The Measure of Success

At the end of each year, I take an account of my own accomplishments. Before I examined it more closely, I felt 2020 had been a complete disaster. But then I realized: I had collaborated more than ever with other talented artists. I volunteered more of my time than in previous years. There were songs and videos that I felt, in retrospect, may be some of my best work. I received more than my fair share of compliments and kudos from my colleagues. Slowly my perception began to shift.

So why didn’t it feel like a successful year in the beginning? Of course, financially we’ve all taken a big hit this past year. But that couldn’t have been the only reason. Or could it? This has led me to rethink my own measure of success.

How do we gauge our own achievements? Are we receiving the information we need professionally, personally, and artistically to make an honest self-assessment?

We all measure success in our own way. We need to feel that our talents and efforts are being valued. So how do we gauge our own achievements? It’s important to look outward as well as inward for this answer. And more importantly, we should ask ourselves the following: are we receiving the information we need professionally, personally, and artistically to make an honest self-assessment?

Inwardly, I believe this depends on personality and how we individually process success. Some people feel so self-assured, they appear to need little feedback. We have all met a few musicians who think highly of their own abilities. Sometimes it’s justified and sometimes it’s not. I know some artists who reject any help or critical feedback for fear they will be seen as less than perfect. Some may be tempted to inflate their successes to bolster their reputation. The problem here is that they may be only deceiving themselves.

On the other hand, some feel unsure of themselves and their evaluation of their own capabilities. They judge their self-worth based totally on outside opinions. In this case, there is the risk they are not receiving an honest assessment, or they may be putting too much stock in someone else’s words.

Many factors can shape how we measure our success. Is it simply a state of mind, or are there concrete factors that help us determine success? My hope is that we can all create a balance that helps us realistically celebrate our successes and the successes of others and create strategies to improve our abilities no matter where we are in our musical journey.

Outwardly, every person needs a small group of people they can trust to tell them the truth—an inner circle so to speak. You may think your close colleagues, friends, or family members give you honest feedback. But it’s been my experience that you need to pose the right questions to the proper people, be truly open to feedback, and be cautious that some may be telling you what you want to hear.

Artists who work with children may be accustomed to leaning heavily on praise in order to encourage students’ creativity and growth. While this might be appropriate for some ages and circumstances, I believe it’s incumbent upon the teacher or caregiver to balance their approach between honest feedback and encouragement.

Many of us may still have fragile egos, but we are now grownups who need to hear honest information to better navigate our own successes. I’ve seen false praise result in broken dreams and financial hardship when an artist invests time and money to discover later they had greatly overestimated their abilities.

Givers of feedback may fear hurting a person’s feelings or appearing unsupportive. There is that possibility. No one wants to be known as the Simon Cowell of children’s music. And there’s also the potential of abuse by those who consider themselves experts and feel they need to police everyone else.

The most positive element of any criticism is the ability to express a strong commitment to the recipient. You support them and are willing to assist them if they value your input and expertise.

The most positive element of any criticism is the ability to express a strong commitment to the recipient. You support them and are willing to assist them if they value your input and expertise. If you don’t possess that commitment, then consider your response—is your motivation in the best interest of the artist? When called upon, some people feel obligated to respond and often find themselves in territory better left to others. Before you respond, consider whether you are the proper person to be giving advice on a particular subject. We have such a vast resource of talent among us, we should make the most of what we already possess!

I’ve developed new friendships and working relationships through constructive dialogue. Some of these have begun with my criticism of another’s approach or idea. As in any relationship, there are risks. But true personal growth, as well as artistic growth, are built on a solid foundation of honesty. When called upon to give feedback, we must be prepared to respond honestly, according to our abilities and expertise, as well as be receptive to the feedback from others—generally in a safe, private manner, though there are times when public debate is called for.

I also think it is occasionally crucial to step outside your comfort zone. I employ several strategies periodically to check my own abilities. For example, when preparing to master an album, I’ll master one song myself and have the same song mastered by several other studios. I’ll then send multiple versions off to my inner circle for feedback without indicating which is which.

In addition, a few years back, I enrolled in an advance audio engineering class at a local university. Even though I had more than twenty-five years of studio experience, it was a little unnerving sitting in a classroom of smart twenty-something adults who were eager to be the best audio engineers in their field. I had to endure my own mixes being studied, dissected, and evaluated in writing by the instructor as well as every student in the class.

At the time, these moments felt like a huge risk creatively and personally. There was the potential I’d learn things about my abilities I didn’t want to face. Ultimately, my faith in my ability was strengthened. We often need to seek feedback outside of our inner circle in order to not deceive ourselves. Risk can be a key component in measuring success.

We should also be wary of information fed to us every day. It can easily cloud our judgement. A news article may seem to focus on the “best” when, in fact, its purpose is to highlight artists who are paying for the attention. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish these “media events” from those that are earned on their own merit.

There are those just as deserving who never receive, nor ask for, the attention. We should seek them out and not rely solely on being force-fed through news articles or social media. A Facebook post is only a snapshot of one’s accomplishments. Like all aspects of life, the perception of success can be greatly skewed. We need to be informed and vigilant in our consumption of information.

There is a wide range of factors to consider when evaluating success. As a community, we must be aware that at times, we put more value in one area of success than others that are just as worthy. Perhaps we should make a conscious effort to broaden our view and approach.

For example, I certainly consider those who create wonderfully recorded and performed songs successful, whether they sell thousands of downloads or not! But there are also numerous artists who are the top-selling children’s artists on Amazon and iTunes. Most are commercially driven, while a few are independent artists. We often dismiss them simply because they don’t fit into our particular musical community. They both certainly merit our recognition as well.

It is a fact that there are those who record wonderful songs that are viewed by hundreds of millions of families through YouTube or other media and receive much less adulation than those who are nominated for a Grammy. There are those who perform hundreds of days a year in small community schools and libraries—thousands of teachers and caregivers who connect with children every day. There may be no awards or press releases for these successes, but they are no less deserving of our admiration and encouragement. And since they do not receive honors or accolades, it’s up to us to bring them into the light.

Be aware that our judgment can be obscured and swayed by many factors inwardly and outwardly. There must be an awareness that each of us is responsible for evaluating our own success and abilities, as well as recognizing and encouraging others with integrity, honesty, and encouragement, even in areas that don’t fit our individual definition of success.

For you artists and educators just getting started, be committed and persistent. But be ready to look inward for strength and resolve and outward for honest feedback and support from those who have years of experience.

For those who have been around the block more than once, success can be as sweet as ever. I reject the notion that it’s too late to learn and grow. Never! Success grows when it is nurtured. Have the courage to test yourself and expand outside your comfort zone, knowing we are all here to cheer you on—as you may be asked to support and cheer on the younger generation with wisdom and honesty.

In the end, success comes down to what I choose to value and how I determine the weight of my individual achievements.

I am certainly susceptible to many of the struggles, temptations, and misconceptions I’ve laid out here. Politics, family issues, financial challenges, as well as a global pandemic, shifted my focus away from what I value personally and artistically. And most importantly, I failed to be open to my success. In the end, success comes down to what I choose to value and how I determine the weight of my individual achievements.

In the process of writing this article, I now have a clearer understanding of my own success story. But I have neglected one other measure, perhaps the most important of all. While I was writing, I received this message from a parent whose family listens to my recordings: “It’s such a bright spot for my boys. They enjoy your musicianship nearly every day. Thank you.”

I believe my own success story is off to a good start in 2021. May we find ways to see success in all of us!