The Gift of Being Middle Dog

Everyone wants to be top dog. Our collective image of “top dog” is one who is best in a given field and who therefore reaps the rewards. Plushest bed, meatiest bone, ‘such a good boy’ accolades. Our subjects may differ but the common goal is to be the best.

Succeeding at any goal requires this process: practice, try again, slowly progress, question your sanity, practice more, succeed at an interim goal, rage, rage against your shortcomings, improve, practice more, take another incremental step. Any worthwhile goal involves delayed gratification because it’s a marathon, not a sprint. (Unless you’re a sprinter. Then you still practice being a sprinter for many years.)

It was that way for me as a classical percussionist in my quest to win an audition for an orchestra. My timeline from first group lesson to hearing my name called as the winner was 17 years. It was a long and thrilling winding road. Along the way I hit milestones like getting accepted to Juilliard, concerto competition wins, and going to competitive summer festivals that made me think I was headed in the right direction. And there were many devastating potholes: brutal performance anxiety followed by an ulcer at 23; auditions I wasn’t even allowed to attend because my resume wasn’t good enough; knowing I’d played well at an audition, hearing positive comments from the other side of the screen, even nailing the sight reading, then not getting advanced to the finals.

One thing helped tremendously—I never had the pressure of being labeled “talented” or “naturally gifted” or “a natural.” After 3 months of 5th grade group lessons, our band director decided to rank us and placed me 2nd of 3. So right from the beginning I was given the gift of the anonymous middle. If no one’s paying attention to number 2 or numbers 3-12 or whatever, you are free to concentrate on what matters and what matters is the process. You not only lose everyone else’s expectations but the added weight of your own. You’re free to take side trips that might be fruitful. Learning a new snare drum grip at 25 was a frightful step backwards; I sounded like a beginner for a long time. But after many hours (and many months) it paid off: I could play better than I could play with the old grip.

The problem with being top dog is that people usually tell that to the dog. People like teachers, conductors, and audience members. If you believe your own press, your ego is invested in maintaining that status. Over the years I saw students like this, ones who were labeled as ‘talented.’ Some thrived and achieved their goals. Others became overly afraid of failure. They didn’t want to ask the simple questions—the crucial ones that lead to understanding a fundamental concept—because then they might be mistaken for a beginner. The top dog is afraid to say, ‘I don’t know.’

If you’re told, right from the start that you’re the best, how does it feel to lose, even temporarily? It’s easy to get defensive to protect your ego because you have to put your energy toward maintaining that spot on the pedestal. It’s tempting to make excuses after not winning an audition: the committee was hungry, the room was too cold, I played last. Or these equally common ones: the committee had just eaten lunch, the room was too hot, I played first. These excuses may or may not have some validity but it’s detrimental to invest any energy in them. Protecting your ego is a distraction from the process. The only place to put your energy after a “failure” is to learn from it. And that’s another gift of not being “a natural.” “Talent”—by definition—is what you have before you start to work. If you have a setback but aren’t relying on talent to come back from it, you instead rely on the process of hard work.

It’s a gift to always see the word “failure” in quotes. Picture a graph on the wall charting the course of the S&P 500 from its inception in 1957 until today. You walk towards it until the only years in your field of vision are 2007-2009. What are you thinking? The stock market is a horrible place to put money and I’m an ass for having done so. Now take a few steps back and focus on the years 2009-2015. Suddenly, you’re a financial genius for your efforts. If you step back far enough, what you see from left to right is an upward trajectory, a great big mountain to climb. The only real failure then, is giving up somewhere along that path.

All musicians have heard these comments: You went to [insert music conservatory]? You must be talented. Or, I wanted to play [insert instrument] but I wasn’t talented enough. I smile when I hear these because—news flash—those features that we label ‘natural ability’ matter very little. Perfect pitch, the ability to learn music more quickly than others, having hands that are equally good instead of a left one that goes rogue and doesn’t want to improve at the same rate as the right—no one would say winning the genetic lottery isn’t an advantage. But if talent (in my made-up statistic) gives you a 20% advantage but you don’t work hard, you’ll be right at 20 meters when the winner crosses the tape. What matters most is passion for what you do. Passion gives you the drive to work impossibly hard in order to inch closer to your goal every day.

When you finally win, go ahead and curl up in your plush bed. Enjoy being the top dog for a while. Just until you pick a new goal.