musician Archives - Sheep Dressed Like Wolves
It might not sound like a difficult thing to answer, but there is a question I get asked a lot to which I’ve noticed that I always struggle to find a response…
‘How’s the music going?’
It’s a completely normal, acceptable, and appropriate thing to ask me. I am after all a songwriter and musician. But I get thrown every single time I get asked it; my mind goes blank, and I get so lost in how I can possible answer that invariably I say little more than ‘yeah it’s fine – I’m doing a fair bit of stuff‘ and other generalisations.
There are many questions that provoke the same kind of response in me:
‘What have you been up to?’
‘How was your day?’
In the last two posts I discussed how we understand success, our inevitable misconceptions of other peoples’ successes and the debilitating role fear sometimes plays when we consider the big picture ways successes might change our life.
In this final post I want to talk about some of the ways we can break down our fears, confront them and ultimately understand our goals and dreams in a way which no longer overwhelms us, but rather frees us to enjoy, rather than fear the process. I don’t have all the answers, and I am writing about this because it is something that I struggle with, but I will just describe some of the things I have found useful in understanding what success means to me and what achieving it might look like.
Let’s start again at the Oxford English Dictionary definition of success:
“The accomplishment of an aim or purpose”
That is easy enough to understand. Success in other words, is simply achieving something you set out to achieve. You know what you are aiming for, and you do it.
The first thing we need to do then is work out what we want to accomplish. If we don’t do that then we have absolutely no point of reference by which to measure our success. We will never succeed because we don’t know what we are trying to achieve. This is often the first problem, and a symptom of what I described previously as other people’s stereotypical expectations of what success looks like in our particular field. We aim for the extrinsic rewards without understanding what exactly we need to do because that is what we see success to be.
Choosing Your Goals
There are different levels of goals that we can set ourselves in life and it is important to write these down so that they are officially identified. Take some time to decide what is important to you; make a list of your priorities in life, from what is most important down to what is least important.
It might be helpful to even have a go at writing your own obituary, morbid as it sounds. How do you want to be remembered by the different people in your life? I am in the middle of writing ‘a look back on 2012’ – writing from the perspective of this time next year, what do I want this year to hold, and what does it look like. I am writing it like a diary rather than simply in the form of a list of things I want to do. This means I go through and think about how rather than simply what, and as a result things are much more realistic than if I were to abstractly (and ignorantly) put something like ‘get signed’.
Once you have your goals in writing you can start to unpack the aims within each area. Be as brutally honest about your dreams as possible. No one else needs to see them. Remember: Who we are is completely dependent on what we do, not on who we say we are or what we say we are going to do. If you tell people your goals, prepare to not be the person they think you are, unless they think you are someone who doesn’t keep your word, if you happen to fail to achieve them. I believe you are less likely to accomplish something if you tell people what it is you are aiming to do. Derek Sivers talks about this and how declaring your goals gives you the same feeling as actually doing them.
Shorten Your Goals
Let’s say for example that you want to run a marathon next year. You are not a runner and you are not that fit.
In itself, as an aim that is not going to motivate you to do what you are setting out to do. It is far too broad and there is too much of a gap between where you are now and to where you want to get. It is no good having a dream if it remains so detached from your present position. You must break it down into short term projects ( 90 day challenge style).
For example, if you want to run a marathon you have to start running. Simple. So one aim within the first three months would be to get out a few times a week for a gentle jog. Just start. After this you will want to begin pushing at the next goal of going further, so another target could be to push to three miles within the first 90 days. Once you start training for realistic goals then other things will naturally fall into place. You will notice the things that help your body cope better (ie, your diet might naturally change), your sleeping patterns might improve etc.
Work Within Your Means
Don’t spend money on things you don’t need. All that is required is the most basic tools and you can build from there. Often as humans, we have a tendency to buy all the bits and pieces that people try to convince us we need in order to embark on a new project. We want to fit in, and look like experts – generally this practice does the opposite. Don’t succumb to this, start with as little as you can get away with. It’s much more fun, and will also enhance your skills and creative ability more effectively.
If you follow this through to its logical conclusion, you will be forever progressing through the constant reflection on and renewal of your aims. This will lead to a consistent, deeper sense of intrinsic success. At the end of each 3 months you will be able to look back with a sense of amazement at how far you have come without even realising.
It works with almost any of your dreams, whether it be getting fit, spending more meaningful time with your family, finding a job, acquiring a new skill, booking a tour, writing an album, getting on a uni course etc. The end aim might start as a daunting prospect, so far beyond our comprehension, but through a process of short-term goals you can succeed without even feeling it. We fear things when we are unsure of them – and we fear success because we can’t cope with the unknown and progressive consequences.
No More Believing that Gatekeepers hold the key
The great thing about doing this is it negates any notion of requiring permission from gatekeepers. As a musician if my dream were to sign a record deal then I would have to try and convince a whole series of gatekeepers that I can make them money as they ‘make me’. This is simply not true. We ‘make’ the people around us and ourselves by granting our own permission. This goes for most things; if we believe that we need someone else’s permission to succeed, and consequently spend all our time, effort and money in trying to get it, then we are way off course.
Give yourself the permission to do what you can do right now, and you’ll be surprised that along the line you will be granted permission from all sorts of other sources. In fact this has probably already happened countless times throughout your life, but you just haven’t realised it because it felt so natural. Live in the moment and you will inevitably succeed, and you will undoubtedly be a more pleasant person to be around.
Decide on what you want to achieve next. Write an obituary or a look back at the coming year. Create some manageable and actionable targets for the next three months. They need to be things that you can definitively say you either did or did not accomplish. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Enjoy.
In my last post I discussed the way that success is often seen as an extrinsic rather than intrinsic notion, as we are judged on the rewards we get for our work, rather than the work itself. Public opinion uses stereotypes to box its understanding of what apparently successful people in our particular field have been rewarded with in the past, so that it can judge us in the present. This brings with it the unhelpful yet prevalent idea of ‘making it’, which we hear in all fields. It is an abstract concept that nobody ever achieves, which only serves to make most people feel like failures at every stage of progress. It also leads to a life in which we are never content, and always living to serve the judgement of stereotypes rather than the intrinsic passions inside us all. This is the problem when success is evaluated by money and fame, both of which are in essence substantially valueless.
In this post I want to think about success as something that inhibits our incentive to work.
It sounds like a contradiction. Surely if we knew we were going to be successful we would do the work and be happy about it? That would be a breath of fresh air.
Or perhaps not…
Maybe we have a world full of brilliant people who are too afraid to do what they have passion and abundant potential for because there is a chance they might succeed.
The implications of success, especially public opinion success as we understand it through our limited fame and fortune lens, can be an overwhelming burden to bear. Note, I say the implications of success (the extrinsic) rather than the inherent success of the work itself (the intrinsic). The historic fruit of civilisations is the intrinsic successes of individuals; it is not brought about by the extrinsic rewards, which paradoxically encourage mediocrity, middle ground and completely forgettable work.
Fame and fortune are NOT incentives for genius; they are the carrot for foolishness.
Why do we want to be successful?
This is an important question and one we should constantly ask ourselves, along with that of what do we want to be successful at and what does success look like. Does a need to prove ourselves, maybe a desire to be accepted, or perhaps a yearning for respect drive our desire to succeed? What sort of success, and what sort of people will we become if this is our motivator?
Fear can drive us to act and it can drive us to bury our heads in the sand. There is something very real about the fight or flight response when it comes to our own lives. Often there is a third response, which involves inaction rather than the active decision of fighting or fleeing the situation. We stall, we put our heads down and unquestioningly get on with it, we accept the status quo, we try to blend in, we try to stay comfortable, we keep our routine and we engage with a limited, safe and biased understanding of the world and other people. Even though we might have a great passion, desire and dream of breaking out of these patterns, the fear of actually succeeding in this can be motivating factor enough to stop us from ever doing it.
It is the fear of success. We might push a little bit every so often, before we allow what Freud called the ‘need to fail’ to sabotage our efforts. In other words we don’t actually want to achieve our dreams, but we want to feel like we have at least tried.
Common underlying fears of success are as follows:
– You will enjoy less time for yourself.
- You will have to assume more responsibilities.
- You will have less time with your family.
- You will have to hire more employers and that will mean more headache because you have to be concerned about worker motivation, office space and so on.
- You will have to uphold a higher set of standards because you are now a leader.
- Others will envy or be jealous of you.
- You do not like to deal with changes to routine.
- You suspect that you would not be as happy.
- You believe that it will mean never-ending work.
- You do not like being famous.
- You believe that the higher you climb, the harder you will fall.
These are all very general fears and what I would describe as big picture concerns. It is like looking at everything you have got to get done in a single week at work, and thinking of it all outside the context of time. The sheer volume of stuff can be quite overwhelming, but we do have time, and the ability to manage that time to make sure that everything gets done. Once we get going it doesn’t even feel like we are ticking things off that overbearing list from the start of the week. Similarly, we can have paralysing generalised ideas of success, with the belief that everything changes in the blink of an eye.
We have come to believe in the notion of ‘overnight success’ as a reality rather than a myth (it is not real – it is an illusion, outside of reality TV shows), and this leads us to irrational fears about our life being turned upside down. In truth, life is a process. It is a process of growing deeper in our understanding of ourselves, the world and one another, and success is an inevitable part of this. If we are moving forward then down the line the little fears that we have at the moment wont even be a factor, we will roll with the punches and get on with what we need to do without even thinking.
If we think beyond ourselves and fear an abstract notion of success the following consequences can ensue:
– You lack motivation
- You downplay your dreams
– You progress slowly
– You consistently underacheive
– You feel confused about what you want out of life
– You feel negative emotions like guilt, shame, denial, envy etc.
– You rarely feel connected to your ‘true self’.
Because there is disconnect between our present reality and our concept of success, the fear can consume us and totally stop us from doing anything at all. It is this that leads us to talk about our dreams but never act on them. It can also lead us to be damaging to other people who do act on them. We can become bitter, negative and jealous of people who don’t let fear control them. As well as having that ‘need to fail’ ourselves, we manifest a need for others to fail too, so we put our efforts into sabotaging their progress.
Do you recognise any of these fears in your own life? Make a list of any others that might halt your progress.
In the next post I will explore some ways in which we can get out of dwelling on big picture thinking, and move into a life of meaningful and intrinsic success that needs nothing more than a mindset to be achieved.
‘When do you think you will make it then?’
‘Did you see that x seems to be finally making it?’
‘When will you give up on this if you haven’t made it by then?’
If you are creative and are serious about your craft then you will probably recognise the sentiment behind these questions. Many people ask these sorts of questions without thinking, yet when you actually consider what is being said, the whole concept doesn’t really make any sense. It is loaded with false assumptions about reality and carries a weight to bear upon the artist that declares, albeit inadvertently that they are not yet valid.
For the artist, this can damage our view and understanding of success. By passing the job of defining our hopes and dreams to people outside of our context (informed in all likelihood by popular mass media), we allow the way we see our art and our relationship with it to be influenced by fabricated notions of what success ‘should’ look like. We are then in real danger of narrowing our own dreams to stay within these tiny abstract and arbitrary boundaries.
This is true in any field of work and essentially comes down to the underlying presence of ignorance and stereotypes within us all. When you talk to someone outside of your own area of expertise you draw on what limited knowledge you have of their area, and this is made up of ideas rather than experience. But these stereotypes are possibly more powerful within the creative world because it is public opinion that artists can want to either influence or adhere to. This means that we are in turn influenced by public opinion on what constitutes a successful artist, even though there is no consensus on such a thing. Public opinion is that, as artists, we must be ‘trying to make it’, which on the whole (eg. for a musician), to the general public maybe means getting a record deal and being on radio/TV. For the writer it might be getting a book published and being short-listed for a big literary award etc.
Success is therefore measured specifically by what happens beyond the work itself. People don’t care if you have written an astonishing 800-page masterpiece that would easily hold up next to War and Peace. Unless you are lucky enough to find an acclaimed enough agent who can be bothered to read it and pass it on to a reputable publisher who is willing to take a chance on it so that you can earn abundant royalties and receive a large advance for your next book, you have failed. At least that is true in accordance with general public opinion.
If you are rich and famous you have made it.
If you sign a record deal you have made it.
If you are/have neither of these then you must be failing for they are the very definition of success.
Take a moment to think about some of the ways success in your field might be stereotypically measured by public opinion. Is this a satisfactory way to measure it? Have you been influenced into defining success in these terms?
More often than not public perception of success, in any field is measured by image and fortune – everything is seen through the money lens. This is designed to leave us in a perpetual state of discontentment.
It is blindly assumed that if you have made money and notoriety you are successful. Most of us know somewhere deep down that this is not true, but we still believe it. We also know that happiness is not tied up in these things, but we still assume that we would be happy if we had them, and again strive to get them.
Success is encountered in the personal external rewards rather than the product of what we do. We falsely identify ourselves then not by what we do, but rather in what we have and what others think we are. The notion of success has therefore become extrinsic rather than intrinsic, and we chase after meaningless expectations rather than real world value.
Do you listen and believe other peoples’ expectations of what success should mean for you?
Have you ever made a list of what you would genuinely like to achieve?
What is the heart of your ambition – is it intrinsic or extrinsic? i.e. Do you focus on the dream of fame and fortune, or is there something more meaningful driving your passion for your work that you would (ideally) do whether you got paid or not?
This is an important question to answer when it comes to knowing where you want to take your work, and what you will say the next time someone talks to you about ‘making it’. Perhaps you could ask them what they mean. Chances are they wont really know because they wont really have ever thought about it.
In the next post I will be talking about the problem of fear and how we can sometimes sabotage our own potential because we are afraid of abstract consequences.