7 Steps to Making Better Career Decisions

We’ve all gotten that call- a guy you’ve worked with in the past wants you to play a show with him. He paid you well, but was a little difficult to work with. What do you do?

Here's what I do when I’m trying make a tough career decision: 


1. Does this fit my long term goals? 


Most opportunities aren’t exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life. If you’re honest with yourself, it’s usually obvious whether an opportunity puts you closer to your ultimate goal or farther away. For instance, I regularly turn down high paying wedding gigs because they don’t match my longterm goals of becoming a producer and sideman. 


2. Does this make financial sense? 


If you’re a full time musician, you may end up playing a few shows or cutting a few records for mostly financial reasons. While you should never work on a project you don’t believe in at all, if the income from a job can give you more resources to pursue what you feel you’re called to do, there’s nothing wrong with that. 


3. What am I eliminating if I take this? 


Remember, there are always a cost to taking any gig: once you’ve said yes, you take all other gigs offers off the table for that date. A few years ago I signed on to play with a band for a 15 date tour. They guaranteed me a pretty good paycheck, and I was excited. The music wasn’t my favorite in the world, but was interesting to learn and fun to play. 


Midway through the tour, I got a call to play with a top 40 singer/songwriter that I’ve always admired. Unfortunately, every tour date conflicted with every tour date that the other band needed me for, and I had to turn down the offer. Remember, every yes is a no to dozens of other options. 


4. What am I gaining if I take this? 


This is a question few musicians think about when taking a gig. What aside from money am I gaining from this experience? Am I growing musically? Am I learning a different part of music I’m weak in? 


I played gigs for several years with a big band in St. Louis, and I completely sucked at it. The pay was pretty lousy (by pianist standards), and the songs were mind-bendingly hard. I stayed with the group for two years because I learned so much and grew tremendously. The pay may not have been great, but the education was invaluable. 


5. What does my gut tell me? 


So many musicians rely completely on their “gut feelings” about big decisions, which I believe is a huge mistake. As musicians, our “gut” are massively skewed by fear, bias, past bad experiences, jealously, and a host of other destructive emotions. 


If I’d completely relied on my gut emotions to make big decisions, I would have turned down every truly great opportunity I’ve been given because of the gut-wrenching fear that I feel every time I do something risky. Yes, take into consideration how your emotions are influencing your decisions, but don’t be afraid to overrule them with reason. 


6. Ask my mentors. 


Mentors are invaluable for the really big decisions in life, especially when you’re on the fence. Last year I was trying to decide if I should go out with a band for another tour, and I asked my friend Steve Grossman what he thought. We met up for coffee and I droned on for about a half an hour about how I was feeling emotionally about the decision. 


Steve listened patiently, then asked “is this really what you want to do long term?” It was the simplest question, and cut through all the emotional baggage I’d built up around the decision. Great counsel is invaluable, and an outsider’s perspective is worth it’s weight in gold (or lattes, in this case). 


7. Use an "act of providence" for really close calls. 


If no matter what you do you can’t find a resolution, create a “clause” situation with an opportunity. A few month’s ago I got an offer to play a gig, but I wasn’t sure it was the right thing for me at the time. I asked the guy to pay for my lodging and meals during the tour (he only offered lodging originally). I thought there was no chance that he’d do it, and I’d have an easy way to say no. He accepted, and we had a great tour together.