Margo Drakos: On Creating a Safety Net and Taking a Chance on Yourself

Have you ever begged and pleaded for something when you were a kid, and when you finally got it, discovered it wasn’t quite what you expected?

Like the time you finally got a pair of Zubaz.

Or like in that Friends episode where Monica got new boots .

Of course, once you’ve fought so hard for that thing, there can be a lot of pressure to stick with it. Even if it’s not a good fit. And it’s tempting to think you just need a different color.

I think our careers can sometimes be a little like that too.

Especially in music, where you start out so early, and sacrifice so much, that it can feel like the thing you’ve always done is the thing you’re supposed to do. Even if, over time, it starts to become clearer and clearer that it’s just not “you.”

But what if you’ve never really done anything else? Or “only” went to conservatory? Or never took the GRE’s?

Our inner critics can come up with some pretty compelling reasons why we should keep our heads down and just stay the course. And there can be a lot of hesitancy, doubt, and fear about whether we are capable of taking on completely foreign challenges too. Even though the reality is that future us is capable of a lot more than we might think.

So if you’ve ever had an itch to explore something totally different, but stopped yourself from venturing down this new path, I hope you’ll enjoy the following chat with cellist-turned-tech-entrepreneur Margo Drakos.

Meet Margo Drakos

Formerly the principal cellist of the Oregon, San Diego, and Seattle symphonies, associate principal of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and member of the American String Quartet, Margo was also co-founder of InstantEncore, and is now the CEO of ArtistYear.

Margo’s resume is kind of mind-boggling, and when we hear of someone’s unusual success like this, it can be tempting for our brain to assume that things were easy. That talent must explain everything. And that this person must be nothing at all like us normal folks.

But I hope you get a sense from the episode with Margo, that while talent and luck certainly do have a place in the equation, we are all capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for. And that we can do some pretty cool things when we take tiny leaps of faith, embrace opportunities to work really hard on the things that are difficult for us, and trust that we’ll figure out how to land on our feet as we go.

In this 45-min chat, we’ll explore:

  • How being told to “sink or swim,” while scary at the time, helped to launch Margo’s career as she neared the end of her time at Curtis (3:45)
  • How she was perhaps not the best colleague in her younger years. Plus, some initial hints that an orchestral career wasn’t the right fit for her, though she couldn’t see it at the time (7:19)
  • How surrounding herself with musicians above her level enabled her to “catch up” and accelerate her growth in the 6th grade, again when she got to the Cleveland Institute of Music, and once more when she got to Curtis (8:42)
  • The two things that helped her excel, despite not being the most gifted or talented player (12:42)
  • How she learned to maximize the effectiveness of her practice, and the role her friends and teachers played in this (14:39)
  • Signs that she wasn’t in quite the right career, and an internal struggle to figure out what she wanted to do with her life – but then having her application rejected by Columbia University (19:14)
  • The thing that motivated her to juggle a job as principal cellist with the San Diego Symphony, while teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, and being a grad student at Columbia University (24:51)
  • ArtistYear – the organization that all of Margo’s experiences may have been leading her to all these years, without realizing it. And what is ArtistYear, anyway? (27:17)
  • From being an active duty military spouse, to wondering where the opportunities might be for artists and musicians to serve society, and whether there might be value in “shared cultural experiences” as a nation (29:16)
  • Why ArtistYear’s focus is “not just art for art’s sake” (32:04)
  • What the ArtistYear fellows are learning, and how their experiences have been transformative (35:57)
  • Maybe not a life philosophy per se, but Margo describes the 3 pillars that have guided her decisions and path over the years (43:33)


[1] If you’re curious about what a service year might look like, you can learn more about that here. And if you’d like to support ArtistYear’s mission, you can learn more about the many ways in which you can do so right here (like shopping at Amazon through a special link) (30:25)

[2] I mention Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, which has actually been out for some years, but feels like an even more relevant book now than when it first came out (35:38)

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

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