8 things I learnt about success from my boss’s crazy hobby

About two years ago my boss (now ex-boss 😦 ) shocked us all by announcing that he was going to start violin lessons. We all thought he was crazy, because the violin is a notoriously difficult instrument to play and most master violinists were taught from a very young age. My boss was in his thirties at the time, so we were all a bit worried that he was going through an early midlife crisis. Despite our fears, he has stuck with it (though fortunately for us he has never made us listen to him playing).

Over the past few months I have spent more time with him and I have learnt a lot about achieving one’s goals, simply from seeing his attitude to playing the violin. This is what I learnt from my boss’s crazy hobby:

1) Keep your aim in sight

Staying motivated can be difficult if you get bogged down in the mundane day-to-day tasks it takes to get to your goal, but it is much easier if you keep your eye on the prize. If the only violin music my boss heard was his own practice sessions I think he would have quit long ago. Every day in his office, or in the car on his way to work, my boss listens to the masters playing renowned, complex, beautiful violin pieces. This reminds him why he loves the instrument and why he wanted to learn it in the first place, helping him to stay focused on what he is working towards.

2) Do your research

It helps to know what is involved in acquiring a specific skill or status before you get started. Being a lawyer might seem glamorous (especially if you’re a fan of Suits), but are you willing to put up with all the paperwork, processes, rules and long hours it takes to get there (let alone all of the above involved in the simple day-to-day of the job)?

Image courtesy of Iamnee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Iamnee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My boss didn’t simply go out and buy a violin the day he decided to start playing. Okay, actually I think it did go something like that at first. But now that he has been playing for a while and got the basics right, he is planning to upgrade to a proper antique violin (literally a super-old violin), because they apparently produce a richer sound. That is, they do if they were high quality instruments to begin with. As it is a serious investment in an instrument that my boss will likely be playing for the rest of his life (let’s not start on the intimate relationships musicians have with their instruments), he is investigating the different options and brands of violins, the different types of bow, the different string materials and all sorts of violin accessories. Make sure you know what you want to achieve and how to get there before you start something, or you just might realise halfway through that you don’t want to finish it.

3) Immerse yourself in it

My boss doesn’t just practise every day, attend lessons twice a week and occasionally listen to a recorded piece of violin music. He also follows all the latest violin news, goes to live violin concerts and participates in violin communities and forums. I have seen my boss fangirling over celebrity violinists and making plans to fly halfway across the world just to watch a particular violinist perform with a particular orchestra. You will never learn to swim if you don’t get into the water. If you want to attain a certain goal, you should live and breathe it.

4) The obvious way isn’t necessarily the best way

A phenomenon I found fascinating when my boss mentioned it to me is that the same piece of music sounds completely different when performed by different musicians. The notes are the same, the instruments are the same and the tempo is the same, but somehow one master violinist makes it sound more emotive or stirring than another master violinist. They both perform the piece brilliantly from a technical point of view, but something is different.

Image courtesy of amenic181 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of amenic181 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To me, the obvious comparison is a song sung by one person that sounds completely different when sung by another. One of the only reasons I still watch Glee is that often their cover versions of songs are better than the original versions! You must discover your own way of playing your metaphorical violin. What works for someone else might not work as well for you.

5) Be disciplined and persevere

I suspect my boss’s violin teacher also thought he was going through a crisis phase and would give up the violin lessons after a few months, because the time to register for music exams came and went without the teacher making any mention of it. He only realised how serious my boss was about becoming a violin maestro when my boss made it very clear that he was working hard and expected to be challenged, make progress and write exams.

I used to play the saxophone as a teenager and I hated practising. It is awful playing scales over and over every day, especially at the beginning when you suck at it. When you are learning a piece of music and there is one specific part of it that you find particularly difficult, you have to practise that one part over and over and over again, so that your hands and your ears can develop a memory for it. It is the absolute worst to practise anything so repetitively, but when you get it right, the sense of accomplishment is worth it – and the skill you learn is usually transferrable to other similar tasks, activities or processes.

6) Be your own champion

Sometimes nobody cares about what you’re doing except you. If you really want something go and get it. Don’t worry if your friends and family (and employees) think you’re crazy. They don’t have to live with you or your dreams 24/7. At the end of the day you answer to yourself.

7) When you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere, look back at how far you’ve come

A few weeks ago my boss pulled out some pieces of music that he had learnt several months before. He found that he could now easily sight-read the same pieces that he had previously practised and struggled with for weeks!

Progress Definition Magnifier

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It is always best to start with the smallest, simplest form of anything new you are trying to learn. For example, if you want to learn a new language, you start with the sounds of the letters in the alphabet and the common sentence components, e.g. the subject, verb and object. As you get better at it, you move on to more complicated matter, like the past and future tenses, idioms and figures of speech. If you are doing this in isolation it can be quite disheartening, because you always feel like you are struggling and going around in circles. But when you stop and review what you have learnt since you started, you often realise that you have made good progress and are leagues ahead of where you were.

8) Try

Maybe you won’t become a grand master violinist. Or maybe you will. Maybe you will realise halfway through that you actually don’t want to live with a crooked neck and one shoulder that is bigger than the other. But if you don’t try, you will never know.

To my (ex)boss, if he reads this: Thank you for your leadership, guidance, inspiration, support, generosity, advice, insight and all the many lessons you taught me (including those I will never blog about, like why not to drink tequila shots while playing 30 Seconds with my colleagues near a swimming pool). I will miss our chats en route to the office and your presence there. All the best for your next big adventure. If you approach it like you do your violin-playing, I know it will be a magnificent success. With great love and respect, D

UPDATE: Minutes after this post went live my boss performed two violin pieces in front of us for the first time. He is pretty good. 🙂


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