Do You Try Hard Enough?

I recently had an experience that taught me a valuable life lesson, and I thought I would share. 

I am sure many of you have had an experience where you worked really hard on a project.  Think back to your school days where you turned a project into your teacher and then upon receiving it back into your hands – you notice red ink all over it.  Your heart momentarily sinks, your eyes stare as it all just turns into a blur, and yet somehow the big red letter grade manages to stand out on the page as if it had neon lights blinking at you.  You flip through the pages of your project and at the end you see a few notes that your teacher wrote to you:  “Little Timmy, while it seems like you did try on this project, I believe that you could have tried harder.” 

You look up and think to yourself, “But I did try!”  The words of your teacher keep repeating over and over in your mind, as if they were the only words in the English language that your mind knew how to think.  Shock turns to tears of sadness, then to anger and then… 

Then you stop.  

You look up and all of a sudden realize that the frustration you are feeling inside is not because you feel justified in your own defense, but because your conscience knows that your teacher is right. And then you let go of your pride, and through the most honest humility you admit to yourself, “It’s true, I could have tried harder.”  

I recently had my music reviewed and critiqued by someone I greatly admire and respect; Someone whom, through years of education and experience, completely deserves the admiration and success he has attained. 

Here I come along, being someone who came from a background of being called one of those child music prodigies, had been performing since I was 5 years old, played and studied classical music all my life, went to college, performed with symphonies, won competitions, taught music for several years, yadda, yadda, yadda.  And then, one day upon realizing I could also compose – decide to make a CD. 

I work very hard on this project, and after many months (actually 2 years) of hard work – I release an album.  Friends and family cheer, fans line up to buy it, people are telling me how wonderful it is and how talented I must be – and after all my 29 years of living I’m feeling pretty good about what I accomplished. 

And then I get my “project” back from the “teacher”.  THE teacher, the one whom over anyone else I care about what they think. 

At first I assume that because everyone else has given me accolades, that so will he!  But then reality hits, and I realize that this particular person is going to be honest, is going to be hard on me, and will eventually push me to do better than I ever thought I could before. 

Shock turned to tears of sadness, then to anger….and then I stopped. And I realized that this person had a valid point. In fact, he had many valid points!  He had some words of wisdom that really struck a chord inside of me. And though he did have many good things to say to me as well, after all that he had to say and counsel, he ended with:  “Jennifer, I’m not saying you aren’t trying, I’m saying you could try harder.” 

I’ve pondered these words over and over during these past several days. Could I have tried harder?  Did I put my entire soul into it?  And then I started to ask those questions to myself regarding other aspects of my life – challenges I face and goals that I have – how do I approach them?  Do I give it my all or do I just do enough to pass the grade? 

I did try hard on my project – countless nights of no sleep, 16 hour days in the studio, etc.  Pages of manuscript paper, editing, tweeking, practicing. I did try.  And I’m proud of the work I did. 

But even I know that I am capable of more.  And it’s not often that you find someone who can give you the gift of honesty and do it in a way that inspires and motivates instead of tearing you down.   I’ve never been more inspired or motivated as I have since receiving this critique.  A few of his words keep repeating in my head: “I warn you that I am going to be tough on you, but the ONLY reason I am going to be tough on you is that I think you are very gifted.” 

I don’t know of a single person in this business who has never received negative critique about their art.  It’s impossible.  Just as the saying says: “You can’t please all of the people all of the time, you can only please some of the people some of the time.” 

Thus is the nature of music.  And it does hurt when you meet someone like that – but if it’s something you’re passionate about – it’s supposed to hurt.  The key is deciphering between those who are clumsily throwing out opinions your way, and those who believe in you and want to see you succeed. 

And once in a while, through all of the good and bad that come your way, you do meet someone who is actually trying to help you to be a better artist – because they feel you have enough talent to take the time.  And then you grow as an artist and as you try, and try harder and put the utmost stretched, challenged, worked and tired part of yourself into something, as well as literally putting your heart and soul into it – you will then be able to peacefully declare: 

“I did try my hardest”.

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