Last weekend, I opened for an artist I liked at a concert on campus. She came with an entourage: a manager, a guitarist, a pianist and a few other “-ists” and “-ers” with years of experience and talent. Soon after we finished our sets and the instruments were packed up into rent-a-cars, I found myself at a party in Collegetown with the musical team and a number of my friends.
After an hour or two of gyrating in circles to the resident DJ’s set-list of Drake songs, the group needed a new way to pass the time. I wandered into a side room to find the drummer, Ralph, knee deep in a passionate conversation with a friend of mine. In reality, it was less of a conversation and more of a monologue, but by the look on my friend’s face it was worth a listen regardless. I sat with the two of them to join the fun.
Ralph was telling his life story. Apparently, he approached my friend and asked her if she wanted to hear something that would “blow her mind,” and now here they were, an hour later, maybe halfway through the narrative.
Ralph talked about learning the drums in the third grade, getting kicked out of a music program as a teenager for sassing a teacher, leaving college and somehow becoming an all-star drummer who travels around the country to play for acts like Noname and Chance the Rapper. It was clear that he loved his career and where it was going. Each week he was in a different city, telling a different girl in her twenties how he rose through the ranks of the Chicago music scene.
As I listened to the story, I got the sense that in the back of his mind, Ralph always wanted to be a professional musician. That said, he never expected that he’d have to get kicked out of a music program and be forced to withdraw from college to get there. It took a decade of ups and downs and a few fits of depression to get him where he is today, and a similar set of turbulent times await him on his journey to his next big goal: playing at Madison Square Garden.
In college, there’s a big temptation to consider every failure in our lives to be evidence that we’re falling behind. But every time I talk to someone who’s tasted even the crumbs of their childhood dreams, I hear the same reverberating message: the trek is always tainted.
Because we have put-together friends with top jobs, impressive abilities and satisfying relationships, we often forget that everybody’s got either a few big slip ups in their past, a few in their future, or both.
But that’s how it should be. And we all know it.
For those of us who aren’t yet where we aim to be, Ralph has a bit of advice. He explained it to my friend and me in a story.
Ralph has a close family member who plays college basketball. He’s an incredible player, and one of the highest scorers on his team, but he’d be even better if he quit smoking weed as often as he does. “I told him,” said Ralph, “you gotta give yourself the best possible opportunity to succeed. And he isn’t doing that.”
Driving home at two in the morning, I thought about whether I’m giving myself the best possible opportunity to succeed. As I considered it, I came to an obstacle: I had to first decide what “success” even means to me. I need to know what I want.
I once read a book called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller, and in it, there was a quote I’ve remembered for years. In a brief discussion about Star Wars, the author noted:
“if I pause the DVD on any frame, I could point toward any major character and say exactly what that person wanted. No character had a vague ambition. It made me wonder if the reasons our lives seem so muddled is because we keep walking into scenes in which we, along with the people around us, have no clear idea what we want.”
Maybe there’ll always be a degree of ambiguity and malleability to my life. But I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt to spend a bit more time thinking about what I want. If I have a good idea of what success looks like in a given situation, I’ll be able to determine whether I’m working towards it or against it. And I’m sure that’ll come in handy.
So, thanks Ralph.
Paul Russell is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Russelling Feathers appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.