Personal Musings

How to Be (Un)successful

Has someone ever told you not to follow a certain path because it’ll lead nowhere and there’s no future in it? Let’s talk about that.

I was a musician once. Unsuccessful in terms of worldwide fans and billions of records sold. But was I really unsuccessful?

Who Defines Success?

Who or what do you envision when you think of someone who has achieved success: do they have a lot of money to their name, a big house and nice car? Are they well-known? That’s where most of us default when we think about success.

A 10-Second Test

Quick! Who comes to mind when you think of someone successful? You have 10 seconds to name these off the top of your head. Here are mine:

  • Michael Jordan
  • Kobe Bryant
  • Rolling Stones
  • Brad Pitt
  • Quentin Tarantino
  • Taylor Swift

Did you name anyone in your family, like your grandmother or grandfather? Why not?

The Definition of Success

If you look up success in the dictionary, you’ll see that success has multiple ways of being defined. The first is:

The accomplishment of an aim or purpose.


The second:

The attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.


Let’s start with the second definition since it’s what we lean toward in our culture when we think of the “successful person.” For the purposes of this essay, I am going to focus on being a musician at one time in my life. Feel free to substitute with your own personal endeavor that didn’t lead to worldwide fame and riches beyond your imagination.

Success as Defined by a Culture Obsessed with Fame

I. Fame

I didn’t attain fame, wealth, or social status by playing in a rock band when I was younger. Unless by fame you mean known locally by people in my age group. That’s a type of fame, right? Outside of this small circle, that’s a big no to fame.

We did once win a “Louie of the Year Award” for our rendition of “Louie, Louie” during the MySpace heyday. Yeah, sure, we had been broken up as a band for more than six years at this point and it was an elaborate scam by a fake record company and I convinced Scott (RIP) to use his credit card to secure our spot on the compilation album when they created a sense of urgency and laid down a specific deadline for us to submit. But I didn’t realize we were being duped at the time. I was young and naive. None of my old bandmates did either, so it wasn’t just me. As far as I see it, scam or not, we did win an award once.

“Louie, Louie (Kingsmen cover)” from from Self-Titled EP by Anti-Lou. Released: 1998. Track 3.

II. Wealth

Under no circumstances was wealth an end result. I’m fairly certain, no, wait, I am 100% certain, that by the demise of our band we were all in the red considering how much we paid for our instruments, amps, and gas to travel to shows — and beer. Can’t forget the beer. Dwayne even took out a loan at one point. Not for beer. For his new guitar amp.

III. Social status

Eh, nah. That is unless you call being on the radar of the local police a form of social status. Big shoutout to any- and everyone who gave us a heads up the police were about to raid the cabin and/or the parking lot at Spanky’s. A few of our roadies didn’t get the memo in time and got busted with pot. Thanks guys. Who’s going to load up my equipment after the show?

Success as Defined by You Alone

Time to hit the rewind button on the cassette tape. Going back to the first definition that pops up when you look up success in the dictionary — the accomplishment of an aim or purpose — if I go by this definition, I would consider my band a roaring success for a few reasons.

I. We accomplished what we set out to do, and more

Ever since seventh grade, when grunge was in full swing and a second punk rival was taking shape, we had talked about forming a band. Then one day we did. The rest, as they say, is history. We never talked about making it big or anything grandiose. Our aim: play music, together. Goal accomplished.

II. I played music with my friends

I was able to participate in a shared interest with my close friends: playing loud ass music. That’s a pretty sweet deal. Our schedule involved hanging out way too much over the course of the week then spending our weekend with the same guys, all of us stinking of sweat, farts, and cigarette smoke. Rinse and repeat — for years.

For as long as my life goes on, I will have those memories — the good times and the bad. The fights. The arguments. The non-sensical girlfriend stealing as if we were Mötley Crüe. But also: the laughter and the sheer will and determination to create a song from scratch then play it in front of a live audience.

Do you know what it’s like to get up on stage and perform in front of people and hear them sing along to the shit you made up (or covered)? It’s like dunking a basketball for the first time. You never want to lay the ball up off the backboard again in your life.

III. We recorded an album

We recorded an album in an actual music studio. Who cares if it was in Rustburg, Virginia, with Jhon Ackerman and not Los Angeles, California, with Rick Rubin. I still have the CD. I couldn’t play bass worth a lick back then, but did that stop me from playing in a band? Nope. It didn’t stop Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols either.

Every now and again, I’ll play our debut (and only) album for my kids while we’re sitting in the living room twiddling our thumbs. They’ll say things like, “Is that really you?” and “Y’all were really good. What was it like being in a band?”

It was awesome. That’s what it was like. I wouldn’t trade those days for the world.

As a whole, we were a talented bunch considering our age. What we lacked in specific skill, we made up for in other ways by putting on a good show.

The Commonly Held Cultural Definition of Success Is Whack, Jack

Over the course of this essay, I’ve talked about being a musician. But what’s considered successful or unsuccessful has more to do with perspective than anything. Actually, it has everything to do with perspective.

When I asked at the beginning to name someone you would consider a success, my guess is most everyone chose a famous person and no one chose their grandparents, even though their grandparents helped birth generations.

My grandfather on my mom’s side was a plumber by trade. But he was also a good man. He taught us all how to not take life too seriously, how to be a hard worker, and how to love unconditionally. He was pretty successful at being a good human being.

Maybe you know someone who makes a good chunk of money. They have a fancy job title and work for some well known company. That tends to be how we define success in our own family tree. But they don’t spend enough time with their spouse or kids or they think about work constantly, even when they aren’t there. Maybe it’s even you.

Is that person successful? It depends on which definition of success you go with. Go with the first definition. Otherwise, you’re grasping after fools’ gold.

Success is all about perspective. Maybe there’s a part of your past that led nowhere in terms of fame, wealth, or status. There was no future in it. But it was still worth doing nonetheless, even if it’s all in the rearview — where fond memories call home. That’s where Ray’s Ghost resides (inside band joke), after all.

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