Feather & Flint

Why I Don’t Regret Walking Away from the Career I Thought I Wanted

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February 12, 2017 59 Comments 3 Photos

If I were to let the book of my personal history fall open to the final days of 2008, you would likely find me seated at an upright piano in a closet-sized practice room deep inside of Berklee College of Music, poring over sheet music late into the night. Or, quite possibly, I was perched in the window of my dorm room, my forehead pressed to the cold glass as I watched the snow fall silently onto the roofs of downtown Boston, piecing my thoughts together into the lyrics of a new song.

I remember the year that I discovered songwriting. As an eight-year-old, while waiting for the bus in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, I would compose songs about whatever caught my eye—mourning doves perched precariously on the telephone wires above my head, or tiger lilies wilting in the sunlight, leaning over the steps down to the street. I would come up with rhymes and melodies until I heard the bus roar around the corner. I filled pages and pages with pieces of stories and songs whenever inspiration struck; I kept a tape recorder next to my bed for nights when I would awake with a melody or set of lyrics running through my head. And gradually, as I grew older, these simple songs turned into more detailed expressions of my thoughts. At thirteen, I learned to play the guitar, and my first full-length song came about shortly thereafter, following the first heartbreak of my teen years (though certainly not the last).

At the same time that I was discovering ways to manipulate words and music to authentically capture my most poignant experiences, I was finding my voice as a singer as well. What had always been a hidden pleasure of mine growing up became one of the most salient aspects of my identity as a teenager. My first public performance took place shortly after my fourteenth birthday; and a few months later, I co-founded my first band, which remained a huge part of my life until I left for college. I performed in every possible choral group that I could, all across the country; and an opera teacher helped me to discover facets of my voice that I otherwise would never have accessed. I continued to perform as a solo artist throughout high school, testing out my original songs on various audiences and learning first-hand how to be a professional musician through countless performances and the occasional embarrassing, humbling moment. Each time, what kept me going was the enormous amount of positive feedback and support that I received from the community that surrounded me.

By the time that I started seriously researching colleges, I had begun to consider studying music full-time. It quickly became apparent that if I wanted to pursue a career in contemporary music, there was only one option: Berklee College of Music. To attend a conservatory would require ceasing to study anything besides music, which was a sacrifice that I didn’t fully think through at the time. My parents and I argued about my future plans at least once a week for the entire year before I was to audition for admission to the program. My father had been a professional musician, and he tried to impress upon me the impracticality of receiving a degree in music, especially as someone who had shown promise in many other areas. However, he had raised me to be independent and strong-willed, and so I dug in my heels and refused to consider any other options. I would only listen to evidence that strengthened what I had already decided was best for me.

I visited Berklee in September of 2007 and can still recall the incredible excitement that percolated inside of me when I first saw the hundreds of students crossing Massachusetts Avenue, instrument cases in hand. I had never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be a part of that community. After returning home, I applied at the earliest possible date, and then returned to Boston to audition on December 1. For weeks leading up to that day, I had panic attacks and lost days’ worth of sleep trying to decide what to sing and ruminating about whether the auditioners would be as excited about me as I was about Berklee. But I remember that once I crossed the threshold to the room where the auditioners were seated, waiting to meet me, I was suddenly filled with a sense of peace. I sang my favorite Joni Mitchell song while my father accompanied me on the piano, then performed an original piece with my guitar. Throughout the audition, I felt a sense of certainty that if I was meant to attend Berklee, then things would inevitably work out.

Exactly two months later, in the middle of a choral festival, I received my letter of acceptance via a friend’s iPhone; my entire chorus erupted into an outburst of spontaneous celebration in response, halting the production for several elated minutes.

That August, I moved to Boston, and college began.

——

My first year at Berklee was one of the most difficult periods of my life, in every aspect. I quickly realized that I had always relied entirely on raw talent; but suddenly, I was surrounded by thousands of people who were equally talented but worked much harder than I did, or who were just plain better than I was. This was the consequence of attending a highly selective conservatory: Once the flattery and giddiness of being accepted had worn off, the reality of being in direct competition with the top ten percent of up-and-coming musicians in the world quickly sank in, leaving my sense of who I was and what I was good at extremely vulnerable.

I could barely read music and knew only the very basics of music theory, but I had an unusually good ear, and so I was mistakenly placed into courses that were much too advanced for me. I convinced myself that the hours that I had to spend preparing for each class, and the intense anxiety and amount of tears that this caused, were worth the prestige of being in higher-level classes as a first semester student. I continued to deny the reality of the situation to protect my self-esteem, even as my teachers were telling me that I wasn’t advanced enough to be in their classes. I pushed through, working hard to prove everyone wrong by just barely scraping by, even as I was falling apart emotionally.

On top of everything else, the severe stress that I was experiencing resulted in a host of health problems, including a terrible bout of acid reflux that ruined my voice for the majority of my first two semesters. This took away the one thing that made me feel like I deserved to attend the best contemporary music school in the world, and it damaged my belief in my own talent beyond repair.

The silver lining to my harrowing first year of college was that I truly developed my abilities as a songwriter. I found that I could rely on songwriting as a way to manage my overwhelming emotions, as well as to continue making music without having full use of my voice. My songs became much more sophisticated in the course of that year, both musically and lyrically, as a function of being surrounded by talented songwriters; learning so much about the fundamentals of music and the components of great songs; and having highly complex emotions that needed to be processed and dealt with somehow. About the relationship that I was dealing with during that time and the way that the songs helped me through, I wrote, “I feel that I should thank you, ‘cause I’ve always been polite/For breaking every promise you ever made/And for all the songs you gave me, I never dreamed that I would write/There’s one for every night you should have stayed,” and “This song is for myself, I’ll keep it for my own for the very first time/To wrap around me like a blanket on the loneliest nights.” I started to take all of the words that I couldn’t say to the person who had hurt me so terribly and set them to music, turning all of the despair that I felt into something tangible that I could perform and feel proud of.

The love and skill that I discovered within myself for songwriting got me through the next year of school, but the straw that broke the camel’s back came at the end of my fourth semester. I had been doing well in my classes and had found a few teachers who saw my potential and provided me with the encouragement that I craved. I decided to apply for the Berklee Achievement Scholarship, the one funding opportunity available to continuing students, which I felt like I had a real shot at attaining. I spent months recording and arranging songs that I had written; obtaining more than the required amount of letters of recommendation; and emphatically writing and editing essays for my portfolio, only to receive an email in the middle of finals week notifying me that I hadn’t received any funding. After four semesters of being criticized constantly and never feeling good enough in the area that I had sacrificed so much to pursue full-time, it felt like the message was finally getting through: “This isn’t the right place for you.”

I got through my exams somehow and traveled back to Pennsylvania for Christmas, where I spent the next month trying to articulate to my parents the reservations that I felt about finishing my degree at Berklee. The conversation continued all the way back to Massachusetts. On the final night of winter break, before he drove back to Pennsylvania alone, my father and I sat down to dinner at a seafood restaurant on a cold, deserted Cape Cod. Oddly, as I tried to explain to him the dread that I felt about returning to school, nearly a hundred clowns arrived for dinner in full regalia and occupied every other table in the restaurant. As I fought back tears while describing my feelings of total failure as a musician, all around us, clowns were making balloon animals, depressing whoopee cushions, and shooting balloons across the room, making for a very strange evening indeed.

That night, my father dropped me off in front of my dorm, and it took all of my willpower to resist the urge to throw my bags back into the car and return to the place where I had grown up to lay low for a while and lick my wounds. I was still trying to convince myself that despite everything that I felt, the blame was on me for not working hard enough or having enough talent, rather than the possibility that somewhere out there, there might have been a better life for me.

——

I remember the day that the revelation came to me that there might be another way. I was looking out of the window of my traditional harmony class onto the gray winter streets as the snow began to fall. As my mind drifted away from the lecture, the thought occurred to me: “I can transfer to another school.” I was suddenly filled with a level of invigoration that I hadn’t felt since I had first moved to Boston. As soon as the class ended, I took a shortcut through an alley to get back to my room as quickly as possible to start researching my options. I didn’t know what I wanted to study or where, but suddenly the world was rife with opportunity.

I toyed with multiple possibilities for my life during those months, conceptualizing each potential future as branches on a gargantuan tree, where each option had the potential to set me off on a completely different trajectory. I felt revitalized by the vast emptiness and mystery of the future that had opened up in front of me. I knew that music would always occupy a permanent, non-negotiable place in my heart, and that it needed to remain a part of my life in order for me to feel fulfilled. However, ultimately, it was time to acknowledge that I was not cut out for a career as a full-time musician, and that I had to give myself a chance to pursue all of the other things that I had always loved in order to find my true passion. I needed a career where working hard would be correlated with success, rather than having a future that relied far more on luck than on talent, and where I didn’t need positive affirmations from those around me on a near-constant basis in order to survive.

I ultimately enrolled at UMass Boston, which allowed me to stay in the city that I had come to love and where I had made some truly significant connections in the previous two years. As soon as my first semester at UMass began, I found myself excelling in a way that I hadn’t in years; I realized my intelligence and potential in areas besides music for the first time in so long. I immediately fell in love with my psychology and sociology classes and decided to pursue a dual major, finishing my degree exactly two years after I started, and a master’s degree at Brandeis the following year.

——

More than anything, this experience taught me the importance of being honest with myself about who I really am, as well as the person that I will never be. Deciding to give up on a glamorous but unrealistic dream that I had had for a long time and to completely start over from scratch was extremely difficult; however, I never really doubted that I was doing the right thing for myself.

I went to Berklee’s commencement ceremony in 2012 to see one of my best friends graduate, and I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that had I stayed on the course that I had set for myself four years earlier, I would be walking across that stage as well. As I listened to the speakers address my former classmates, I let myself mourn the collapse of my grandiose plans for a few minutes, wondering if I would have had a real shot at a career as a singer/songwriter had I stayed at Berklee. But then, one by one, I remembered all of the things that I have to be thankful for that I could never have achieved had I continued to live a life that was not true to who I am, and then spent the rest of the day focusing on the accomplishments of my best friend. And one month later, she sat in the audience at UMass Boston with my family as I walked across the stage and, grinning from ear to ear, accepted my diploma.

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59 Comments

  1. Reply

    The Cornish House

    February 13, 2017

    I too walked away from a career I thought I wanted and had studied hard for. It took me ten years to do it, but once I did, I felt a great release. The world is your oyster. Do what you love.

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 13, 2017

      Wow – that’s amazing. Thank you so much for sharing that! I definitely feel like walking away from something that’s making you unhappy in the moment makes so much more sense in retrospect, once you’re in a happier place!

  2. Reply

    Jennifer Enoch

    February 13, 2017

    Your writing is beautiful and has such a wonderful flow. It’s interesting how we can be so sure of something, but once we dig in, we can no longer see ourselves in it. And what a wonderful blessing that you had that revelation moment. Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 15, 2017

      Thank you so much, Jennifer–what a lovely comment! It means a lot to me that you think so highly of my writing–thanks for taking the time to say so! And it’s so true that sometimes, we make decisions that we think will make us happy, and we then realize years later that we were thinking far too much about the opinions of other people, and too little about who we really are.

  3. Reply

    adeyemisi betty bethel

    February 14, 2017

    4 years back, I walked away from doing something I loved, cus I wanted to please my dad… right now I regret it so much but it’s never too late to go back yea?…. thanks for sharing…

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 15, 2017

      I think we all make at least one big decision in our lives to please someone else, and realize later that it wasn’t right for us… but in the meantime, we learn so many things about ourselves and end up on a different road that may end up being better.

  4. Reply

    Sara - My Indie Life Blog

    February 14, 2017

    It can be rally hard walking away from something you thought you wanted to for so long, so I can empathise with how you were feeling.

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 15, 2017

      It really is so hard to be honest with yourself about the person you’re never going to be, but I think it’s the only way to end up in a life that’s true to who you are.

  5. Reply

    Alex

    February 14, 2017

    What a beautifully redemptive story. Totally worth the click-through. I loved reading about your challenges and overcoming.

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 15, 2017

      Thank you so much, Alex–I truly appreciate that!!

  6. Reply

    nicole steinthal

    February 14, 2017

    Thank you for sharing this….what a hard decision to make but it seems like it was for the best!!!!!!!! I am looking forward to following your journey!!!!!! You are going on to do other great things!!!!!!

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 15, 2017

      Thank you so much, Nicole–I truly appreciate your enthusiasm!! So sweet of you 🙂

  7. Reply

    Anonymous

    February 14, 2017

    Sometimes walking away is one of the hardest things you can do. Thanks for sharing your story, I’m sure it will help others struggling to decide which path is right for them.

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 15, 2017

      It really is–it’s one of those things that doesn’t make sense until years later, when you’re in a happier place and can see how you needed to endure the difficult times to get to where you are. I hope it does help someone else to feel justified in making a decision that’s right for them, even if it feels like an uphill battle! Thank you 🙂

  8. Reply

    Sarah Jean althouse

    February 14, 2017

    I thought I wanted to be reporter but ended up walking away after I didn’t go as far as I wanted and the pay was rough. It ended up pushing me into a career in Communcations I do love!

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 15, 2017

      That’s awesome, Sarah–good for you!! I think we make people feel like they should pursue what they love, regardless of how little it pays… but it’s really hard to enjoy your job when you’re struggling to make ends meet or working crazy hours day and night. It is so important to take practical matters into consideration when choosing a career, and I think we need to teach people that BEFORE they choose a college!

  9. Reply

    Emily

    February 14, 2017

    It’s really wonderful to hear your story – I think a lot of people face a similar dilemma at some point or another. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 15, 2017

      Thanks, Emily! I do think it’s something everyone faces at one point or another–if not several times in their lives. It’s important to look back once in awhile and realize just how far you’ve come, even if it seemed impossible at the time!

  10. Reply

    Divya

    February 14, 2017

    Ahhhh, this is exactly what I needed to read today. Though I’m walking away from it temporarily, it just helps to know that no matter which path I take, it’s going to be the right one.

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 15, 2017

      I’m so glad this post found you at the right time, that makes me so happy! It’s true–I think we trick ourselves into thinking that there’s only one right path for each of us, forgetting that humans are incredibly resilient and can honestly make the best of any situation. We all incur setbacks or make the wrong choice once in awhile, but you’re right–it doesn’t doom your entire existence. You just find a different path to where you’re meant to end up.

  11. Reply

    Ana@CelebratingSunshine

    February 15, 2017

    Your writing is beautiful and your story is so inspiring! Thank you for sharing it with us. Looking forward to reading more.

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 15, 2017

      Thank you so much, Ana–that means a lot! Can’t wait to hear what you think of my future posts! 🙂

  12. Reply

    Kristin

    February 15, 2017

    It’s far more important to love what you do and be happy in your career than to just stay the course you were “supposed” to be on.

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 15, 2017

      It’s so true–it’s the best when you find a way to do what you love AND make a living at it. It’s always a balance. Thanks, Kristin!

  13. Reply

    Jessica Peresta

    February 15, 2017

    This is such a great post! I love that you are musical and pursuing a music degree! We should connect!

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 15, 2017

      Thank you, Jessica! Absolutely, shoot me a friend request! 🙂

  14. Reply

    Sarah Prince

    February 15, 2017

    I’m reaching the point where I want to walk away from my day job. But I’m the sole provider and can’t just up and quit. So I’m working my ass off in the background trying to build a business.

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 15, 2017

      Hi Sarah! Oy, I was there a few months ago, and it’s what motivated me to start my blog on the side–so at least if I couldn’t control my day job, I could use my free time toward something that made me feel excited and motivated and in control. Luckily, I ended up finding a much better job–so while it’s a lot of work to do that during the day and the blog at night, I get to do what I love all day and all night. I hope the same for you!!

  15. Reply

    Lia

    February 15, 2017

    Thank you for sharing this! It’s such a powerful story! I too walked away from something that wasn’t making me happy. It took me a year to realize that but once I did I felt completely free and happy. Now I don’t regret it not even a bit but I remember how hard it was for me to walk away for that thing I worked so hard on! It’s worth it!

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 16, 2017

      Hi Lia! It is so hard to walk away from something that you’ve invested time, energy, hard work, or money into – to the point where there’s a known mental tendency called the “sunk cost fallacy.” It always feels worse to give up when you feel like you’re wasting resources that you’ve already spent, even if continuing down the wrong road will cause you to lose more. We should all be a little more willing to question our circumstances once in awhile, I guess!

  16. Reply

    Eugenia

    February 16, 2017

    What a wonderful post, love your writing style! I think you never know what’s going to happen until you try! I’m so happy that you’re pursuing a music degree!

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 16, 2017

      Thank you so much, Eugenia – that really means a lot to me! It’s true, you really don’t know what will end up being right for you without trying things out – both for better or for worse!

  17. Reply

    Jennifer

    February 16, 2017

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, it isn’t always easy walking away from dreams. God bless you

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 16, 2017

      Thank you so much for reading, Jennifer – I really appreciate it! 🙂

  18. Reply

    Neha kumari

    February 16, 2017

    Even i change my career to blogging and i am glad i did. I think this is what i wanted to ever so.

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 16, 2017

      That’s awesome, Neha – good for you!

  19. Reply

    Abbey

    February 16, 2017

    I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but after 2 years, I “retired” to become a homemaker and now a soon-to-be stay-at-home mom. I love it! I think it’s totally okay to try out opportunities and then change your mind! 🙂

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 16, 2017

      Hi Abbey! I totally agree – I think that what keeps a lot of people in unhappy situations (and from trying things out in the first place!) is shame. We don’t want other people to think less of us because we give up, even if we’re miserable or failing in our current situation – it somehow seems worse if we admit it by walking away from it and trying something new. But I think we all deserve better than to get stuck in unhappy situations for fear of what other people will think – especially because people are a lot more empathetic than we expect a lot of the time!

  20. Reply

    candy

    February 16, 2017

    I walked away from a career many, many years ago. I have not regretted it once. Follow what your head and heart tell you to do.

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 16, 2017

      Thank you, Candy! You’re so right – it’s honestly harder deciding to leave than it is to actually leave, especially because exploring new things after being unhappy for a long time can be so liberating! It’s good to remind ourselves of that once in awhile!

  21. Reply

    Becca @ Homemakers In Action

    February 18, 2017

    This is so perfect for me right now. I am in the midst of leaving the career I thought I wanted, and it is terrifying but it also feels so right.

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 18, 2017

      I’m so glad that this post found its way to you at the right time – that’s exactly what I hoped for when I wrote it! I think we all owe it to ourselves to be honest about what really makes us happy, even if it isn’t always an easy path to get there. And I also think we owe it to each other to tell honest stories about how we got to where we are, because we all face setbacks and difficult decisions, and hearing others’ stories can make all the difference. Good luck to you!!

  22. Reply

    Julia

    February 18, 2017

    Kudos to you for being able to change directions! I’m kinda in a similar spot right now, and I’m currently looking to go back to school to make my career change!

    • Reply

      Robin

      February 18, 2017

      Thank you so much, Julia! That’s exciting but scary–can’t wait to hear how it goes!!

  23. Reply

    Anonymous

    February 18, 2017

    Stay tuned?! I was so intrigued with your story. Can’t wait to hear how it all ended up. It’s so crazy how you think you know it all and think you know what you want. I always end up in places in my career that I never imagined I would end up.

    • Reply

      Robin

      March 1, 2017

      Thank you for taking the time to read my story! It’s true, sometimes the best stories are the ones where the ending is unexpected – makes it all the more gratifying when it works out well!

  24. Reply

    Riely

    February 18, 2017

    I’m interested in hearing how it all works out. I know for myself I have always ended back in positions in my career that I never imagined for myself. But it’s always important to be happy with wherever you are. Good luck! Hope to hear the rest of your story soon.

    • Reply

      Robin

      March 1, 2017

      Thank you, Riely! It’s true – even if you’re not where you ultimately want to be, it’s so important that we all find ways to enjoy our day-to-day life.

  25. Reply

    Sophi

    February 21, 2017

    This is something you have done right in your life. I worked at many corporates but could not work efficiently hence I left the jobs and started traveling since 2008. and I am traveling happily ever since!

    • Reply

      Robin

      March 1, 2017

      Well, THAT sounds nice! I hope to be able to say the same someday 🙂

  26. Reply

    Matt - Travel Tales

    February 21, 2017

    Thanks so much for sharing this! Good on you for being true to yourself and for giving it a shot!

    • Reply

      Robin

      March 1, 2017

      Thank you so much, Matt – I really appreciate that!

  27. Reply

    Rain | Words and Wanderlust

    February 21, 2017

    Wow! this has the makings of a really good narrative. You are a good storyteller! Will follow! 🙂

    • Reply

      Robin

      March 1, 2017

      Thank you so much – that’s so sweet, I truly appreciate that 🙂

  28. Reply

    Tahna de Veyrat

    February 21, 2017

    It’s nice that you did dive in though. You would have been forever wondering if you didn’t. It pays to be strong-willed.

    xoxo,

    tahna
    UrbanPonder.com

    • Reply

      Robin

      March 1, 2017

      You’re so right, Tahna – I do think I would have always wondered what I could have achieved had I gone all-in. Sometimes it’s just as important to know what you’re not meant to do as it is to figure out what you are meant to be doing!

  29. Reply

    Chelsea

    February 21, 2017

    I’m always relieved hearing that we have more things in common with others than we think. It makes us feel less out of place and understand that we all have “life” that we have to figure out. I like when you wrote about going to school and realizing that you no longer can just use your talent. It is more work than you expected. I have felt that way before and totally understand how overwhelming it can be knowing that you have to “compete” with many others. Thank you for being so open and honest!

    • Reply

      Robin

      March 1, 2017

      Thank you so much for reading, Chelsea – I really appreciate your comment! It’s so true that for so many of us, the fun gets taken out of our creative passions when we have to start competing with others. That’s why I’m such a huge proponent of the “community over competition” philosophy – we can all find what we’re meant to be doing and exercise our talents alongside each other!

  30. Reply

    Sarah

    March 4, 2017

    I had a similar experience with theater. I went on to study poetry and psychology instead, and now I’m in the healthcare field doing my Masters. Life’s pretty crazy and following your heart is simpler said than done, but when something’s not making you happy the best thing to do is evaluate why and change what you can control – just like you did!

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