Charlie Williams

TEDx: Never give up on quitting

TEDxWageningenUniversity | Charlie Williams

(Video forthcoming.)

Full text:


“Never give up.” “Believe in your dream.” “Give whatever it takes.” “Pick yourself up and keep trying.”

Our society, our parents, our teachers, our friends— our motivational posters— all tell us that the recipe for success— for a happy life— is simple.

First, identify a passion. The thing you feel most strongly about in the world.

Then, work as hard as you can. Until you succeed.

But my experience has been that we don’t really know what our interests— or passions— mean in practice, until we’ve tried them. Tried them in a serious way that takes dedication and commitment, and inevitably leads to those activities becoming part of our identity.

This makes it very difficult to take an objective look at what we’re doing, remember why we’re doing it, and decide whether we should keep going or change direction.

Let me give you an example from my life.

In 2001 I was starting my career as a classical pianist. I had left my industrial hometown in Wisconsin to attend Northwestern University. There I worked very hard, and won the university’s concerto competition.

From there I went to Russia to perform in the International Shostakovich Competition. There I won a prize for new music playing Frederic Rzewski’s piano piece #4. Here’s a clip of that piece.

You know, I could never really figure out Mozart. But that stuff? I loved it.

But I had a problem.

Having started to break into this field, I now had a better idea of what success looked like: I knew that to keep going— to find success— was to continue to mostly be alone in practice rooms, or else alone on stage.

For me, that wasn’t worth it. That success didn’t match up with the reasons why I started along this path. I wanted to find human connection, I wanted to engage with big ideas. I wanted to do things with other people, to work in teams to create something bigger than myself.

And so I quit.

And that was difficult— a “concert” pianist. That’s a sort of bar in people’s minds, you know: “oh, he’s a concert pianist”. It has a ring to it, doesn’t it? I had to let go of that identity in order to find out what I was going to do next.

In order to quit, in other words, it wasn’t just a matter of stopping practicing or performing. I had to quit thinking of myself as a pianist at all.

Now when I did this, I wasn’t on the brink of some cosmically successful career. I also wasn’t floundering and failing. I was in the thick of it, working my tail off, and… just needed to not focus my identity around this. At that point, quitting was just as hard as continuing.

I took some time off, I traveled. Through a series of coincidences, I auditioned, twice, to play keyboards for a pretty well-known pop band. Didn’t end up doing that.

I started my own band, I had been writing music and I figured this would be a good way to spread my musical ideas. That worked up to a point— I attracted and played with some really amazing musicians— but the band struggled because I hadn’t developed my leadership skills enough. I could get some people in a room, sure, but from there, a bandleader needs to have this special magic that makes everyone feel like they’ve been let into the most amazing opportunity, specifically suited for their talents. And I didn’t know anything about how to do that.

So I quit.

I was interested in writing film music, and also still held out hope for some kind of academic career. I took a job teaching music technology for a film scoring program at Columbia College in Chicago. Re-entering the academic world felt wonderful! And the program was great— lots of alumni have gone on to do fantastic work in Hollywood. For a few years it was great for me too, but then at a certain point it became like this holding pattern, where I wasn’t actually a film composer, and I wasn’t really doing serious academic work, either.

So I quit. And moved to England. (yeah, I was getting serious.)

I continued writing music. Mostly I wrote for piano plus some kind of technical element like electronic audio processing or algorithmic video projection. As I wrote piece after piece, my ideas progressed. That technical element developed more and more, to the point where I had to learn to write my own code in order to do the things I wanted to do artistically.

Now, up until that point, it had been very important to me that I make my living as an artist. I performed, I taught, I played weddings, I did whatever came up; but all of my income in one way or another came from being a musician, and I was very proud of that.

Until… it got a bit old. Always chasing the next gig, always promoting myself. I found myself thinking, you know, this software I’m writing, I hear that they pay people to write that.

So I quit being a composer too.

I got a master’s degree, and I started working at Shazam, as an app developer. There I built the animation where the app reacts visually to the music you’re listening to, as it identifies the title and artist of the track. Just after we released it, that screen was featured by Apple in an iPhone ad. In all, the very first professional software work I ever did was held in the hands of a few hundred million people. That was mind-blowing for me. I learned a huge amount about software development and I am proud of the work I did on that team.

You can’t give up on art that easily, though.

I found myself wanting to create on my own terms again— so I quit. And I made an app, a bit like Tinder, but just for cuddling. It was called Cuddlr. When it came out, it got a lot of media attention, lots of downloads… but before we could find investors willing to take the plunge and think outside the box with us on intimacy, we ran out of money.

So I quit. We shut down the app and later sold the company.

Now you might be wondering: is there anything this guy won’t quit? Does he just run away as soon as the going gets tough?

I think there’s something really interesting, though, looking back at the point when I finally decided to quit each of these things.

I wasn’t quitting because it was too hard. I wasn’t quitting because I failed. Sometimes, it was an objective realisation that something wasn’t working out. Often, though, I’d quit just after achieving a big goal that I’d had, like winning a competition or shipping an app. Sometimes, it was succeeding that allowed me to quit.

But for each of these, I came to a decision point. In pursuing my goal, I learned some things, and found some perspective that allowed me to see that goal in a new light. And that told me I needed to let go, and let something new develop in turn.

It’s easy for us to let success be like guard rails, keeping us fixed on the road we’ve chosen. We work hard, get a bit of success, and it feels like the only option is to keep going forward. Work more. Keep chasing more of that success.

And if what you’re doing right now feels like the truest possible expression of yourself, don’t let me get in the way— absolutely keep going with that.

But in my case, it didn’t feel like that. And it was the scariest, hardest thing I could do to quit and make space for something else.

You see, each time, I wasn’t quitting creativity. I wasn’t quitting being me. I wasn’t giving up— I was pruning an aspect of my identity that was keeping me from growing.

You might be wondering what I’m doing now.

I came here, to Wageningen, this summer to collaborate with researchers on creating a scientifically-inspired electronic visual artwork. It’s based on something in biology called mycorrhizae, which are like the internet of plants: They’re these symbiotic underground fungal pathways allowing trees in a forest to communicate and share resources with each other.

[Trigger video here]

Drawing on these ideas I created a network of biologically-inspired circuits, each one its own tiny computer, that blink and pulse patterns of lights. They are connected in a mesh network, and communicate with each other so that when one mutates its pattern, its neighbours can pick up on that and so you can see changes migrate across the colony.

Each organism has a circadian rhythm— like what tells your body to be awake in the day and asleep at night— so through the day you see it moving faster, brighter, and showing warmer colours, and then switching to slower movement, dimmer, cooler colours at night.

And it has no musical element. None.

This idea and process feel to me like the truest expression yet of what I can do, what ideas I can engage with, what I can create, what I can offer the world.

I wouldn’t have gotten here without facing down my fears… and quitting. Time and time again, stopping something that wasn’t quite right, in order to make space for something that was, not perfect, but a bit more right.

It was only by letting go of my identity as a musician that I could come to this identity as an artist. Only by finding the courage to give up on something central to my self, could I make space for something new to grow.

None of the things I did were wasted time: I used my skills as a pianist to play in bands. I used my skill writing accessible new music to score films. I used my music technology experience to learn to code, then I used my coding experience to create circuit art. Each thing fed into the next, even when I was radically shifting who I was and what I was doing.

So have I done it? Is this the endpoint of my journey? Have I arrived at the thing I’ll never quit?

The true, honest answer is: I have no idea.

It’s possible, but even if I keep pursuing this for the rest of my life, I’ll always be looking for elements of my identity that I can let go of; looking to make space for new growth.

Now to me, we can all be doing that. Ask yourself: can you let go of your identity as a meat-eater? As a vegan? Can you let go of your identity as a consumer? As a world traveler? As a VIP?… Maybe it's as simple as being someone who's always nice? Maybe it's having a fancy title that commands respect?

What’s holding you back from connection? What’s holding you back from growth?

As for me… I can’t wait to see what I’m going to quit next.

Thank you.

1,897 words / 11.5 min


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