On the value of candor

~ 03 December 2008 ~

About a year after starting college, I was settled on the idea of majoring in music, specifically music composition. It was the perfect blend of two passions of mine. The first was drumming. The second was a long-standing love affair with film scores. James Horner, John Barry, James Newton Howard, Alan Silvestri, and John Williams were just a few of the composers I grew up listening to. To become one of them was the impossible dream. In reality, I’d done a little composing prior to college, so it didn’t seem entirely impossible.

There was, however, a rather behemoth obstacle standing in my way, and that was the requirement of percussion performance and recital before I’d need to concern myself with composition. See, I grew up playing on a kit, but I’d done very little percussion work — timpani, glockenspiel, marimba, etc. Any percussion major will tell you one doesn’t get a music degree without mastering more than just the kit.

I was fortunate enough to have a willing yet demanding percussion teacher during my pre-major courses. After several weeks struggling through the marimba and countless paradiddles and double flams on the snare, I’ll never forget the day my teacher put it straight up for me:

Cameron, you better think seriously about another career, because you’re gonna have a tough time majoring in music.

That was a blow that was almost too tough to take. His remarks sank in over the next few days. I came to see his point of view. Soon I found myself in another major.

Would some say I gave up without a fight? Sure. But I don’t believe I did. In fact, because of my teacher’s candor and the ensuing switch to another major, I eventually found myself on the path that has lead to where I am today. I have absolutely no regrets or complaints about the cards I’ve been dealt in life. I like to think I’ll still compose music for films someday. But back then, the timing wasn’t right, and I wasn’t qualified. Maybe some day.

I’ve reflected a lot on this experience lately for some reason. Maybe it’s because I find myself answering one question more than others in email and in Q&A following presentations, that of becoming a better designer. Among the many answers I’ve offered, I think I’m coming to terms with adding another: “Maybe now isn’t the time. Maybe you need to think about another career.”

A harsh answer? Yes. One I’m not even comfortable delivering. But maybe, just maybe my candor — when appropriate and justified — will lead individuals down a path that would suit them better anyway. After all, I look back now and am entirely grateful for the honest criticism my teacher offered that day. Perhaps I owe others the same degree of honesty.



Veer Veer: Visual Elements for Creatives.
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1   Andrew Hedges ~ 03 December 2008

It is tough to be the bearer of bad news. What keeps me from answering this way most of the time, though, is the responsibility that comes along with telling someone they’re not up to the task. Do I want to be the one who throws someone off a track when they might defy the odds?

I met with a neighbor recently who wants to create an online buying/selling community web site. She knows very little about the web, but has the best of intentions and a decent vision for what she wants to do.

In our conversation, I focused on asking her questions that could help her to discover whether she’s on the right path. In this case, I didn’t feel it was my place to put the kibosh on her dream. But, as you point out, sometimes it’s the best thing that can happen.

2   Bryan Zmijewski ~ 03 December 2008

It’s about helping people reach their potential in life- if a student really does have the desire to persevere, they’ll use your criticisms to work harder. If not, they’ll take your advice and run in a new direction.

It took me 5-6 years of teaching before I was able to really challenge students (to the point of making a student cry). It’s not easy to swallow, but in the end it’s about helping people make better decisions.

You have to stick to your gut and realize it’s only your opinion- you may not even be right!

3   Tim Zheng ~ 03 December 2008

Hahahahaha, Cameron, you suck!
There is a little book called The Dip by Seth Godin. He said we often need to quit fast and focus on the things that we can become the best in the world. Your story just reminded me his book, an awesome read. You might like it. It is only $10 or something at B&N but it is one of the most useful books I have ever read.

4   Kevin Crawford ~ 03 December 2008


Why did he tell you that? I find it hard to believe it was because of your struggling with other percussion instruments and snare rudiments, that should have been easy enough to pick up. Was it because of a lack of knowledge in musical theory / the circle of fifths? Now that I could understand.

I think that some people just won’t be able to design well, no matter what. But to tell them that is to make a huge assumption, which could be very hurtful. Maybe a teacher who has been working closely with a student can make that distinction, but I don’t know if you could do so after a measly e-mail or question from an audience member.

5   Pamela ~ 03 December 2008

I think your instructor did you a service, Cameron, by making you think hard about what you were doing and where you were going. But it was harsh and it was just his opinion based on his limited experience of you. You were the one who made the decision based on your much more extensive knowledge of yourself.

I had a similar experience, with regard to journalism. An editor on the paper where I interned suggested I switch to something else. I was an extremely sheltered and naive 21 year old and his words forced me to look at my choices and change my approach… but not my major. I spent 23 wonderful years in that business. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. He was right, as far as he knew me. But I knew myself better.

I agree with Andrew and Kevin - couch that kind of “advice” in questions that get the person thinking about his or her path. They’re the ones who have to live with the consequences of the choices they make.

6   Joshua Allen ~ 03 December 2008

Sounds almost exactly like what happened to me when I took professional singing lessons. I’ve always wanted to sing, so as soon as I had a job after college, I hired a professional singing instructor. During the first lesson, he told me “I could keep taking your money, but there is no way you will ever be able to sing.” I protested, and so he had me sing along with a song in my headphones, and recorded my voice separately from the music. When he played my voice back a capella, I saw he had a point. :-)

He suggested that I find a small church choir and sing quietly, and then maybe come back in 5 years. I didn’t want to sing *that* badly.

7   Karen ~ 04 December 2008

I think I’d appreciate that little dose of candor. Painful as it is. I know I’d appreciate it now when I’m in the middle of deciding if maybe after 10 years of being a web designer…it isn’t the right time anymore.

8   kaske ~ 04 December 2008

It is not possible to make a correct choice FOR someone. There are numerous factors deciding whether someone should follow some path or another as well as many other examples where a will of steel finally brought someone without any talent to the gates of mastery, while there are also examples of a “failure”.

Nobody can make the right choice for you except yourself. Candor can mean all for someone who accepts it and nothing for someone who doesn’t, meaning that a very stubborn person will be blowing his sails even more when he gets it.

There are many ways, many persons, many choices.

9   Philip Renich ~ 04 December 2008

Thanks for writing this Cameron. A friend of mine has recently been told basically the same thing from her music professors. It’s been very, very tough for her to deal with - understandably. Music has been her life and focus throughout college, and she feels it is being torn from under her. But maybe, just maybe, this is what she needs to hear. Even if she doesn’t realize it for another ten years. I may pass this article along to her at the least to say, “No matter which way the cards fall on this, there’s still hope ahead.”


10   Pete B ~ 04 December 2008

I also failed in my first choice of music for a career.

Is web design the career for failed wannabe rock stars? :)

11   Ben ~ 04 December 2008

I like the fact that your music teacher didn’t say you couldn’t major in music - just that it would be seriously difficult and perhaps your time would be better spent elsewhere. One should never tell someone its impossible - just that there may be better avenues for them to explore.

12   Andy Rutledge ~ 04 December 2008

Cameron, you’re damn right you owe others that same degree of honesty. For if you are ever anything other than honest with respect to consequential matters in the lives of others, you become just another in the long line of those who fail people.

Offering up more palatable seeming friendliness or seeming helpfulness in place of actual friendship or help is both irresponsible and malevolent. We are all subject to one another and we are defined by how we meet that responsibility. And this is especially true for those of us who take it upon ourselves to offer guidance, advice, or instruction to others. The lesson you recognize in your story is an important one.

It is often hard to look past the trivial comfort of others when offering advice or opinion, but in the end the only thing that matters is how we have actually served those who deserve our honesty, and how we have met our very real responsibilities to one another.

13   kaske ~ 04 December 2008

No one can guarantee anything for anyone, for good or bad, no matter what, so the only thing that matters is being honest to YOURSELF.

Being honest to others doesn’t mean that it is always good for them. There are many scenarios and illusion and reality can both take part. The wisdom lies in CHOOSING when to be honest and when not to.

14   Andrew ~ 04 December 2008

I’m all about candor. Granted it’s sometimes to the point of eating my words and/or coming off as a know-it-all. But I believe in it none-the-less.

Personally I’d rather be given an honest assessment of my abilities than have someone give me a pat on the back while at the same time rolling their eyes in embarrassment for me.

Seriously, tell me now rather than later after I’ve wasted time pursuing some failed goal.

15   Aaron Irizarry ~ 04 December 2008

I think that candor is important, and be helpful when delivered with tact.

You just might help guide someone in the right direction (like in your case Cameron), or you can motivate them to prove you wrong, and it can be the inspiration they need to perfect their craft.

I am always for the up front approach, if i get my feelings hurt I will get over it. :)

16   kaske ~ 04 December 2008

Assessed by whom? By a fellow human? It simply isn’t a bulletproof concept. HUMANS MAKE MISTAKES, even the finest.

Now, I am not saying one shouldn’t listen but at the end only I can make a decision.

There are many good and bad people that are a living proof that there cannot be general rules on this:

When a Hitler’s professor told Hitler back in 20’s that he should quit pursuing a career of a painter he ACCEPTED the advice, although devastated. And later he turned to politics and while he indisputably WAS a talented politician, just a bad person, look where did he get to. The bloodiest war of all times. A Complete failure.

I bet the professor would have given all he got for an opportunity to return to the past and tell Hitler that he was a talented painter ha!;)

17   Cameron Moll ~ 04 December 2008

Lots of great feedback.

What keeps me from answering this way most of the time, though, is the responsibility that comes along with telling someone they’re not up to the task. Do I want to be the one who throws someone off a track when they might defy the odds? (Andrew Hedges)

I’ve worried the same, and for that very reason I’m often less candid than perhaps I should be. What I failed to mention, and what Kevin Crawford points out, is that this teacher and I had an established relationship. Being that frank without really knowing someone and their actual talent may not be the right situation to deliver overly candid remarks.

I find it hard to believe it was because of your struggling with other percussion instruments and snare rudiments, that should have been easy enough to pick up. Was it because of a lack of knowledge in musical theory / the circle of fifths? (Kevin Crawford)

That’s exactly what it was. I have a hard time reading anything other than percussion notation. Still to this day I can hardly read music, though I can kinda hold my own on a piano (by ear).

I may pass this article along to her at the least to say, “No matter which way the cards fall on this, there’s still hope ahead.” (Philip Renich)

Absolutely. Hardest thing I’ve ever done as a manager? Lay off 10 people over the course of just a few months during the dotcom bust, including one who was a single mother with 3 kids. But guess what? I saw at least 3 of those employees months after the layoffs, and all of them were in better shape than had they stayed on with us.

It is often hard to look past the trivial comfort of others when offering advice or opinion, but in the end the only thing that matters is how we have actually served those who deserve our honesty, and how we have met our very real responsibilities to one another. (Andy Rutledge)

Well said, Andy.

18   eddeaux ~ 04 December 2008

Well said. We all have strengths and sometimes we may like to do something, but we’ll never be good enough to compete with someone that has a natural talent for it. For us, it is a hobby, something we dabble in. I paint, I draw, I write, I sing, I do graphic and web design, but I’m not great at any of it. I’m best at public speaking and fixing computers and planning events, but dang it if I wouldn’t love to be an awesome graphic designer like you or Veerle… but we have to play the cards we were dealt.

19   Sean Farrell ~ 04 December 2008

This is a really great post. It reminds me a lot of when I was in college. I took multimedia design for 3 years and was happy to come out of it and be lucky enough to have a successful future in the same field. I can’t say the same for many of my colleagues who weren’t as fortunate. Our teachers should have been much more blunt with a lot of the students. Out of the 30-40 students who graduated, I only know of maybe 10 who have been successful after college. I’m not going to say I was surprised though, as everyone knew during college that their future was not going to be in this field. I feel sorry for them that they had to waste 3 years and not be able to get into their field. I truly believe the teachers should have been more harsh after the second year.

20   Dave ~ 04 December 2008

I think candid advice is always useful. I agree that the best approach is to ask the right questions. Generally, a blunt statement along the lines of “You’ll never be good at X” is probably not the way I’d handle it.

Two experiences in college distilled this situation for me.

1) I was nearing the end of my first year of CS courses and was seriously questioning whether computer science was the right course for me. I went to my professor and told her I felt like I had hit a wall and was just not moving forward. I told her I was considering switching majors.

She said very simply, “You have the ability to do this. The question is: Is this what you want to do? If it is, then stick with it and you’ll do fine.”

I did and I’ve subsequently enjoyed a great career as a software developer.

2) Towards the end of college, I started working through the school as a tutor for incoming CS students. One student was a single mother who was trying to start a new career after a recent divorce.

I desperately wanted her to succeed. She studied far more than I ever did and she worked hard. But in the end, she just wasn’t able to understand the concepts. She eventually dropped out.

I saw her a year later and she had moved on to other things and was happier for it. I guess the secret is to Know Thyself. In the end, only we can decide what is right for us.

21   ~ 05 December 2008

I guess the secret is to Know Thyself. In the end, only we can decide what is right for us.


22   AndrewTF ~ 05 December 2008

I think music is one of those rare situations, like professional sports, where you really have to be fully committed and the best of the best to get to ahead, and even then that sometimes isn’t enough. There simply aren’t enough fulfilling music careers as there are talented musicians.

I teach at a local university, and it’s really difficult to be candid and challenging and not take the easy route, but I think I’m learning (I haven’t been teaching for all that long). It becomes pretty apparent from early on that you don’t do any favors to your students by letting them glide through your courses, and there will be more mutual respect when a challenge is presented and then met.

23   John Dilworth ~ 10 December 2008


Sorry to come to the discussion late…

I think that there are two ways to look at this: one way is being honest and helpful, the other is to be a jerk and hurtful.

It is honest to tell someone that their work is not up to par, and that “from what you can tell” you think that they may have a hard time succeeding in this profession.

It is not honest to tell someone that they can’t or shouldn’t do something. It may be very hard, or seem nearly impossible, but people can do it if they really want to. And there’s no real “honest” way for you to know that they can’t do it.

Just look at the crap we all created 15 years ago when we started designing web pages. If you were to show me something like this next week, I might really want to tell you to find a new career.

This is where most of those people who we think can’t hack it are right now. It is perfectly fine to tell them that you think it is going to take them 10 years of work, lots more dedication, more school, and lots more effort than they are putting into it right now, but I do not think it is “honest” to tell them that they can’t do it.

A better approach, instead of telling them they can’t or shouldn’t do something, would be to honestly tell them where they are (based on your experience), what they are going to need to do to get where they think they want to be, and then you can ask them if they are willing to do what it takes to get themselves there.

24   Kevin Crawford ~ 17 December 2008

It’s okay buddy, there’s no way in hell I could read musical notation either. But reading complicated, syncopated beats? Pscht, easy.

@John Dilworth
Hahaha, nice use of example.


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