Success on Your Own Terms
About 20 years ago, I was at the book launch for "Roots & Wings", a creative journal I had co-written for expatriate children. We'd booked one of the most beautiful venues in the heart of Paris's diplomatic quarter, splurged on the catering and looked forward to welcoming some of the most prestigious company HR directors to the event. An hour into the event, geared up to make our speeches, we noticed that most of our VIP guests were missing despite RSVPs that had confirmed their attendance. Indeed, we were at about 30% capacity. I could feel my heart start to sink. And then I heard: "Yassar Arafat's just arrived - they've closed off all of the roads for the police escort"... so there it was - nobody could get to the venue! We shrugged our shoulders and turned to the smiling faces of those who had squeezed through before the blockades. We filled up those champagne flutes and thanked them with all of our hearts. I still remember the excitement, the laughter and the love I felt that night. As it happens, those who missed the party heard about it and still ordered tons of books for their teams. I'm not sure we missed out on sales and I did take home quite a bit of the leftover champagne along with some happy memories that still feed me to this day.
I share that story because I took something else home with me that day: the understanding that success, for me, needed to be defined in terms of what I could control rather than external measures.
Attendance, in training circles and book launches - like music performances - is a standard, easy, visible, tangible thing to measure and celebrate. And yet, from my anecdote, it's clearly not something I was alone in ensuring. If we had focused on just attendance numbers, we'd have missed out on a beautiful moment.
This story came back to me recently after a conversation I had with an artist I'm close to. They shared their anxiety about ticket counts leading up to a show and especially tours. They just didn't want to know. When I asked them why it was such a big deal, they answered: "If I don't sell out, I feel I've failed. I wonder what I'm doing wrong. And then I'm afraid about whether I can get more shows since bookers look at those figures." They explained they knew of other artists who only looked at ticket counts in the company of therapists or supportive friends. Those sales numbers, I discovered, could be incredibly triggering: Is anyone going to show up? Is it my art? Should I find another career? This is all coming apart!
I reminded them that they weren't alone in the decision to hold and market a show - they had a manager, agent and a venue who had agreed it was a go. I highlighted the fact that during a pandemic period, news on a variant could flip a switch on a show. Finally, I reminded them that no one in the team had had any expectation of sold-out shows or would have even burdened themselves with that pressure in these current times.
The only fair expectation anybody can have in these times is to do the best you can with with the resources you have. Period.
We changed topics and left the subject of ticket counts aside but I've been mulling over that conversation ever since and revisiting other discussions I've had with artists in the past years.
And it really hit me suddenly that so much of our goal-setting has been related to those tangible, visible indicators that seem to be industry standards: record sales, streams, draw, awards, etc. In fact, I've inadvertently included some of these in my career planning goal-setting steps! Yikes.
We need to challenge these indicators as personal measures of success if we want to put our mental health and career wellness first! This is not an anti-industry stance... it's about making sense and setting sustainable and attainable goals.
- Review your current goals (whether these are for a specific show or a more general career plan). How many of these are within your control? Which ones are externally influenced?
- Reframe the goals so that they reflect results based on your efforts. For example, instead of projecting "I am going to sell out the February shows", tweak it with "I'm going to work with each venue to market the February shows using my social media platform, investing $300 in targeted ads, creating a poster, sending out a press release to local press, etc."
- Reflect on your own success with "Did I do my best with the energy and resources I had available to me at that time?"
- Reconcile your results with the realities you had to face - sometimes, we fail to meet our targets. In France, there's an expression I find comforting: "Y a pas de morts d'hommes" - "Nobody's died"... it's a way of keeping some perspective on things. Ok, so your album release was a bust and you didn't get streamed on the Spotify playlist that you had hoped for... nobody's died because of it. Let it go.
- Raise your glass and celebrate happy moments - yes, a sold out show feels great! or a favourable review or a sweet note from a fan... Recognize these tangible nods as encouragement and enjoy them!
- Relax. When you've set your artistic intention with care and anchored your career with purpose, you've already created the foundation for success.
Let's never lose sight that goals are simply there to guide us on our way towards a vision or purpose. As the world around us changes or as we change ourselves, we can refine our goals so that they continue to be useful to us. So if ticket counts are making you anxious, maybe consider dropping those as any sort of indicator or your personal or professional success - they're just numbers, not values.
As we wrap up this year, focus on the highlights and the efforts you put in to make them happen. It's been quite the ride, for sure. If you're up to a session to get-ahead on 2022, don't forget that we have a Build-Your-Brand session nestled in on Dec 29th. Hope to see you there.