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Three Myths About Art and Success

My five-year anniversary of professional musicianship passed in August, and I was too busy making a record, touring, and driving back and forth to New Orleans to notice until now. I guess that’s as it should be.

Five years of doing this thing - and I mean REALLY DOING IT, pouring in all of my time and energy and passion and night-and-daydreams - has given me a whole lot of thoughts, feelings, and surprises. Below are some of my favorites, and the myths that begot them.

Myth #1: Being Good will Make You Successful.

The reality: being good and being successful: no correlation.

This has been the number one biggest shock to me over the past five years, and even though I “get it” now, I still wake up every week or two in a panic/depression/rebellion against this idea. I spent literally ten years of my life, ages 13 to 23, focused on only one musical goal: becoming a great songwriter. On the tail-end of that ten years, just as I started to think I might be reaching my goal, I got a wicked-bad feeling that it might not matter. It reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s description of a midlife crisis: you spend half your life climbing a ladder, you finally get to the top, and you realize it’s up against the wrong wall.

I woke up one day and had this chilling thought: I could be the best songwriter alive, and it wouldn’t guarantee any sort of external success. Not fame, not fortune, not even rent money.

I think the greatness = success myth grew out of a combination of bio-pic mania and the rags-to-riches fairy tales that Americans are particularly fond of. The myth goes something like this: if you’re really good at what you do, someone will come along and “discover” you, make a few phone calls, and before long, you’ll be a star.

I am not saying this to be bitchy, but here’s the stone-cold fact: the people who are most successful in the music business are not always the people who are best at music. Conversely, the people who are best at music are not always successful in the music business.

This principle, unfortunately, trickles down from platinum-selling mega-stars to the street musicians of Manhattan, and seems to be equally prevalent in the other arts, sciences, and even business. Contrary to popular belief, I think it’s been more or less this way for the last hundred years. Yes, Louis Armstrong was incredibly great, and incredibly successful. But have you ever heard of Cleo Brown? How about James Booker? And I won’t go into the less-than-talented artists who have been extremely successful, that would be rude… *COUGH* Rebecca Black *cough, cough*. Excuse me.

The first follow-up question, which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to, is this: if being good doesn’t make you successful, what does? Some common suggestions are: 1) money 2) good looks 3) dumb luck. A less common but equally probable suggestion: 4) persistence.

The next follow-up question is a doozie. If being good doesn’t make you successful… why be good?

Myth #2: If You’re Not Successful, You Should Probably Stop.

The reality: your success is none of your business.

Before I got out from under this myth, I had to spend many months crying into my cereal about the fact that I had probably wasted ten years of my life honing a skill that the rest of the world considers about as important and interesting as making sculptures out of pencil shavings. So why be good? Why make music at all?

Finally, it dawned on me: success is not the point. Furthermore, it’s none of my business. My business is, in fact, being good.

Little-known fact: the most important and satisfying rewards one gets from being good at something are not external rewards. They don’t always include money or fame or gold stars. For example: nobody ever got a trophy for being in a happy marriage. At best, your spouse will buy you flowers, or do the dishes, occasionally. Does that mean it’s not worth the effort?

Obviously not. My goal of being a great songwriter is partly selfish and partly altruistic: I want to write great songs because doing so makes me happy. And how do I know I’ve written a great song? Because hearing that song makes somebody else happy.

I have to assume, somewhere deep in my heart, that the world will take care of me if I keep on doing what I love, and throwing my pleasure and joy and enthusiasm for it all around me like birdseed at a wedding. I have to assume that, put my head down, and write more songs.

Myth #3: Making Art will Drive You Crazy

The reality: success, or lack thereof, will drive you crazy. Making art may be the only thing that will keep you sane.

I blogged in detail about this a few months back, and here’s a follow-up. People (including me, until recently) seem to think that being an artist is a little like being a paranoid schizophrenic. You’re born that way and there’s nothing you can do about it, but with lots of meds and a decent institution, there’s still hope of an okay life. More likely, you’ll end up ODing at 27 in a basement green room, having spent your twelve illegitimate kids’ inheritance money on hookers and blow.

I’ll be 27 next July, so it seems like the time to take a long, hard look at this one.

I can’t say this will always be the case, but here’s what I’ve found so far: my relationship with my “muse”, that creature/spirit/part of my brain that brings me songs and melody and great performances, is the most satisfying relationship in my life. Creating art is a beautiful, magical, endlessly-gratifying experience.

My relationship with my ego, however, that creature/spirit/part of my brain that brings me fear, bitterness, and endless late-night monologues about my failures as an artist, is by far the most destructive and abusive one in my life. If I ever end up ODing in a basement green room (still looking pretty unlikely, from here): blame my ego, not my muse.

And yes, I blame Robert Johnson’s, Janis Joplin’s, Kurt Cobain’s and Amy Winehouse’s egos, too. Their muses were brilliant and kind and good to them. They didn’t have to die to make those records. Let’s all stop talking that way, for the good of the artists who are still with us.

In Conclusion…

I always hope that my little essays will be interesting to other artists, as well as to computer programmers and doctors and stay-at-home-dads. In case this one is a little too artist-centric, here’s a big-picture summary.

We humans, these days, put way too much emphasis on the kinds of success we can quantify, measure and compare (why? Probably a lot of reasons. I mostly blame the school system. And American Idol). Unfortunately for us, that kind of success has no inherent personal or spiritual value.

The kind of success that we need, that we ought to be concentrating on, cultivating, and encouraging from our kids, is the kind that brings us joy and satisfaction. It’s success that we need to work hard for, but the work makes us feel strong and smart and a little bit giddy. Chances are good that this kind of success brings the people around us joy and satisfaction, too; but how much, and whether they pay/thank/praise us for it, is none of our business.

I think Howard Thurman said it best, when he said…

“Do not ask yourself what the world needs. As yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

PS. Actually, all kids already know this.


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