Learning the Truth to Success Through My Failures

So there I was sitting shotgun in super producer JR Rotem’s Maserati, driving up the PCH to Britney Spear’s house for a recording session.  His manager and partner Zach Katz called up, telling him to switch the radio to power 106, just in time to hear the shout-out from DJ Felli-Fel before he played a Game record produced by JR.  I reminisced that it had only been about a year ago that I was editing and tuning vocals for some of the most horrendous singers to ever “grace the mic” at Sanctum Sound Studios in Boston.  One of my few trusted mentors at the time, Steve Catizone said: “You do it thorough and right the first time – this guy may suck but when the day comes where we need to tune Britney we’ll know how to do it great!”  As I looked out the window towards the Pacific Ocean and took in that warm but crisp air I laughed and thought,  “This is it, I MADE IT.”

This was a monumental moment as a recording engineer, but I hadn’t “made it” at all.  My career and life would proceed to advance upwards at a fast and exciting rate.  I would be a part of number one records, earn many platinum and gold plaques, evolve into a producer/writer, sign a pub deal with The Writing Camp and Sony/ATV, then write and produce some exciting songs with great success (depending on who’s asking ;).  Oh yea, getting married to the love of my life and having a baby was pretty awesome too.  The constant and steady life journey and career climb is fun and addictive.  The learning, the growing, the raising pay, the new relationships and the exciting prospects of success is all fuel for pushing harder and better.  Sure there are some tough times, but that’s all part of growth.  “It’s a curse to get everything right on the first try.”  I have to now ask, in a society where we’re always striving to be better and achieve more, what’s the end goal? What defines ultimate success?  How many hits or oscars or acquisitions does one need in order to feel satiated?  “What’s your number?” is a question often asked referring to the dollar amount it would take one to exit the rat race.  All these are personal and deep questions.  No matter what line of work we’re in, we’re familiar with the person who’s met a high level of success who’s only craving more.  It seems crazy, almost psychotic, but it’s so common that it’s the rule, not the exception.  Many people including myself believe that this obsession and drive for more, although fun and gratifying, is endlessly insatiable causing potential health problems, relationship problems, and forces one to miss out on some of life’s finer points.  I have recollections of some very successful music idols of mine living in their late 40’s and 50’s pushing 18 hour days 6 days a week.  “Why are they doing that?”  I thought, “with all their money, awards, and accomplishments wouldn’t they just want to chill out?”  I pictured that their previous career triumphs deepened a hole in their souls that could only be filled with equal or larger triumphs.  What happens though when those expectations can’t be met and personal setback occurs? It’s an inevitability for all of us, and I think it’s here in these humbling moments where we learn life’s greatest lessons.  I consider myself lucky to have experienced such a “setback” early enough in my life, because its in my own biggest failures, that I learned my greatest lessons.

After years of working at Beluga Heights, I left to pursue a wider client base as an engineer, vocal producer and mixer.  Through a series of events led by fate and guided by hard work, I signed a pub deal with The Writing Camp and Sony/ATV.  Thrust into the new role as producer and writer, (don’t worry, I always engineered and usually mixed my own shit), I expanded greatly in every way, learning new avenues of music and business.  I made a lot more money too.  But after grinding it out HARD for four years or so I started entering a state of unrest.  Yes, the industry had been changing, throwing all of us for a loop, but my unrest was coming from a deeper place.  With my music production goals, everyone around me started placing value not on an album cut with an artist, not a license, not even a viral single, but a “once in a lifetime” smash hit worldwide that would propel me into the stratosphere of American producers.  No pressure.

See, because of drastically declining music sales, the only way everyone (the creators, managers, publishers, labels) could make “decent” money off of music was for a song to reach that number 1 hit radio SMASH status.  The market wasn’t buying albums anymore, only singles (with a few exceptions).  The middle class of the music industry had collapsed, and for writer/producers such as myself, the only way to sustain our careers at a high standard was to consistently create music that would achieve record breaking stats.  It seemed like when it came to daily goals, it was all or nothing.  In my opinion, this is wholly unhealthy for a multitude or reasons.  Although not impossible, landing that hit is very hard.  It’s even harder to do consistently.  Ask the most accomplished guys out there.  That’s a lot of pressure to put on oneself, and in a creative environment, that pressure is detrimental to creating one’s best work.  It’s one thing to amass a well rounded catalogue and a solid business foundation through placements and sales while pursuing that hit, but without that possible solid foundation one can only swing for the fences while striking out 99% of the time.  In the music industry where peoples’ value is often placed on hype and a “what have you done lately” attitude, this is just horrible.

So back to me.  I never got that hit.  The longer I didn’t get it, the worst I felt.  I would enter into periods of depression that I would have to pull myself out of to continue on.  Worst off, I worked in the studio through these depressed states, forcing myself to trudge forward.  This happened repeatedly, and it worsened every time.  I started to blame external forces for my “failures.”  It COULDN’T be me, I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, working my ass off!  The business was fucked, my managers and publishers aren’t pitching my songs enough, I became paranoid that my lack of success was making people uninterested in my career.  Looking back, this is all so laughable, if any of my co-workers, ex-managers, publishers and friends are reading this now (you all know who you are),  I APOLOGIZE!!!  See, general happiness and possessing a positive outlook on the future are fuel for good work.  At this point for me, the future was a gloomy place filled with impossibilities and torments.  The funniest part of all this, I wasn’t even unsuccessful!!  I was selling songs and making money.  I had hits in foreign countries.  Everything in life was more or less safe and secure.  I had love for many friends and family, and they had love for me.  My wife and I were healthy, and we had a roof over our heads.  I had let the rat race get to me.  It was funny, because when I didn’t achieve that mega smash hit, everything else in my career seemed like a failure.  When I started resenting music itself, I realized I had a real problem.  How did my passionate love get to that point?  Maybe it was a product of my environment and a ridiculously high standard of excellence?  Nope!  I realized that it was that little voice inside of me, yelling at me that whatever I was doing wasn’t enough.  Actually, it was now a very BIG voice.  For years I had trusted that voice; it had pushed me towards mastery, made me better and motivated me to give it all that I got.  Now, it had turned, crushing me, and it had gotten the best of me.  I realized that this was an internal struggle.  I needed to explore this idea: why did I feel so low and empty when I really had it all?

I revisited the many books I read while at Berklee, the ones recommended to me by my drum mentors that stressed balance and a zen-like approach to mastery.  I learned transcendental meditation, as well as other meditation techniques taught from a more spiritual approach.  I started exercising regularly, practicing yoga, and eating healthier.  I started reading and investigating different spiritual concepts, mostly that of Paramahansa Yogananda, and other Hindu and Yogic texts.  I realized some very key concepts and important lessons through all of this.  I would like to go into those more deeply in other posts, but here are some of the more broad important points:

–  During my career climb and craft mastery (approximately 12 years, from age 18-30), I sacrificed everything about myself for my love of music.  I was sure that this is what it would take to succeed, and I was right, up to a point. This is what Robert Greene describes as the education and apprenticeship stages of mastery.  (Check out Robert Greene’s book “Mastery”).  For me, at this point in my life and career, I needed to find balance.  I let my job and its subsequent successes and failures define me and my view of myself.  This was just wrong!!!  Music was my passion, and passionate work should be FUN.

–  Anything controllable in my life was my responsibility.  No one controlled my destiny except for me.  Every success, and every failure.  Realizing this freed me from my invisible confines holding me back from my duties and gave me the ability to pursue anything I wanted.

–  I reconnected to hobbies, activities, and goals that I had once forgotten – striving for and finding pleasures outside of my primary work allowed me to spread happiness through many areas of my life.  It allowed me to bask in a professional “win” without letting it represent me.  It also made me care less about the “losses.”

–  I ate better and got back into shape.  Our bodies and minds are connected in more ways than we think!  It’s science!  How we treat our bodies affect how we think and feel.  Once I exercised regularly, lost weight, and started feeding myself properly, it cleared the physical and mental junk out of my system and helped me focus on the more important things.  Also, it proved to me the point that our micro and macro decisions on a daily basis REALLY effect us, and that we are the result of them.  I decided to take control.

–  I always held family and friends in high priority, but a lot of times because of work I missed out on treasured moments that I’d never be able to experience again.  I made sure to be present for more of those, and when there, to not be preoccupied by work nonsense.  I know it’s hard to not check a phone or keep the wheels of the brain spinning with ideas and improvements, but I focused diligently at “living in the moments” with my loved ones.  I know it sounds cliche and corny, but at the end of the day, those moments are really important.

–  In order to find my own sense of inner peace I had to find my own well of infinite energy and happiness.  I can describe what that is for me, but it would be all for nought because it is my own spirituality.  I had to realize that iPads, fast cars, big houses, big bank accounts, prestige, and acquisitions only provide temporary happiness.  When that happiness fades, the yearning for more comes back stronger than ever.  Using these things for tools is one thing, but for happiness is another.  I realized that inside all of us there is the ability connect to everyone and everything and that is where true power comes from.  It may sound out there, but I tried to have an open mind.

–  I counted my blessings.  Forget money, race, sex, orientation, or creed, I was a motherfuckin human being alive on planet earth in the year 2012, revolving around our sun in the milky way galaxy.  If I was a force of energy, what a way to be conceived!!!  Of all the molecules and atoms I could possibly be, and of all the places in the universe I could possibly exist, I was a thinking, feeling, communicating homosapien with an iPhone that sends videos into space and back again to my friends.  I mean seriously, who the fuck do we think WE are having “PROBLEMS?!?”  Sheesh.  But I digress…

I eventually realized that my biggest failure wasn’t any result of my actions, relationships, strengths or weaknesses, but my failure to see the bigger picture.  My failure to let myself be happy.  We are MEANT to be joyful, and it’s up to us to allow ourselves to be so.  As far as career and accomplishment? There is no “end goal,” there is no “ultimate success,” because we are already there.  There’s a famous quote: “The Journey is The Reward.”  This couldn’t be more true.  So, whether you’re just starting out an endeavor or you’re a veteran, every moment is already a win no matter what the outcome.  Do your best to embrace it, because that’s all we got.  Let the fame, fortune, blood sweat and tears come next, which it will, because it’s in our nature to keep it all moving.  For me, I revel in my time in the crucible, forging my path to greatness. I realize that because I’m there in the first place, I’m already winning.  Everything afterwards is just a byproduct.