I remember a time about 25 years ago when I told a girlfriend's mom that I would be perfectly content and fulfilled if I spent my life playing blues guitar licks in midwestern bars. At the time, that was my vision of success.
Things have changed.
My Very 90s Concept of Musical Success
I was holding on to a lot of assumptions about success. A lot of internalized unhelpful conventional wisdom, too. Back then, it was my belief that talented people were plucked from obscurity by generous, angelic benefactors with magical ears. They were given riches, privilege and artistic freedom. They were people like Michael Jackson, Madonna and The Beatles. In my mind, the universe could sustain a few dozen of those types of luminaries. They were the lottery winners. The rest of us could only hope to make a meager living, at best, from a life in music.
So I thought if I played Freddy King tunes in taverns and got paid for it, it would equal an unqualified success for me as a musician. That was my modest vision of "making it" in music at the time. I thought that if such a scenario should come to pass, I would have to count my blessings; I would have no right to complain or advocate for anything more.
Then I got the chance to experience my modest and uninformed vision of success in reality, just a few years after I had formulated and expressed it initially.
It was a weird time. I got to be on stage several nights a week playing blues licks for mostly interested and engaged audiences. I had gotten to where I thought I might get if I played my cards perfectly. And I was far from satisfied. I was deeply unhappy. It did not feel like success.
I became convinced that there was no such thing as success in music unless you were one of the "lottery winners." I had gotten to the exact place I wanted to get to and I was deeply unhappy. I didn't care for the people I was performing and creating (and traveling and sharing rooms and eating meals) with. I felt disconnected from my own talents and sensibilities, thinking that I had to fit myself into a cramped little box of blues in order to just maintain the shred of a career I had built; otherwise, it would all be taken away. Lose-lose.
I was disillusioned during the time that should have been my musical prime. So I retreated from it, mostly, and turned it into a hobby as I pursued more reasonable, practical and (I thought) people-pleasing ways of living life. Of course, that only made me depressed and resentful.
As I started pushing 30, I was entrenched in my conviction that I didn't have what it took to actually find success in music on my own terms. At the same time, I knew that music was the thing I was best at. I realized that it was the only thing that didn't make me feel like a phony. So I enrolled in a fancy recording school, thinking that I would burrow my way into a music career as an engineer or something. That wasn't right, either. I learned a lot of stuff, and I'm grateful I changed my life around so I could do the thing. But it got me no closer to achieving success in any way.
I joined a band as a hired-gun guitarist. That was fun. But I hated myself and my life, for the most part. I had gotten evicted from my apartment and my car was repossessed. I was attempting to do the right thing and be reasonable and please everybody. I was also not very in tune with myself or my needs. So I fucked it all up pretty much as badly as I possibly could. I became estranged from most of my friends and family, feeling ashamed by the way I had navigated such a crucial period of my life. This was not success.
I Had to Die
I gave up on music shortly after my brother John left his body and I moved to New Mexico (as detailed somewhat in this blog post). I sold my electric guitar and the sweet Traynor YCV50-Blue amplifier I owned. I was in my mid-30s and I decided that time had elapsed on my music-as-a-career clock. I would have to find success some other way.
I got into content writing and started exploring what it might look like for me to bend my creative ambitions into the world of the written word. I started getting paid a reasonable wage to write stuff for other people. I thought I might take the next step and write some stuff for me. I had a really cool idea for a novel and had generated a number of nonfiction concepts that made me excited. But it wasn't music. I couldn't get myself motivated to sit down and type shit. Most of the time, I picked up my guitar instead, figuring that I would get started another time.
My dad bought me a sweet Breedlove acoustic guitar around this time. I started playing a little more and getting my chops back up to where they had been a few years before. I even wrote a handful of new songs. But the idea that music was not a practical career path – or a medium through which I would be able to find any kind of success – persisted and added to my frustrations.
I arrived in my late 30s feeling like music had passed me by and would, at best, continue to be a fun hobby. I was also coming face to face with the fact that I did not have the ambition to reconfigure myself into a writer. I didn't know what I was supposed to do with my life.
Depression hit hard. I wanted to die. Or at least experience a change that would be as big as death. I got my wish in the best possible way in April, 2015, when I experienced an awesome spiritual awakening. I'll get into that story here another time. But if you wanna hear a version of it, you can check out this podcast. I entered an internal psychedelic wonderland and have kept at least one foot there ever since. It changed everything.
One of the first things I did after my awakening was to spend more time playing music. I began to go to open mics. I started writing songs seriously again. My confidence grew. I figured out how to sing.
I also met Annie around the same time I started thinking of my life as something other than a failure. A door had been cracked open and I wanted to be on the other side of it. More importantly, I felt like I deserved to be on the other side of it. I was pushing 40, but I was beginning to reject the idea that my best days had passed. I continued to prioritize music. I also thought a lot more about success and what it ought to look like.
Success for me, I realized, is not about money or status or being ranked highly on any list. It's about the time spent doing things. Success is about engineering my life in a way that allows me to express myself authentically at all times. To a lesser degree, it is also about building opportunities for contemplation, reflection and presence (as opposed to comfort, relaxation and happiness). Crucially, a layer of meaningful community and fellowship has to wrap it all up. I know now that if I just focus on that stuff, all the other stuff (money, fancy automobiles, friendships with people like Lorne Michaels, etc.) will come.
It's not easy. I found myself starting to get obsessed about booking local gigs, despite my belief that they are basically irrelevant in terms of success in my mind. I have realized that my success is going to come from online interactions and performances in the virtual realm, as opposed to the grind of local gigging. Yeah, I want to perform regularly, but the desire to fill the calendar is such an egoic exercise. I need to let it go. It is unlikely that I will ever be as popular in the local scene as some of the lifers. And even if I was, I know I would not be happy. I had a pretty busy summer with performances. I was happy to have the opportunity to play for the people. But I was also frequently frustrated by the experience. I did not feel successful. So I've had to continually remind myself of what success really looks like for me.
Tethered to a Moving Target
I'm still figuring out what success should look like, but know some things for sure:
- The meaning of success will probably continue to morph, meld and move. That's okay. It's a moving target. I just need to stay tethered; keep one eye on it.
- Keeping my ego in check is critical. Otherwise, I start comparing my statistics to those of my musical colleagues as if I am campaigning for something. None of that shit matters.
- It's not about measurable stuff as much as it is about being present and fulfilled.
- It's not about achievement; it's about being.
- In music, there are countless layers and levels of success between Beyoncé and being a starving artist. It is completely reasonable to think that I will occupy one of the tiers that's a little closer to Ms. Knowles than the guy under the bridge with a kazoo and three nickels.
- I'll be all right as long as I remain focused on the core of psychedelic spirituality versus recognition or sales or awards or shit like that.
- Success has nothing to do with fame or notoriety.
- Success has nothing to do with whether my friends, family members or anyone else approves or even gives a shit.
- Success is a feeling, not a set of data points.
So yeah. That's about where I'm at with this stuff right now. I feel good.
What About You?
Do you feel like you have achieved success in your life or career? Or are you still working on it?
Do you feel like success is even possible? If so, what does it look like?
I wanna know what you think, so please leave a comment or hit me up on social media. Thanks!
See you next time, friends.