What is success?
Easy. The Monkees.
At least that’s what I thought when I was ten. I saw Mike Nesmith playing that cool Gretsch guitar on TV. I heard “Steppin’ Stone” on the radio. What could be better?
But for me, what “success” means has changed over the years.
In my 20s my goal was to be a famous musician. I had a band aimed at big things. I scored a publishing deal and songs I’d written were on a couple of albums.
As I scaled the success ladder, I met and got to know people who had what I wanted. People with record deals. Hits on the radio. Good people. Talented people. But something dawned on me.
Success didn’t look like what I expected.
What was I expecting? I don’t know. It sounds naïve, but on some level I thought being a “big shot” would fill in some empty gap inside of me. But the people I knew weren’t more content. They had problems. They worried. Success has its perks, but it isn’t the answer to life.
I left the music business, but I was still a musician. It felt good to have the pressure of career advancement off my shoulders. Problem solved, right? Now I could enjoy music again. But over time something came into focus.
Success doesn’t satisfy, but lack of success doesn’t either. What’s the deal..?
Will Smith says it well:
“I’ve been to the top of all those material world mountains and nothing makes you happy other than being useful to others. That’s it. That’s the only thing that ever will satisfy that thing, is that what you’re doing is useful.”
– Will Smith
Put another way:
The generous will prosper;
those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.
Proverbs 11:25 NLT
I saw an interview with David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld. Jerry asked Dave if he had regrets. Without pause, Dave said he regrets not retiring sooner. Then he could have done something that actually helped people.
Jerry, the contrarian, didn’t buy it.
He said by putting on a great show, Dave did help people. I remember laughing while watching Late Night. His show made life a little better.
The point didn’t resonate with Dave. Why? I have a theory.
Dave’s regrets weren’t because his success wasn’t big enough. It wasn’t because his show wasn’t funny enough. The problem is what drove him wasn’t good enough. His drive for success was all about himself, and now he has regrets. He longs to do something that isn’t self centered.
And Jerry has a point. Dave could have had that motive all along, and his show could have been just as good. Maybe better. And he would have enjoyed his success more.
Here’s the lesson. When our goal is is to serve others with our art (or whatever) we find something. We find satisfaction. Joy. Purpose.