Don’t tether your happiness to musical success

Don’t tether your happiness to musical success

I know that, like me, many of you have hopes of “making” it in the music business. We all have different definitions of what “making it” means, and I talked about that a few weeks back in my How do you define musical success? article. The question I have for you today is, “Are you relying on the success of your musical career to bring you happiness?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. That issue is part of why I started this blog. I’ve been trying to figure out where my own happiness comes from, and, more importantly, whether I’ve been allowing myself all the happiness I could be enjoying. I think the answer is “no, I haven’t.” So, if that’s true, why not?

one smily face in a sea of sad faces
Yes, this is really a corny image, but isn’t it cute?

I’m sure it’s different for all of us, yet I’m willing to wager that there are similar themes running through all of our individual experiences. We let the state of things–our situations–dictate our happiness all too much. When in reality, the state of things is not always completely up to us. In fact, it’s never completely up to us, is it? There will always be forces beyond our control that work against us. When we think about making it in the music business, there are probably a million forces working against us from every angle. There is a very real possibility that no matter how good you are, and no matter how hard you work, you maybe never be a successful musician according to your definition.

The stoic philosophers talk about the Dichotomy of Control. Simply put, there are some things that are within your control, and other things that are not. They key to happiness, they will tell you, is to focus only on those things you can control, and to let go of the things you have no control over. As a musician, I have control over how dedicated I am to playing regularly in order to improve my skills. I have control over whether I take actions toward releasing new music and putting it “out there” for potential fans and followers to hear and enjoy. In reality though, I have very little control over whether people will like my music or not. While I might think my new song is my best work ever, you may think nothing special of it.

I do have control over how hard I work to understand what people like and how I have to change in order to give that to them, but I have no control over whether when you hear my song you like it or not. And if my art pushes me in a certain direction, as I imagine all art does, it could be a direction that no one has any particular interest in listening to. My songwriting may simply not appeal to people. My voice may not excite anyone. My guitar playing may sound rudimentary and boring to people. Some aspects of that are within my control: I can take voice lessons, I can study guitar with a master, I can work with mentors and fellow songwriters to get feedback and from that hone my writing skills. Still, no matter how hard I work, I simply cannot control whether listeners like what I produce.

We can’t use this idea of the Dichotomy of Control as an excuse to never try to improve. There is always something we can do to make a situation better. Yet at the same time, we have to stop letting those things we cannot control erode our potential for happiness. For example, you can’t control whether a traffic light goes red on you when you’re in a hurry. We know that. Yet how often do we seethe in silent rage, or curse out loud while we pound on the steering wheel? This rage at an uncontrollable fact only creates more anxiety and unhappiness than the situation already holds. You can’t control the red light, but you can control your reaction to it and what you do with the time to pause that the red light has afforded you.

With your music, say you submit your best song to a music supervisor and ask him to consider placing it in a television show. You may have expertly controlled everything you can control, such as the quality of the song and recording, yet you cannot control the music supervisor’s mood, tastes, needs, or anything else about him. It may be your best song, but for a hundred reasons it may fall flat with the music supervisor. I’m not saying there’s nothing you can do to change the situation. You could persist, you could ask questions, you could learn what you need to provide in order to fill the supervisor’s needs. And perhaps you should do all of that. But in the end, it may simply not be what the supervisor needs. You can’t control that, so spending time seething in silent (or not-so-silent) rage, cursing the supervisor and pounding the phone down, does not help the situation, and it does not bring you more happiness.

This is exactly why you shouldn’t tether your happiness to your success in the music business. Or any other business for that matter. Success won’t bring you happiness if it never comes, and that much is clear. But look at all of the successful people who discovered that success didn’t bring them the happiness they thought they’d find. We have to build our happiness independently of our success in reaching our goals. We have to find our happiness in the simple everyday things we have control over, and let go of those we do not control. If you stop worrying over the things you cannot control, you free yourself from their grip. You allow yourself to be happy despite some aspects of your life not working out the way you wanted them to.

The theory I’m working toward operating on is that once I focus on the things I can control, I will start realizing more happiness. And armed with more happiness, those goals I’m chasing will not seem so daunting. I have no control over every aspect of my journey to musical success, so all I can do is focus on those aspects that I can control, control them in a way that will bring happiness, and then ride that happiness toward my higher achievement.

Accept that there will be bumps along the road. You can’t control whether there is a pothole in the road ahead, but you can control whether your run over it or not. You can’t control whether the music supervisor on the other end of the phone is an arrogant jackass or not, but you can control how you react to finding that out. Inner peace and happiness are our weapons against the adversities that will confront us.

So in the end, is it success in the music business that you think will make you happy? Will true, lasting joy come to you if only you can just sign that first deal? If that’s what we’re waiting for in order to be happy, I believe we are likely never to find the happiness we seek. Too much of that is out of our control, and we are ceding the happiness we could have by focusing too much on these beyond-our-control aspects.

I am working hard to avoid tethering my happiness to musical success. I am coming to believe that musical success will only come as a result of my happiness. I’ve flipped the situation on its head. Finding true happiness in the simplicity of my life will free me to be more creative, more relaxed, and more resilient in my musical pursuits. After all these years, it’s a radically different way for me to look at things. Musical success has not come to me the other way, so what do I have to lose?

I challenge you to look at things differently in your own pursuit of happiness and success too. Are you tethering your happiness to success in the music business? How far has that gotten you? Could be you might need to look at things differently too.

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