“It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows.” - Epictetus
“If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.” - Adam Grant
The world of music is large, and ever-evolving. We have access to an immeasurable volume of knowledge, and we add to it every day as our understanding, tastes, and technology evolve. Navigating all of this material requires us to remain students for life; always learning, challenging ourselves, and following our curiosity wherever it takes us. Having this mindset will help us maintain long, fulfilling musical lives by keeping us excited about new information, inspiring us to remain open-minded, and allowing us to stay humble.
One of the major advantages of being a musician is how there is always something unknown to us that we can delve into. We can spend a lifetime studying and making music without ever having learned all there is to know. For some, this might seem overwhelming, and even disheartening—especially if they feel inclined to learn absolutely everything. But if you’re thinking like a student, understanding that you’ll never get it all done is thrilling. Music will never have to feel stale or predictable, because there will always be territory we haven’t explored yet.
Regardless of where we are on our musical journey, we want to retain this mentality—what is referred to in Zen Buddhism as a “beginner’s mind.” This is especially important as we improve and become better musicians. “It’s when we progress from novice to amateur that we become overconfident,” Adam Grant explains in his book Think Again. Being too confident in our comprehension and skills can make it difficult for us to take in new information, or challenge old ideas. What we want to have is what Grant calls “confident humility”: where we trust our capabilities while having the humility to understand we might not know everything. This keeps us open to asking whether we have the correct tools or solutions we need, and allows us to continue growing. As Ryan Holiday puts it in his book Ego is the Enemy: “The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better.” We can never be omniscient; acknowledging this will free you up to find potentially better insights from a variety of sources.
Being a perennial student will also help us keep our egos at bay. The ego can rear its ugly head whenever we feel insecure about our own playing, or musical output—leading us to adopt an inflated sense of superiority about what we know, and what we can do. All this does is make us fragile, setting us up for failure and dissatisfaction. We become more concerned with demonstrating what we can do, instead of focusing on getting better. As Adam Grant puts it: “It takes confident humility to admit that we’re a work in progress. It shows that we care more about improving ourselves than proving ourselves.” If we own what we don’t know, operating from this place of confident humility, we can move through our musical lives in a much happier, and more productive way.
Whether we seek out a teacher or advisor, or we simply make learning and rethinking a part of our daily practice, being a perpetual student is an essential mindset to have. Finding excitement in new ideas and challenges, being willing to rethink how we’ve done things in the past, and embracing all we don’t yet know keeps us moving forward and enjoying music for many years.