Road to Ithaca

I’ve always wanted to be a star. A famous writer that sells millions of books. A musician playing beautifully for tens of thousands. A winner of trophies that were impossibly hard to get. Stardom meant to be loved, successful, to have arrived at the top, where what I did was excellent, and I would finally be good enough. Alternatively, I would settle for a Nobel Prize or a Pulitzer, or approaching the spiritual depth of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

Getting started towards excellence takes talent or inclination, parents pushing in the right direction, or simple curiosity to embark on a journey. Moving forward takes practice. Lots of it. Hours and years and mountains of it. With practice, improvement is inevitable, and with practice done right(1), noticeable progress never stops. Sounds good, right?

Actually “making it” takes a lot more than that. In fact, so much more, that I will present these qualities in list form.

  • Passion. A deep burning, lasting passion. The kind of passion most people desire for their marriage and only a few ever experience for more than a few years. Passion that overarches setbacks and hardships, that sits so deep that you would have to rip out the soul to destroy it. Passion that lasts for a lifetime.
  • Single-minded dedication towards the Holy Grail that will overcome obstacles and refuses to be moved by tears. The willingness to leave everything else at the wayside when necessary. This may sometimes turn into …
  • Sacrifice. This does not need explanation.
  • Inspiration. We know it when we experience it. It’s what makes a piece of music that we’ve heard a thousand times sound brand new when it’s played by Isaac Stern.
  • Faith. An unshakeable faith in one’s own ability to get there. Believing one is worthy and able to complete the journey. A faith so strong it overcomes the sleepless nights of doubt, the inevitable setbacks, and the scathing reviews of the critics.
  • Finally, making it takes what we call “social skills”. The word “skills” implies that this can be learned, which to some extent is true. “Social techniques” can certainly be learned—connecting with people, relaxed conversation, knowing the right way to converse with anyone; but mostly, it’s about being confident of one’s own right to take up as much space as the next person—and then some.

Last November I put my guitar away, abandoning my daily practice, and all my dreams of ever being a respected musician. Exactly because of focused, sustained, and serious daily practice it had become very clear to me that while over the course of another ten years, I might achieve some level of technical competence, I do not have what it takes to get beyond playing by myself in my living room. I do not have any of the qualities in the list above. (2)

You may say, like many others, “Why don’t you play just for your own enjoyment?”

I do, sometimes. I do not play well enough to “just play.” I do not play well enough—both technically as well as socially— to play with other people, which would be my greatest enjoyment. And it’s really, really hard to admit that your dreams are just … dreams … and then let go of them without bitterness.

Tonight I was driving to my Tae Kwon Do class. I am not particularly good at that either, but I figure, if I keep going at it, eventually, I’ll get a black belt, even if it will take me longer than anyone else. It would be awesome to become a Master of Basics some day, but that’s not why I go to class. I go to class because I love the practice, my amazing teacher, and my wonderful classmates.

My next thought? “I miss guitar practice.”

I miss the ritual of sitting down and tuning my instrument, enjoying the increasing accuracy of my pitch. I miss choosing a piece of music or a song and figuring out how to play it. There is nothing like the process of going from “this is impossible” to getting a few bars of “this is what it’s meant to sound like”. I love just playing scales, slow and a bit faster, stringing the notes, and then make up my own scales and patterns and taste their tension and release. Scales are one of the great achievements of humanity.

I love the Road of practicing music, but there is no Road to Ithaca(3) without an Ithaca to arrive at. What I have to write on my forehead is that the only thing that’s important about Ithaca is that it exists. I don’t think I have yet chosen the right Ithaca to travel towards.


(1) The Art of Daily Practice by Nicholas Tozier

(2) I do not have these qualities in writing either, yet write for a living. I love writing, and I am good at it. The qualities are for going beyond that.

(3) The Road to Ithaca by C.P. Cavafy