“When will I get good?”

This is the question I dislike the most as a teacher, and yet all of us have asked it at one point or another. I’ve even had several students tell me that if they couldn’t “get good” soon, they would quit. And I get it: I often catch myself pulling away from things when I’m not good at them or getting frustrated when they don’t come naturally to me. But—this is what I tell myself and what I hope you’ll tell yourself too—getting good is not the real goal here.

Don’t misunderstand me: I believe you can be a great musician. I’m not expressing any doubt in your ability when I tell you that “succeeding” or “winning” are not the goals. But when I read about and talk to conventionally successful musicians, their goals are never some arbitrary measure of what they believe is “good.” Their goals are specific, measurable, and achievable. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to create goals like theirs (adapted from this article). Grab a pen and paper, write these down, and refer to them often.

What do I want out of my musical life? Some answers might include: joy, connection, new challenges, performance opportunities, to be creative, to play with my kids, to learn songs I love, to learn something new every day, steady improvement…

Have I succeeded? What would success look like? Hint: this answer will probably look really similar to your first answer. If what comes to mind is instead something like “winning a fiddle contest,” consider what feeling you think you’ll get from that. Pride in yourself? Support from your loved ones? Connection? Joy? That feeling is probably what you’re actually looking for—not the trophy.

What’s currently missing from that picture of success? Do you need more musical connections? Do you feel frustrated instead of joyful when you play? Are you unsure how to progress? Get to the root of what you feel is lacking in your musical life.

What are some possible paths to create that missing piece of the puzzle? Hint: if your answer is something hard on yourself, like “practice more,” dig a little deeper. If you feel like you need more practice time, you probably need to develop a better practice routine. And to do that, you might want to use tools like keeping a practice journal, scheduling time for your daily practice, and creating an inviting practice space. These goals are specific, measurable, and achievable. They help you make changes instead of being hard on yourself about your current routine.

What would be the first logical step along that path? You don’t need to know every step. Just the first one is enough. If you don’t know what the first step is, ask a teacher, a friend, or Google.

Which of those steps along the path interest me? Which scare me? Which steps are most important, and which can wait until later? Knowing the answers to these questions can help you give each step the attention it needs, even when it’s less interesting or more challenging for you.

What am I good at, and what will I need help with? Celebrate your strengths when you encounter them and seek support when you need it. Both are crucial.

How will I know when I’ve reached my goal? This question is important because it lets you know if you’re actually setting goals you can achieve or if you’re always moving the goalpost. You should be able to clearly define when you achieve a goal.

How do I want to feel AFTER I achieve this goal? Many people don’t allow themselves to celebrate when they reach a goal, but it’s one of the best parts of this process. Dance! Hoot and holler! Tell a friend! Tell us!

When will I be prepared to approach the next goal? As much as we’re trained to strive constantly, it’s okay to take a little time between goals to maintain your skills and give yourself a break.

These are a few questions to help you find what you actually value in your musical life (and I bet it’s not “getting good.”) The next time you’re feeling frustrated, reread your answers and get a fresh start instead.