What The Heck Is Success?

I had a chat with a filmmaker friend recently. At some point he blurted out the phrase “We’re not successful.” 

It was a humorous, blunt thing to say, and it caught me off-guard. It’s definitely not a statement I agree with (and possibly the opposite of an empowering, NLP, daily affirmation), but I knew what he meant. It got me thinking: hey, this is actually a tricky concept, and it’s worth looking deeper! 

The problem? The “success” he was talking about is largely a myth — and I say myth in the Joseph Campbell / Yuval Noah Harari sense: it is a collective story… an agreed-upon idea shared within our culture. (That also means it may or may not be objectively true.) 

So, here are the facts about my filmmaker friend and I, which I responded with after a slight pause:

1 – We’ve had no lasting commercial success with our original creations. We don’t live off our own films and music.

2 – We have no major Film / TV or Music credits.

But I do not see how that makes us unsuccessful. (I also think it’s crazy how much those things make such a difference in how people treat you.)

Still, having one or both of those visible signs of success is like a membership card. Being able to say “I’m in a band on _____ record label with ___” or “I am the director of ___ movie starring ___ actress” can open some doors, for sure. I wouldn’t turn down having one of these membership cards, and I would also do everything in my power to avoid the typical delusions of grandeur.

These visible signs of success can be mixed up in a Package Deal Fallacy. We assume “that guy” who does “the thing” must also have “all this other stuff” happening, too. We assume it just all goes together. He has a mansion and never has to work again, right? I mean, what else is that dang membership card good for?

Some people take advantage of this thinking error to puff up their status. I knew a guy who brought along a fake guitar tech to carry his guitar at NAMM, just to seem like he was a rock star. This sort of scheming is endless out here. I engaged in such trickery myself in the mid-2000s.

It’s hard not to fill in the blanks with our imaginations, and I think it’s a good practice to define what we think “successful” means. It’s a generalization, and I’m skeptical of it.

So let’s examine the fine print on the membership card, which happens to be imaginary fine print. We’ll use a hypothetical TV Show creator / writer / director named Brittany Tyler.

1 – NET WORTH. We can’t know Ms. Tyler’s net worth (total assets minus liabilities) unless it’s been made public for some reason. How much does she make — and more importantly, how much does she SPEND? That house and car she has might be large amounts of debt. Is her mortgage paid off? What are the property taxes on that place? Alright, well, maybe she made good financial decisions, saved her money, lived below her means, invested. Or… is she anxiously trying to sell a new TV show project so she can maintain that lifestyle? Hard to tell. (In contrast, your own next door neighbor might be a multi-millionaire that doesn’t put it on display.) My point is, it’s impossible to know unless we can see all of her accounts. We just assume she has “made it” whatever that means. It would be an interesting world if we all had our net worth on display floating above our heads. My guess is a lot of illusions would go poof.

2 – SUSTAINABILITY. Ms. Tyler had a project that is a commercial success — a hit TV show on a mainstream network, some years ago. That’s great! But it does not necessarily lead to another. Most often, it won’t. She’s been trying to sell / make another TV show, but she’s competing against the people who have had TWO or FIVE hit TV shows. And on and on. So far, she’s spent ten years pitching show ideas and not a single one has actually been made. It can be a complicated process. Lots of stops and starts. The people who decide which shows get made don’t necessarily know what’s good or bad, what will work or what will flop. This week they have the money, next week they don’t. Although it can be done, the odds of sustaining a long career in the arts (or should I say entertainment?) are not good. (That is, unless you’re maybe working on the corporate side, but that’s another blog.) Add to that: through the magic of Confirmation Bias, we tend to notice those who somehow pull it off. Those who don’t, simply fall off our radar. And so, we assume that Brittany Tyler has an infinite career of endless TV show deals waiting for her.

3 – THE “IN.” Stay with me on this one. How did Brittany Tyler get her start? How did she break into the business? Was it because she was the most prepared and qualified? Did she read every book, take every class, and consult every experienced person she could? Or was she another “successful person’s” roommate in college? Or was she a rich kid who didn’t know anything about making a TV show? These things happen because there’s no direct career path, no form you fill out, no door you walk into. (All obvious entryways are blocked because so many people try to go in through them.) Most likely, she befriended the right person that gave her a chance at just the right time. I would bet she is extremely likable and good in meetings — and no, not because she is female, but because getting a TV show made is largely based on your ability to charm people and act like you know what you’re talking about. The “breaking-in stories” out there are often absurd and amount to nothing more than plain old luck. It’s not a direct 1:1 reflection on her (or anyone else’s) abilities, and you can’t overestimate the role of chance in making and breaking everyone’s careers. This is all to say: sometimes people who are seemingly “successful” aren’t any more qualified than the rest of us — so consider that before you listen to their creative advice. ESPECIALLY in entertainment, where skills are so difficult to quantify, personal tastes are mistaken for techniques, and nobody knows anything.

“A sign of celebrity is that his name is often worth more than his services.”

-Daniel J. Boorstin

Bottom line: don’t evaluate your own life in comparison to Brittany Tyler’s imaginary success.

Imaginary TV Show Creator Brittany Tyler arrives at 2021 Imaginary Awards Event in The Imaginary City.

We each get to decide what success really means to us. Maybe it’s writing and recording just one song before you die. If that’s your goal, and you achieve it, are you successful? Maybe success to you is spending time with your loved ones. Or maybe success is enjoying every day that you’re alive — and who cares if you get anything done?

If you don’t already know what success means for you (and why you want it), it’s probably worth figuring it out!

Have I missed my target with some of my goals? Yes. But I’ve planned, executed, and released about 30 serious creative projects in my life. Albums, books, documentaries, cartoons have been steadily completed since I was 15 years old. There are ups and downs, and big lessons. The best way to learn is by actually doing it. Write that book, make your documentary. It’s how you get better. We can’t all have a hit with our first project. It’s a marathon through obscurity, whether it’s now or later.

I’ll end this all by saying: beware of the mirage. Beware of believing you are a failure because you don’t have that membership card yet. It changes in an instant… and it might not get you what you think it will. (Or it just might!)

Focus on the things you can control every day: your attention, your effort, your gratefulness. You’ll need these things for the rest of your creative career, membership card or not.


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