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Success is cool and all, but it’s overrated. It can be dangerous, and it’s not even the most important thing for us musicians to focus on.
Yeah, I said it.
And I want to point out some problems with the common idea of success and talk about the single most important thing (which success is not).
The Dangers of Success
Success is dangerous. Lots of people have said it, most of us forget it. We forget because the promise of superstardom clouds our vision. Writer and artist Austin Kleon has a doodle in his book Keep Going that goes like this:
How to Stay Alive
- Find something that keeps you spiritually alive.
- Turn it into a job that literally keeps you alive.
- Oops! Go back to step one.
That’s where succeeding at “being a musician” can get sticky, if “succeeding” means turning music into your full-time gig. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to make music your career. And if you do, that doesn’t automatically mean you’ll hate it.
“Danger” doesn’t equal damned. It just means there’s risk involved. But the risk involved is that you’ll ruin your relationship with the thing you love. This idea is intriguing to me — if I made music for 8 or 9 hours a day, would I get sick of it? Would it become like any other day job?
I don’t know, but I’ll never find out if I don’t try.
Being a full-time musician could turn out to be something different than you’d expected, something not so shiny and bright as you thought. That’s why success — at least that idea of success — is not the most important thing for us. And that’s why I like to define my own success.
We often define success as becoming a full-timer in the music industry. But is that the real definition of success? Does it have to include making a certain dollar amount per year? Do you have to win a certain number of awards? Record “enough” albums? How do you know when you’ve succeeded?
You can probably see where I’m going with this. It’s none of that. Success is subjective. You define what “success” looks like for you.
When I realized this truth, it changed everything for me. I could now live up to my own standards, not everyone else’s. I didn’t have to be a touring singer-songwriter if I wasn’t feeling it. I can (and do) decide to sit at home, write songs, and record those songs. Doing that full-time is my picture of success.
I encourage you to figure this out for yourself. Your definition of success will probably change over time, too. Once you reach what you’ve defined as ultimate success, you’ll want more, so you can update your definition. And that’s fine — that may be the thing that keeps you churning on the day-to-day.
The importance of defining your own success is clear, but there’s one thing that’s even more important. More important than getting press. More important than winning awards. It’s even more important than reaching your goals, as much as I’m obsessed with setting and attaining goals. I would argue this thing is the most important thing to keep in mind as a musician…
What’s More Important Than Success?
Meaning. That’s the one thing more important than success. Your work needs to be meaningful to you.
Let’s pretend you’ll be able to look back at your life after you’ve died. Would you like to see how you’ve made meaningful and timeless music, or would you rather see how much fame, money, and awards you’d amassed?
I don’t know about you, but I want the former. Yeah, the latter would be cool to have, but I think it would get old (even Tom Brady realized there had to be more than Super Bowl wins and loads of cash). I want my kids, grandkids, and loved ones to be affected by my music for decades to come.
So here’s my challenge to you (and to myself): Seek meaning before success.
What Does That Look Like?
Well, let’s say you spend weeks, months even, recording and mixing a song you’ve poured your soul into. Finally, after all that work, you release it to the world with trembling hands. You put it on Spotify, Apple Music, and you share it all over social media. You’re excited and nervous all at the same time.
And then… only a couple people listen to it. What’s your reaction? Do you feel like a failure? Are you ready to just give up on music?
Here’s the thing: If that song has meaning to you, it really doesn’t matter what people think of it or if they even listened. If you made that song from honesty, you wouldn’t be letting other people determine whether or not it’s a meaningful song.
If you created the track from a sincere place, no one can depreciate that or take it away.
And that’s why I believe putting meaning into every song you make is the key to being a musician. Plus, I think pouring meaning into your art can often lead you to your picture of success, and it doesn’t work the other way around.
Here’s a question to help you figure out if your music has meaning to you: If no one listened, would you still make music?
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