I had fallen into a real rut. Playing the piano had become tedious, a daily grind that I had little to no interest in at the ripe old age of 12. At one point, I even stopped for a week, accepting the option my mother gave me to do something else with my time.
One week later, I heard from the kitchen, “Why aren’t you practicing?” and learned that this had been but a temporary reprieve. Not only was she intending for me to continue my daily efforts, she said something else that I will never forget: “That’s enough. It’s time for you to work.”
You probably read that and thought she wanted me to resume practicing. Not so. She went down to the local coffee shop and “hired me a job” as a classical pianist. Every Sunday morning, I would play for three hours, a job that continued until I left St. Louis and moved to Oklahoma for college when I was 18. And it snowballed quickly. By the time I was 13, I was also playing in a Russian restaurant (collusion!) and for private parties. On an average week, I played classical piano about 8 to 10 hours somewhere, not counting my actual practice, which was two hours daily by this point, my 9 to 10 p.m. Wednesday night private lesson, or my two-hour Thursday night piano performance class.
For a 12-year-old, this was a lot of work! For one thing, while my memory is pretty decent, it wouldn’t sustain me through an entire night in those first years, so I had several folders of music, all of which I photocopied, reinforced with hole punches, and maintained for several years.
Playing for a few hours at a stretch meant that while I normally would have held onto four to five pieces at a time, now everything had to be ready simultaneously and all the time. I had to make sure anything I was planning to continue playing was still error-free for public performance. I even had to deal with the business end of things, making sure I got paid and that the schedule worked with everything else I had going.
At the time, nothing struck me as odd about this. Given that I had two pianists for parents and that they both played in restaurants, I probably thought there were child pianists ruminating on Beethoven all over the United States. The first time I played in public, I was a 5-year-old playing Popeye the Sailor Man, and I got tipped $5 (which my father kept, oh well). Now, I’m 47 and have never spoken to another human who had a job as a child pianist.
The point is that working changes everything. There is real power in doing it with your might (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
For everyone reading this right now, you have a particular job that needs to be carried out with real diligence: You are a student.
School is a fantastic place to learn doing things with your might. You all look forward to college, your future career, and building a family; recognize that your actions today determine how rewarding those experiences will be. Sometimes doing it with your might means starting early—even years early.
If you make a concentrated effort to build the skills—vocabulary, reading, math, science, etc—to take the act as a 12- or 13-year-old, it presents no challenge when you take it as a 17-year-old. If you wait until the week before the exam to discover your industrious nature, a week of your most intense effort still won’t do the job. This works on a smaller scale too: Diligent effort on a paper a week before it is due yields far more produce than diligent effort the night before when it is simply too late to do a quality job. Diligence in school means working ahead.
If you find a topic boring—whether it’s math, science, literature or any other subject—the reason is probably that you haven’t studied it with the depth you should have. When we really understand something, it becomes a lot more interesting.
And regardless of whether we find something interesting, whatever we do, God wants us to do with our might, whether it’s dining with the royal family or cleaning up spilled sewage. Whether or not the task is appealing is not the issue—our character is.
How you do unpleasant things will build the basis for your reputation:
“Seest thou a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men” (Proverbs 22:29). No one can build a business doing only the fun things. The pianist you hear in a concert has put in thousands of hours of hard training by themselves, repeating things over and over—building in a skill through laborious repetition of small phrases with a metronome ticking in the background. The professional basketball player you see on tv has likely put in his entire childhood on the court, not simply playing games, but drilling basic fundamental skills over and over. Rather than simply counting untold piles of cash, the restaurant owner down the corner put in untold hours learning about his business and then executing it night after night.
And it’s going to be hard work—rewarding hard work that, over time, will help you see the value of what you are doing. My mom knew that and doubled down on her belief that hard work was the cure—and it was. It didn’t take long for me to see the value of my daily efforts—efforts that I continue to this day.