The bulk of this piece was originally a letter to a beloved, relatively distant family member explaining my current position on work, success, and life. If you’ve ever struggled with your place in life or a sense that your work lacks direction or importance, this is for you.
Hey, great to be in touch. You’re about to dive into a much denser thicket than you surely expected, because selfishly my chewing on your queries has helped me put my finger on a number of things about my philosophy which I heretofore hadn’t articulated. So thank you for the questions and thank you for bearing through the answers, if I can assume so much!
It took me a good while to wrap my head around what conversation we were actually having a month ago, and why I felt so ill equipped to have it at the time. I’ve since realized it’s because I do not share a framework for understanding many foundational aspects of life- big words with big baggage like “career,” “work,” “success,” and even bigger ones like “reality!”- I do not share the framework, the philosophy, that dominates our culture. The reasons for this lack of shared philosophy- not that I am entirely alone in it, but mine diverges certainly from the dominant paradigms at least in US cultures and especially those of Americans above say 35 years old conservatively and many as young as 20 years old- some have to do with that (age), some with travel (spending time in Tibet and amongst desperately poor people, I know now 13 years later, fundamentally changed me, as trite as that sounds), some with being an artist (which is different than someone who plays guitar, or paints, or plays at business, etc), some with having always been preoccupied with “religious” questions (matters of ultimate importance, philosophy, why are we here and what are we gonna do about it, reckoning with death & suffering, what happens after we die, what was happening before we were born, etc), and last but not least, some are just Josh being Josh, whatever that Venn Diagram of DNA and spirit is composed of. From my childhood, not only did I not care about the things my peers seemed to care about, I didn’t even know how or why they would care about them. Our motivators lacked contact.
So there by the fireplace at we were having the “success” conversation, the one families have over Thanksgiving dinner, and frankly the one the younger generation at any table dreads! I know no pressure or performance was expected by you, and I know you are rooting for me and your curiosity was genuine, which I deeply appreciate. The crux of it in my mind was when I talked about pursuing music, and in essence you suggested/asked if that game might look something like this: Songwriter writes song/s with commercial viability in mind, songwriter pitches song through whatever the channels of the day are, songwriter hopes a “big” artist bites, buys, records, distributes…and finally songwriter gets a royalty check.
Despite the woes of streaming for writers, this is still a very real and maybe for a time even viable model. I have a good music friend who is starting her own music licensing company with partners in LA as we speak. In any event I said something like “That doesn’t interest me,” and you asked “What does interest you?” Which I think was probably the best question anyone has ever asked me about career/work/meaning and believe it or not one that no one as close as you are has asked me, especially not in that context.
I think to answer your question and scratch my own itch here, I first need to answer why that model, I’ll call it the “old songwriting” model, though I mean more broadly than just in the music industry, doesn’t interest me. It’s related to a slew of topics and intergenerational luggage (I won’t quite call it baggage in this case, but it’s certainly containers filled with stuff:) I’d put under the header of “Security.”
“Security” is a word with disproportionate emotional weight in our culture and even moreso in the micro ecosystem of our family. I think that’s more true for my mother’s sides of the family than my father’s, so in this case I do mean “our” as in shared between the family you married into and I was born into. My dad’s folks, being originally working class and not college educated, lived a lot closer to earth literally and figuratively, and as I have observed over the past thirty-three years, preoccupations of “security,” though shared between classes, take on varied definitions. To folks coming from somewhere (figuratively) more like Mary Ruth and Earl, “security” meant something fairly straightforward- stability, reasonable assurance that if you showed up on time and did a decent job you wouldn’t get canned, and food on the table. There wasn’t a lot of ideology around “security” beyond that; to “provide” was essential and noble and enough, to do work you enjoyed was an unexpected bonus, and to do work that impressed others was an afterthought at most. I may be idealizing; everyone in every place wants to flex a little! But relatively speaking, I think I’m correct.
To an educated class like we find on Mom’s side, “security” means many of those things, but has layers of meaning as we find as we move up through classes, educationally at least as much as financially, though in this case we’re looking at both. As an aside that may be less tangential than it initially seems to me, that largely is what constitutes “class,” beyond pure dollars and degrees- the layers of meaning collaboratively laid upon various activities and their absence, accidentally or otherwise, particularly with regard to perceived importance, prestige, and social approval.
I had a tremendous experiment in class which I was truly lucky to escape, not because of class or money itself but because of the particular context, which was my marriage to a once dear friend. My former partner is a wonderful person in many ways, with a terrible hole in her psyche, her self, her ego- all of the above. Alison was taught to a painfully forceful degree that love and approval are based on performance and societal approval. Whose societal approval? Whoever was at the top- in terms of finances, power, and perhaps above all, the social gatekeepers of prestige related to education and more importantly position. I don’t want to pick on her but this is crucial to my story and my position to all these issues.
My ex-wife thought she had in me a budding performer. Not the kind I live to be, but the kind who could “perform” for her grandparents, whose largess her entire lifestyle had been dependent upon, for her parents, who probably didn’t actually care, but she like probably all of us felt she had things to prove to our parents that she actually didn’t, and most importantly, for her high-brow, socialite, moneyed friends, those she’d always sought out, to camouflage herself amongst hoping their approval would deem her belonging. If she could just be “one of them,” then she would have made it. Which so sadly was a losing game, because even if she had had the show-horse husband she thought she had secured- thought a bit of a late bloomer and maybe a scratch-and-dent special she had herself!- and the masters’ degree and career for herself, and the kids, house, 2.5 kids, picket fence and three-car garage, she would still deep down feel like an imposter.
I share that not to get into a therapy session but to lay out this crucial example, this painfully clear illustration I have the privilege of referencing. And it is a privilege, and it is truthful and without any meanness that I say I am so grateful to have escaped it- and it feels very much an escape. That life would have absolutely suffocated me, and had it not ended as early and relatively easily as it did, it could have been truly disastrous for both of us and others.
Now none of this is to demonize money, societal prestige (the only kind of prestige there is, since it is based on an agreed upon aggregate of subjective perspectives- changing rapidly, I’ll add), high-class people and activities (I enjoy a few myself!) or certainly “success” of the “old songwriter” model, whatever form that takes in any given industry.
What it is to say, is that I have seen up close and personal the hollowness of pursuing those things, any of them, for their own sake. It’s a losing game. There is never enough. It’s a ruthless North Star because it’s always moving. I can’t live like that.
Now- back to “security,” and those other words: “career,” “work,” and the big one- “SUCCESS”:
The short answer to why I believe every one of those big words should be and are being redefined is this:
I feel the need to capitalize it because it is like a person, a place, and a way of living wrapped into one. It is very much a new god. I think there’s a tendency to believe that the internet isn’t fundamentally different than the media and market forces that came before, that it’s essentially a speeding up of things. That it’s a quantitative change more than a qualitative change. It’s natural to assume so because the nature of true qualitative changes, of transformations, is that we have no point of reference for the new thing other than the old thing. It’s natural, and it’s also inherently a mistake.
The internet to all former technology/media/life shaping forces is less like the automobile was to horses- and that is a technological breakthrough I can scarcely begin to imagine- and more like airplanes were to automobiles. We could only travel in two dimensions before (okay we had scuba but still:). The analogy is imperfect but hopefully gives some sense of the scope of exponentiality, the qualitative transformation, the quantum leap embodied in the internet, especially in 2019 (vs say 1999, 2009, or even 2014). The internet is all grown up.
We THINK we’ve seen “all this change” and that we’re “finally” “getting used to it.” Again, I think we as a society are dead wrong about that. In the words of The Carpenters, “We’ve Only Just Begun!”
I could go on, but here’s what I think this means: every industry is in deep doo-doo. Every single one. And the more bureaucratic an ecosystem is, the more layers of excess wedged between producer and consumer, the more vulnerable its inhabitants are. Amazon ate Borders, and every other mom and pop bookstore in the country (exaggerating, and there are counter-movements of course, but those don’t change the point)- and “Amazon” is coming for absolutely everything else too.
There was a time I thought “Isn’t that terrible!” Well, sure, automobiles were terrible if you were in the horse and buggy business.
The way I have made peace with this around music is to completely divorce my personal music making from the motivation to monetize it. Note I say from the motivation- I do make part of my income from music, and paradoxically the more I do it for its own sake the more money seems to be generated from it. But my personal music and music-related branding work for myself is 100% divorced from any intention to monetize it. That is the ONLY way to be artistically free. And being artistically free is the only way to create what I most want to without the slightest pressure of “But will it pay?” I work two jobs, six days a week to facilitate that- jobs that I love and that generate opportunities of all sorts. Because creating what I want is my legacy. I think about my legacy every day, a lot. Not because I’m so important but because we all should- when we are gone, it is all that will remain of us. When I’m dead I will not care a speck about some financial hardship I endured to stay artistically free- to build my legacy.
Currently I generate anywhere from 3-10 pieces of content for the internet per day, from guitar reviews and songs on YouTube to pithy tweets to Instagram stories to LinkedIn motivational thoughts to Blog posts to Vlog posts…etc. This surely isn’t “branding” from a business school perspective, but again we go back to values and motivation, as well as the pre/post-internet discussion in the next paragraph. I learn by doing and I’d rather practice than debate. I also am utterly and thoroughly done with school of any kind!:) Being “good” at school and identified by my academic success, mostly by others, made it very hard for me to own the fact that I hate school! I’ll not go back without a darn good reason. I like being in the market too much.
Lest this go on forever, I’ll give some idea of what “success” and “security” mean to me. First, any definition of either of those words that is based on a pre-internet world is, to me, irrelevant. All the middlemen are going away. The prestige and economic power of college, already largely imaginary, is going away. Not entirely, but to a degree still unimaginable to most Americans. The irrelevance of any model of career/success that is based on a pre-internet world to me cannot be overstated. This can rub some people wrong so let me clarify- any MODEL, not any principle. In fact the principles will be the only thing left (work hard, if you want extraordinary things you need to do extraordinary things, be a good person not just because it’s right but because it pays off in the long game- etc).
“Security” for me must be defined as the minimization of vulnerability. I have a long way to go in that category- divorce is a big setback! But holding back on being who I really am was a much bigger setback. My chief ways of minimizing vulnerability is by having multiple income streams based on real work, and by having few and small liabilities. Currently I have at least four streams that are active, with many more dormant and waiting to be activated at any time (these are various music projects. Each is headered under “music” but represents a real and distinct network of money-making possibilities). To be sure the aggregate of these streams leaves plenty to be desired! But I’m playing a very long game.
Lastly, you also said something to the effect of “You want the good life.” And you’re absolutely right! Again we get into definitions, and we’re back to “Success.”
Success to me must be measured in direct proportion to happiness/satisfaction. And it must be 100% internally motivated (as an ideal) and derived. Anything else is chasing carrots. I may live to 112, and I may die next Thursday. Likely somewhere in between. Whenever it happens, I will not die chasing a carrot. I’ve got the carrot, because the carrot is my own life, lived with purpose, giving happiness and improving people’s moments, creating the things that I want there to be more of in the world that I have the power to create.
This is not a cop-out or a work-around; it is not a consolation prize I offer myself because “making it in music is so hard” or anything to that effect. I would like very much to have “bigger” experiences in music, both online and on stage. But I do not confuse those things with success. I won’t make myself vulnerable in that way, because to live that way is to be a victim. If my success is contingent on whether or not I get something that is ultimately out of my control, then I have already failed. My success is then not in my own hands. I am a victim, and if I do “win,” I am just lucky, no matter how hard I worked for it.
I see virtually everyone living this way. It is most difficult to make my worldview make much sense to such people; our values are too chasmed. My people, who are few and far between but very easy to recognize, are those who live MY way- knowing they are a success because they are making what they want to make in the world. They tend to be artists and entrepreneurs- and anyone who is truly either of those things is at least partially the other one as well. They are few, and they are far between. But the connection there is very sweet. We know what the carrot tastes like. Don’t get me wrong, we always want more and bigger carrots! Probably much moreso than the other types. But we enjoy the one we have, because it itself is the climb, and no event, person, or setback can take that away from us.
Thank you so much for entertaining the opportunity for me to flesh out some of this perspective. Maybe now my response can make more sense as it has a context to sit in.
Great Big Love to everyone reading this. We need you.