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What does “being successful” mean to you as a musician?

You might answer many things, but I’m going to guess it might sound something like “being respected in my field”, “being sought after”, or “being the best at my instrument”. Or even more specifically; “winning a job in a major symphony”, “winning such-and-such international competition”, “getting a tenure-track job”, etc etc etc.

If you live in Wisconsin and eat cheese for lunch, you might even answer something like “being able to achieve my best potential”.

If you fancy yourself hardboiled and pragmatic, you might say “being able to make a living”.

Or (depending how angry you are), you could just answer that question with “getting a ****ing job”.

Aside from the cheese-eating people, who are still in college-essay land, your answers probably have to do with how you are perceived by others. Fame, power, reputation…all these involve what other people give you. If you were to take other people out of the equation, would you be able to define success to yourself?

Your own idea of success should be the most personal and self-sufficient goal you have. It should be something that even if no one ever witnessed your achievement, would bring you the utter joy of personal accomplishment.

But does that exist for anyone anymore? That personal joy that is not diminished even if you couldn’t share it with anyone?

The entire concept of success has become something else to us socially, and betrays a sickness inherent in our culture.

I started this post in order to question what we define as success, but I found myself wondering why I felt the need to even ask. Why are we defined by how we measure up in the context of other people?

See, success only exists because people need bragging rights. Well, ok, success exists because some time ago, people joined together to become groups, which then needed leaders, who then developed right hand men and entourages, who then exerted authority over everyone else, which then created a social/economic hierarchy in which people with more power and wealth were valued as higher and “better”.

What I wanted to say is – be aware of your own tendency to be ruled by someone else’s concept of success. Do we quickly judge someone as “successful” or “a loser” based on a general outside factors, and not judge them as complex human beings? Part of this tendency is our obsession with labels, and part of it is our habitual high stressed narcissism in which we don’t have the energy, time, or interest to evaluate everyone we meet with honesty and empathy. But a large part of why we’re obsessed with “being successful” seems to me because we are insecure. There is social mobility in America, where “anyone can climb up to the top”, so what and who you are is much more based on what you want to be. Our problem is that what we want to be is entrenched in defining identity is through comparison-based accomplishments.

The problem with this system is that these “accomplishments” are defined by how much “better” one is than other. So much praise is given to people who “win”. Think about how many competitions there are for pianists nowadays. A high schooler can compete every week if they are pushed to do it, slogging through every Sunday with the familiar nauseating stomach flips and the dread of failing the expectations their parents and teachers have put on them. I mean, our entire system of higher education is fucked up in this regard. Don’t get me wrong – I am grateful we have such amazing institutions of higher learning. But the selection process of these places is entirely based on how “better” you are than the thousands of other applicants.

If everyone tries to be extraordinary, then what happens to ordinary? You get things like degree inflation. Every pianist now seems to need to get a Doctorate of Musical Arts. DMA used to be a specialized degree for us, and meant that the individual who possessed one was qualified to teach at a university. Now people just get it because EVERYONE has one, and your application to any job would be tossed out if you didn’t possess it. As Franny puts it – DMA = “Doesn’t Mean Anything”. The standards of being “better” than the rest are pushed higher and higher, but what if these standards are bullshit? Is the end goal just to be “better”?

The thing about music is, there is no such thing as “being the best”. So do yourself a favor and don’t let other people measure your personal achievements. Your success is only for you to see and say.