There’s No Ladder for Creative Success

‘Fulfilling your potential’ can be a self-defeating myth

Rachel Friedman
Forge
Published in
9 min readJan 3, 2020

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Illustration: Sammy Stein

FFrom a very early age, I had a Path. I was going to be an Artist. And who was an artist? She was fiercely talented, ambitious, and uncompromising. She bucked convention. Her emotions were deep and profound, and the world clamored for her to share them. Back then, making it as a professional violist seemed not only within reach but the inevitable outcome of all my hard work and big ambition.

For a while, I coasted along on natural ability, high on the gold-star stickers my music teacher bestowed each time I mastered a new song. It wasn’t until my first summer at Interlochen, an intense arts camp for kids, that I understood how much talent was out there in the world. Suddenly I was surrounded by truly phenomenal musicians, kids who practiced hours a day. I was no longer content merely to be good. The camp stoked in my 11-year-old self an ambition to achieve musical greatness.

The camp was (and still is) boot camp for creative kids. It’s where my friends and I learned just how committed we were to our callings. We musicians spent our days in auditions, orchestra rehearsals, sectionals, and private lessons, and if you were Serious, you sweltered several hours a day in one of the muggy practice huts scattered around the 1,200-acre pinewoods-covered campus. There were six auditoriums and around 500 performances throughout the summer.

Interlochen is where I really cultivated discipline. It is where I learned that an artist is always and forever practicing, that practice is the thread connecting one day to the next. I found this repetition liberating, as opposed to confining. Every morning I woke up knowing exactly what I needed to do.

In college, though, everything changed. At Interlochen, it had mostly been older kids who were better than me. In college, I was the weakest of the three freshman viola performance majors in my program. I spent four hours a day practicing, but I just couldn’t get better fast enough. In fact, the more anxious I was to improve, the worse I seemed to get.

I knew music school was supposed to weed people out. I’d just assumed it would be other weeds. And certainly not that I’d be the first to get yanked from the garden.

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Rachel Friedman
Forge
Writer for

Author of And Then We Grew Up: On Creativity, Potential, and the Imperfect Art of Adulthood and The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Lost.