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Thursday, May 8, 2014
What It Takes To Be A Successful Musician and Songwriter
by Dave Isaacs
I’ve written on this topic before, but I recently came across some hard statistical facts that seem to bear out what I’ve believed all along about the role of natural ability in achieving success as a musician and songwriter (as well as virtually anything else).
I’m currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”, a study of the most successful people in a variety of fields. Music is one of the areas he explores, citing specific scientific studies and the data they produced. Interestingly enough, the data was more or less the same across the board, regardless of the field being studied. The question these studies attempted to answer was, are the most naturally gifted in a given area the most likely to be successful?
In every case, the studies Gladwell cited concluded that the answer was no. Even the names that immediately come to mind as the very pinnacle of achievement – Bill Gates and Mozart were two prominent examples – while unquestionably gifted, did not reach their household name status on talent alone. In both cases, these individuals were presented with opportunities to maximize their potential through sheer chance, and followed through with years of hard work.
The “hard work” part is not news. No one would disagree that success takes work. But one of the most interesting things about these studies is that the researchers didn’t find a SINGLE case of an individual that achieved great ability while working less hard than their peers. In other words, they couldn’t find a single instant of pure talent being enough. More importantly, they also did not find a single case of a natural washout – someone who did not achieve if they put in a comparable level of hard work. So while this is not a groundbreaking realization, it should be highly encouraging.
Here’s another really important point. The most successful people in every field didn’t just work hard…they worked MUCH harder than everyone else. Those of us that didn’t have those fortuitous early advantages Mozart and Bill Gates had probably have to work even harder than that. But the beauty of it is, when you love what you do, hard work isn’t work at all. Have you ever gotten lost in something and then looked up to find that hours had passed in the blink of an eye? We don’t always get quite that absorbed, but that love and devotion to our craft help create the circumstances that make hard work more enjoyable. And when things just aren’t connecting, we can look to another factor: discipline.
Let’s face it, artists and musicians are often not considered disciplined people. But this is an erroneous social perception. Discipline is what separates the good from the great, because it allows us to be productive even when we’re not at our best. Life is complicated and full of distractions. We depend upon inspiration and great ideas to create great work, and what makes that channel open up is still one of the great mysteries of life. We have skills, tools, and methods, but still we’re only human…no one is at their best all the time. Author and speaker Og Mandino says in his book The Greatest Salesman In The World, “only a worm never stumbles.” Kind of a funny quote, but the meaning is clear enough.
So let’s back up for a moment. Though we may have been rated and separated as children into groups of “talented” and “ordinary”, we can argue that such classifications are far less important than we were raised to believe. This is good news for those of us who were herded into the “ordinary” pen. And while being classified like that may have held us back in earlier years, here we are today pursuing our passions. More good news. Given all of this, I’d like to ask you to consider something: is there something you’ve wanted to do in music that you chose not to do because you didn’t think you had the ability?
I’m not talking about self-imposed limits that we choose for other reasons – for example, working within a specific vocabulary to fit a certain market. I’m referring to what we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re capable of. This obviously has a huge impact on what we do, because we’re unlikely to put effort into something we don’t believe we’re capable of doing well.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t take specific goals, current abilities, and life circumstances into account. But I know for a fact that there are many people out there who would like to have greater skills than they currently do but don’t really believe they have “what it takes” to reach a higher level. Well, “what it takes” has more to do with your drive, persistence, and time-management skills than it does with “talent”. So to return to my question: ARE you limiting yourself? Why? As the saying goes: if not you, who? If not now, when?