Noa Kageyama
Founder of Bulletproof Musician

Fight or flight: When resistance feels worth it

Creator Stories
When Noa Kageyama realized he didn’t love the thing he’d dedicated his life to, it was time to decide if the resistance he felt was the kind you push through or the kind that helps you choose a new path.

It started as a joke, really, during Noa Kageyama’s first year of graduate studies at Juilliard, walking to lunch with friends after a gig.

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By that time, Noa had been playing and practicing the violin almost every day since he was two years old, and he’d done the impossible; he was on a career path to become a full-time professional musician, studying at the world’s premier performing arts school.

And one day, as he and his friends walked the iconic campus, instruments in tow, the classic lottery conversation came up – they joked about what they’d do if they won. After the crazy cars and multi-story Manhattan penthouse ideas were shared and laughed about, they started soberly considering what they’d do with their time.

One wanted to start a record company. Another dreamed of creating a festival. And another imagined performing all over the world. They all wanted to do some version of what they were already doing.

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Except for Noa.

Their plans surprised him. Why wouldn’t they quit music if they won the lottery? “To me, that seemed like such an obvious choice.”

His first thought was that if he won the lottery he’d “put my violin in its case, and leave it there for a very long time.”

Noa’s gut reaction puzzled him, so he kept quiet.

He kept walking and laughing with the others, while inside, wondering, “What’s wrong with me?”

“There's a part of you that's worried that if you don't cultivate it they're going to regret it later.”

Noa grew up in a small town in central Ohio. Neither of his parents played music, but they loved it – even buying an upright piano for their first apartment before buying a dining table, eating on the floor until they could afford one. (They also bought a stereo-system before a couch.)

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Music was everywhere, and when two-year-old Noa took an interest in music his parents put him in violin lessons right away.

His mom saw he had some talent and sought out the founder of the Suzuki method and arranged – after many calls and letters – for Noa to study under him in Japan when he was just five years old.

Noa explains:

I know this now – when you have a kid and they seem like they're a natural at something, even if they're not waking up in the morning super excited to do it, there's a part of you that's worried that if you don't cultivate it they're going to regret it later.

Momentum took over.

Noa practiced daily, and as his skill grew, teachers offered live-in study opportunities, recommended schools, and told Noa’s parents that he had talent worth investing in.

Noa followed the path laid before him, even though he didn’t love practicing all that much. He also felt anxious on stage.

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Noa and his mom, 1979.

The only time he really lights up when he talks to me about playing the violin is when he tells me about the time his mom started taking violin lessons too.

When you're practicing it doesn't sound like music, but when you're playing with other people, even if they're playing the same exact thing and the same notes, it feels different.

That was fun.

It wasn't just practicing; it was playing.

Is that what kept him going all those years, I ask?

Not exactly.

“I never really thought if I wanted to do that.”

Noa didn’t know not going on the music path was an option.

I didn't know that I could stop.

That's part of what happens when you start something so young.

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Noa at recital in Honolulu with Ahlin.

It would be one thing if I absolutely sucked at it, but I wasn't awful. I was always good enough that I got more and more opportunities.

Also, it's not like I hated it. I was good at it. It came easily. I got attention for it and met a lot of cool people and got to go to a lot of cool places.

There wasn't ever really a point where I had to make a decision about what to do. The next step was always in front of me and I was like, ‘Well, let's take that next step.’

And those steps led to Juilliard, beginning with a pre-college program he attended every Saturday in high school, flying in from Ohio every week. There he was surrounded by other dedicated musicians on the same path – like Ahlin, a young woman whose parents flew her in from her home in Korea to live in New York City during her senior year of high school so she could attend the program.

For Noa, the path looked something like this:

Win a competition, get a recording contract, and travel around the world performing with orchestras.

I never really thought if I wanted to do that. I was just like, ‘Well, I think that’s what I'm supposed to do so let me just keep going in that direction.’

iaac-noa-kageyama-playing-violin-with-ahlin-at-piano-2006He got a bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College and attended Juilliard for graduate school when, halfway through, he had the lottery conversation with his friends.

It was the first time he was forced to contend with the thing he’d never made space to consider:

He didn’t really love the thing he’d dedicated his life to.

But could he really quit?

Especially after investing so much time, and his parents investing so much money?

And what in the world would he do, anyway?

“What would I do if I don't do this?”

He tried to ignore it.

But then a strange kind of resistance took over – not the kind written about in the Steven Pressfield book The War of Art, the natural resistance many face when making art.

Noa had the will. He had faced resistance his whole life and practiced almost every single day.

But now, suddenly, it was as if he’d lost that will.

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He had a competition coming up, but this time, he didn’t practice. He simply couldn’t get over some kind of invisible mental block.

This had never happened to him before. iaac-noa-kageyama-piano-and-sheet-music

Pushing through resistance can build an artist (and lead to great art) – but sometimes resistance is a sign it’s time to move on, to find a new path in which fighting resistance feels worth it again.

Noa was deeply conflicted and talked to Ahlin (his then-girlfriend and now wife) about it. She said:

I mean, you know you don't have to play the violin, right? That is not something you need to do for the rest of your life.

It'll be okay.

Her encouragement gave him the courage to entertain – for the first time – a new life for himself.

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Noa and his mom.

And the courage to tell his parents.

Well, sort of.

Too scared to directly say he was going to quit, he called his parents and asked, “What would you think if I didn’t keep playing the violin?”

He waited.

Silence.

His mom finally spoke up and said, as he remembers it:

You know what? You're going to be in this world a lot longer than your dad and I are. Don't just quit with nothing else, but if you find something else that's meaningful to you then yeah, you should do that thing.

With the support of the people he loved most, he allowed himself to ask the question he’d always avoided:

What would I do if I don't do this?

The answer had been with him all along.

“I don't know that I ever really identified as a violinist.”

While at college at Oberlin, to get out of the regimented orchestra practices he hated, Noa double-majored in psychology. It seemed easy enough, though he got B’s and C’s because he wasn’t that engaged.

But then a sport psychology class he took at Juilliard fascinated him. He wondered: “Why do some people thrive under pressure while others choke?”

Instead of trying to answer the question for himself, as a performer, he wanted to pursue that question – and music – from another angle. From a research angle. He wanted to become a sport psychologist. That sounded exciting.iaac-noa-kageyama-writing-in-nyc

He recently ran into a professor from that era who, 10 years later, remembered Noa because of how he’d lit up on the last day of class when the professor asked everyone to share their future plans. When they ran into each other the professor said:

Oh, you're that kid I still remember being so happy when he was talking about quitting and moving in this other direction.

I ask Noa if he had any fears about making this change (aside from telling his parents).

He didn’t.

“Why do some people thrive under pressure while others choke?”

I'm a little bit of an oddball in that most people who quit music do go through this sort of identity crisis thing.

But I don't know that I ever really identified as a violinist.

If someone asked me, “What do you do?” I would say I play the violin. I never felt comfortable saying, “I'm a violinist.”

It felt awkward to me. It felt weird. I didn't want to embrace that on some level. It didn't spark joy for me to say that I'm a violinist and identify that way.

For Noa, there was no identity crisis because deep down the identity never quite fit in the first place.

Slowly, but surely, the violin faded from his life.

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I don't remember there being a single moment where it's like, “Okay, bye-bye violin.” It was always around – I just didn't practice.

It's almost like you'd go on vacation for the weekend and you forget to take your violin and you just don't practice.

It felt really easy and right to not be practicing.

I have to stop him before we go any further and ask, “Do most musicians typically take their instrument on vacation?”

“It felt really easy and right to not be practicing.”

Yes, he tells me, they take their instrument everywhere. Not having to do this anymore was, for him, freeing. He talks about the not-having-to-take-the-violin-on-vacation as if it were as good as the vacation itself.

A violin's relatively small but you still need to worry about whether it's going to fit in the overhead bin because it's such an odd size. It was amazing to not have to take it everywhere.

There was this stress my whole life of having to make sure I got onto the plane as quickly as possible and be prepared to argue with whoever I needed to about how this violin could not be placed anywhere other than in the overhead thing right where I was sitting.

To not have to do that for the first time – I could be the last person on the plane, not a problem? That's so amazing still.

Stresses he’d lived with his entire life started to melt away, and he happily pursued his new life course, moving to Indiana for his wife’s graduate program and applying to doctoral programs in sport psychology.

But he got rejected by all of them.

“I could not answer that question.”

Noa remembers:

I got rejected everywhere because I did not get good psychology grades at Oberlin because I never expected for that to matter. Nobody would touch me with a 10-foot pole, so I had to go the long route.

Moving in a new direction can often feel like moving backward – the sheer psychic pain of it keeps most people stuck.

“I thought it would be obvious.”

But for Noa, that was the kind of resistance he could beat.

He was fine taking the long route, pursuing a second master’s degree at Indiana University to make himself more competitive for PhD programs.

Eventually, he got into a doctoral program and graduated with a PhD in Counseling Psychology with a minor in sport and exercise science.

He got a job immediately at a group practice but was discouraged because none of the patients needed help with performance anxiety (the practice was focused more on general anxiety and depression).
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He still dreamed of helping musicians with performance issues, and he knew there were so many out there who needed that kind of help; he just didn’t understand why they weren’t finding him.

Noa tells me about something he remembers from his Business of Music class at Juilliard when the teacher asked the class:

“So why should I take time out of my Sunday, pay money, and take the subway, get a babysitter, whatever, to show up and to hear you play?

“Not anybody else, but to hear you play?”

Noa remembers:

I could not answer that question.

He thought surely once he quit performing, got a PhD, and became a psychologist he wouldn’t have to answer that question:

I thought it would be obvious. I have my PhD. This is my resume. I went to Juilliard. You should work with me or ask me to help you and pay me money.

That didn't happen.

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He owes what came next to a friend who, at the time, was a vice president at a very popular and successful retail chain. When Noa was explaining his frustration at not being able to help the people he wanted to help, his friend asked, kindly:

Well, what are you doing to let people know how it is you can help them and that you exist?

“Well, nothing really,” Noa admitted. His friend replied: “Well, there are a lot of talented, smart psychologists out there and the difference between the ones who are making a living and doing well and the ones who aren't is marketing.

“You're either going to treat this like a business or it's going to be this very strange hobby that you have.”

Noa agreed and started learning marketing for the first time, reading books by people like Seth Godin and Sean D'Souza and reading blogs.

I started understanding marketing more as education, helping people understand what is really at the root of their frustrations and their challenges, and how they can overcome those challenges and solve those frustrations.

That started to resonate with me, where it didn't feel like I was selling anything to anybody. I was just teaching them how to move forward.

Noa decided to start a blog to help with that and called it Bulletproof Musician.

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He often worked on the blog late at night in the basement while the kids he and Ahlin now had were sleeping.

One night he showed her something he was working on for the blog and for the first time, she was concerned about the path he was taking.

They had kids.

They had bills.

And he was making less at the current practice than he did teaching private music lessons. They were struggling to make ends meet – shouldn’t he be doing something else with his time to help them survive and pay rent instead of…blogging?

“Now she still feels bad that she told me to actually do work instead of blogging,” he laughs now, “but that's how it started.”

“Nobody cared.”

The first time Noa made money from his blog was by writing and selling an ebook about performance anxiety.

He struggled to price it (he ended up selling it for $9.99) and struggled to imagine why anyone would want it.

But he’ll never forget the first time a musician bought, read, and reacted to his work (I imagine it felt a lot like playing the violin with his mom).

The first time I got feedback from a musician who actually found it helpful in their practicing and with their experience on stage was really meaningful to me.

But aside from those first few sales, nothing happened.

Nobody was reading the blog.

My parents stopped reading.

My wife stopped reading.

Some random person in Kansas I think kept showing up although that could have been a bot.

He had an email list too, but his list wasn’t growing either.

“Nobody was reading the blog.”

So when he got an offer in 2011 to teach a class at Juilliard he said yes.

Then, later that year, a post he’d written two years ago that no one read (“nobody cared”) was shared by someone on Facebook and it went viral.

The article – “How Many Hours A Day Should You Practice?” – struck a chord with exactly the kind of people Noa always dreamed of helping. And because he had a blog and an email list already set up, his audience grew “overnight.”

iaac-noa-kageyama-editing-audio-on-computerTeaching one class at Juilliard was not enough for them to pay rent in New York City, and he wondered…could his blog help with that? He asked his wife:

You know some people seem to have these online courses; what if I made an online course that was basically my Juilliard course but online?

She replied:

I don't know; I told you to not do this blog so what do I know? Go for it.

iaac-noa-kageyama-recording-in-home-office-studioHe spent almost nine months creating his course.

When it launched, it paid their rent that month.

Noa was encouraged but, somewhat a natural pessimist, still thought it was a fluke, like the viral post: “I can't imagine this ever paying rent in New York City on a monthly basis.”

And even though Noa didn’t totally believe it was possible, the work and practice ethic he’d grown up with was enough to keep things growing.

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“Does my work or my life bring joy to others?”

People also loved his content and responded enthusiastically to his emails, and that, for Noa, was the success he’d always been after. When I ask him how he defines success he says:

One is freedom, and the other one goes back to the emails I get. Did you ever watch “The Bucket List” with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman?

He explains the scene that stayed with him:

There's this point where they're on the pyramids, and I think it's Morgan Freeman saying something to Jack Nicholson about how the ancient Egyptians (I don't know if this is true) had this belief that when you get to the gates of heaven or whatever they called it you're asked two questions:

Did you find joy in your life?

Did your life bring joy to others?

Noa thinks about those questions a lot, and the second one matters to him most.

Does my work or my life bring joy to others?

I'm hoping that whether it's in a blog post, course, or workshop, I link them to something that makes their life more positive, more joyous, more exciting. Something that hopefully becomes theirs and they can pass on.

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“You have to love the plateau.”

Before we go I ask Noa what he thinks about resistance now and what advice he might give to someone questioning their path, wondering if the resistance they’re feeling is something to fight through or a sign to change course.

iaac-noa-kageyama-ck-landingpage-screenshotMy wife gave “Mastery” by George Leonard to me in my second year of grad school. It basically talks about how most of your life in trying to become a master at something is going to be spent on a plateau, where things don't seem to be getting better. There's a small blip where things get better and then back to the plateau.

He says you have to embrace the plateau. You have to love the plateau.

That gave me more patience. I realized I didn't have to get there now, today, next week.

I always felt pressured to get there, wherever ‘there’ was, immediately.

I just need to make sure I'm on the master's path. If I'm on the path then I can trust that things will be okay – kind of like how Brad Stevens, the Celtics coach, says their focus is on growth, not trophies. They assume the trophies will be there if they're relentlessly focused on growth.

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Noa still has his violin.

It’s in the living room now, tucked away in its case.

It used to be in the corner of his bedroom, he explains, but it got too humid there, which can be damaging.

He still takes care of it.

And he’s thankful for the role it played in getting him here.

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He hopes anyone who interacts with his content today, including the music teachers he teaches, finds the same value no matter the end result:

Even if their students don't become musicians – like if they become surgeons, or architects, or graphic designers – they will still be able to utilize these skills in presentations, and pitches, and surgery.

I think that's pretty awesome too.


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You can connect with Noa by subscribing to his email list or learn more at bulletproofmusician.com.

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Isa Adney

Isa is an author and writer and has profiled incredible creators and artists, including Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony winners. When she’s not writing or interviewing creators, she’s probably walking her dog Stanley, working on her next book, or listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for the 300th time.

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