On Adaptability and Figuring Out Why You’re Alive

I was saddened to hear that over the weekend, musician Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer shot himself.

He was 71 years old and had become depressed that nerve damage to his hand was preventing of him from performing to the high virtuosic standard to which he and his fans had become accustomed.

Specialization of course, can be a beautiful thing, and Emerson’s specialization brought joy and extra meaning to the lives of many.

But although specialization can be a beautiful thing, having an overly-narrow perception of one’s own value as a human being is not.

Emerson could have—even at 71—adapted. He could have trusted in himself to do that: To recognize that he may have more than one value to offer the world, just as he would likely have encouraged others to do.

I was very sad to hear about Emerson’s death; about his choice to die rather than showing himself and others that we all have more than one narrow value to offer the world. I wish he could have seen this in himself. He will be missed.

One of the very scary things about artists is that they are often likely to wrap up their identity too closely with what they do. But you are not your job. You are not even your art. These things are an expression of yourself and of your values, but they are not your self on their own.

Today, I was oddly encouraged to read this very beautiful post by now-former mastering engineer Justin Bonnema on why he is leaving the music industry. Bonnema is far younger than Emerson was, and he did not face a newfound physical limitation, so perhaps it was easier for him to recognize that he has more than one value to offer the world.

But this is not an argument that what Emerson did was best. It is an argument that if you are to discover that you have more than one narrow value to offer the world, it is best to start doing so right now. Ideally, when you are younger and healthier, and long before you wake up one morning and find that you need to figure out what else you can offer the world, and fast.

Ultimately, your value to the world, and your identity, is far greater than any one noun. I would like to encourage you to discover that.

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