should be the complete focus of your existence at every waking moment.

Forget success and focus on building a life that allows you to create music

It might sound counter-productive, but prioritizing your music career ambitions over everything else in your life is an action that can destroy your ability and desire to make music. Many musicians love creating and performing so much that they see themselves as music-makers first and human beings second. It’s a dangerous and inaccurate way to move through the world. Plus, it’s one of the biggest reasons that talented young musicians burn out and stop making music. One of music’s most profoundly important purposes is to convey and explore humanity. Sacrificing relationships, interests, and your own happiness for the sake of your music leaves you at risk for losing your sense of self, and when this happens, your creativity suffers. 

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We’re used to sacrificing things on behalf of our musical interests because it’s a mandatory part of the job. The image of a young music student staying inside to practice their instrument on a summer day comes to mind. Working hard and prioritizing music in our daily lives is crucial, but the problem happens when we obsess with success and don’t think about building music into our lives in a sustainable and rewarding way. How this looks is going to be different for each of us. Yet, getting to the bottom of what makes us happy, fulfilled, sane, and healthy as human beings is essential. And while I’m sure you’re reading this because you love music and are focused on making it a main part of your life, going about it in the wrong way can make you miserable and unhappy.  

What do you need to be happy?

We create and perform music because it makes us happy, but there are other parts of life we need to focus on in order to be content and healthy––our families, relationships, physical and mental health, financial security, non-musical interests, etc. While your musical career ambitions are crucial, letting them eat up all of your time and focus can damage your happiness, humanity, and ability to make music if you let things go too far. It’s things like missing out on important events like weddings and birthdays because you’re too busy focusing on music, taking on music-related debt and not having a plan to pay it off, and letting the inevitable disappointments in music destroy your confidence and well-being as a person. 

To be happy as musicians, we have to strike the right balance between our work and identities as music-makers and everything else important in our lives. We have to do the work of digging deep and discovering exactly what we want to get out of making music and what we need to be happy and healthy. A healthy music career is one that leaves plenty of room for pursuing music, but in a sustainable and healthy way. This means converting big dreams into actionable goals that can reasonably fit in your life. You might want to invest thousands of dollars in your career and hit the road until you “make it,” but the extreme actions you take now on behalf of your career could lead to extreme unhappiness later if things don’t work out the way you hoped they would. 

We’re often obsessed with the big picture of success in music and forget that we have the choice every day whether to fit the work of making music into our lives. You might not be able to tour the world or get written up by a big publication right now, but you do have the means to keep creating and sharing music. Ambition is essential for musicians, but our ability to find a balance between it and everything else in our lives makes the difference of being able to create music sustainably over the long-term. 

Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

RebeccaWhy Balancing Happiness With Ambition Is Crucial For Musicians


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  • Kevin Doberstein - August 5, 2020 reply

    Great advice not only for musicians but other artists as well. Thanks for the post Patrick!

  • mitchell MI Weiss - August 6, 2020 reply

    Words of wisdom for sure… as a creative musician who “made it” to the mid level 40 years ago but decided I had to have more out of life than playing to 3 indifferent drunks on a Wednesday night when I was pushing 30…. It’s the MUSIC that counts. Even though I wound up in a different career to make a living I still kept up writing and mastering my instrument. it’s what keeps me sane…..

  • cookie clicker - August 7, 2020 reply

    Just tryna be in this
    Tell me how you choose
    Can you feel why you’re in this
    Can you feel it through

  • jimmee - August 12, 2020 reply

    One must be very careful not to fall into the trap of someone who wants to have complete control over you and who is jealous of your ability to create music.
    Do not let the drunken guest trick you into letting yourself be controlled by a jealous person who wants you to fulfill their life and make them laugh…I did not say happy because many people in this context have had their happiness plug pulled…and they, just like the drunken guest, want to be amused.

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