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With my recent spate of posts intending to motivate everyone to take advantage of this unique moment in a cappella history, I do not, by any means, want you to think it's easy.

In fact, one of my least favorite phrases in the English language is "All you need to do is..."

Example: how many of you have had a relative or (usually older) friend alert you to the success of Jonathan Coulton?


If you don't want to read the whole thing, here's the gist: he quit his job, wrote a song a week, and started making real money without a record label.

Now, it's certainly sweet when a relative informs you that there's someone else in the music industry who has had unconventional success, and advice is always appreciated, if misdirected. But "See? All you have to do is..." is simply annoying.

For every Jonathan Coulton there are thousands of struggling musicians posting songs and videos with nowhere near the level of success. Analyze at will, the clear takeaway is that it's not all you have to do.

The most epic version of this I've ever experienced was from the father of a good friend. A very successful inventor and entrepreneur, he has a fast talking, no nonsense demeanor with a healthy dose of "if you're not with me, you're against me. In fact, you're an idiot" in his tone.

       "Deke, I've got it. You want to be rich? Famous?"

       "Yeah, sure. Why not. What's your plan?"

       "Don't make fun of me, I'm serious. This is the big one. This could make you a household name."

       "I'm all ears."

       "I don't think you're ready. This is huge. THE big idea. Guaranteed worldwide fame and fortune. Are you ready? I don't think you're ready"

       "I'm ready!"

       "Ok. Here it is: write a new Happy Birthday!"

       "Wait... what?"

       "Yeah - the current one sucks, and everyone sings it. Just write a better one, and everyone will love you for it, and sing it everywhere, and it'll be in movies..."


Right. I told him there's a "distribution problem," hoping to explain it in his language, but to no avail. He still must think I don't want to be famous. Oh well. I'm happy to have any of you run with this ball, and if you hit it big, I expect nothing more than a nice steak dinner.

So, it's really never "that easy." Especially in music. If it were, everyone would be doing it, right?

Moreover, I think it's extremely disingenuous when you hear the words "Anyone can do _______."

Nothing could be more foolish.

I recall having a meal with the 1996 Olympic gold women's softball team, shortly after their win, with a member who was writing a book.

She was espousing the frequent byline of the successful which is "I was successful, look at me, you can do it too!"

I haven't had dinner with Donald Trump or anyone else of his ilk, so this was my chance...

       "Really, it could have been anyone on this team! I made my dream come true, and so could they."

       "Wait... you're saying anyone? Poor crippled kids in Mexico City..."

       "Yup! All they have to do is want it hard enough..."

       "Wanting it has nothing to do with it, beyond motivation. It's all about hard work... and opportunity... then still plenty of people will fail."

       "I disagree. I won the Olympics, and so can anybody."

       "Actually, no. Only a few people will earn a gold medal in the Olympics, and the rest will lose. It is a zero sum game in the extreme. In fact, it's a big negative sum game. You won, and many many people lost, some of whom might have worked harder than you, or wanted it more..."

And so the conversation went, neither of us gaining any ground. I haven't read her book, but I assume it includes the same meaningless platitudes that we're all served regularly.

I'm no celebrity, and my success meager by our country's bombastic standards, but I'd like to do my best to break the cycle, stop the madness:

• Your successes in life will neither come easily nor will they have been inevitable. If they were easy or inevitable, they were not successes; they were lucky breaks.

• You will have peers who will want it more, or work harder, and you might prevail, with your talent, skill set and work ethic. If you do, be gracious, and know that their success does not equate to your failure. If anything, they likely just made your success more possible by increasing the market. At least in a cappella. Especially in a cappella.

* Perhaps at times you'll be met with failure, only to see another succeed. One to whom you compare yourself favorably, perhaps very favorably.  Perhaps one who does not deserve the success at all, by your calculus. This is where you're stung by the simple fact that life is unfair. Sometimes wildly unfair. Be gracious, as you may be the next guy who finds success without deserving it as much as another.

* Those who are overnight successes (and they are far fewer than they seem) rarely either appreciate or maintain their status. Former child stars are some of the most unhappy people on the planet. And those in a cappella who may seem to be overnight successes have still spent years honing their skills. A cappella is impossible without years of practice.

* Those who do succeed will find the story of their success distilled into an easily digestible paragraph. I see it happening for/to myself, and I have great ambivalence around it, as it makes for a good myth, yet I cannot let myself forget the truth, which is a far messier reality, a shade of gray that would take volumes to fully explain. And is, by in large, for all intents and purposes, boring.

I say all of this because I want to make clear: life is messy, life is nonsensical, life does not happen in easily digestible paragraphs. That's mythology. Don't believe it.

Your relatives and friends will forward you links and send you newspaper clippings, all well meaning, hoping to help you find success. Read the articles, then read between the lines, knowing that it's not so simple, the success wasn't that easy, and as such it parallels your own journey.

And then know that "all you need to do" is wake up tomorrow, wash your hair, and make some kick-ass music.

Lather, rinse, repeat.


A nit to pick

Deke, great words and great wisdom here.  I agree that you can't swallow a magic pill and wake up with ninja powers.  The problem I have with reading this is that you're dealing with a specific pet peeve but mixing in a broader message about working towards success.  From my perspective the concept of making a life at something has nothing to do with being famous, being wealthy, or living up to any other external benchmark of success.  I'm sure you'd agree that simply waking up and doing the thing carries it's own satisfaction.  Becoming "famous" can sometimes just be it's own goal regardless of medium to get there, but I digress.

To me the idea of "anyone can do this" still resonates.  I know the concept has been co-opted by many well-intentioned self-help gurus who espouse that if you want to become Kelly Clarkson, all you have to do is believe in yourself.  The obvious problem is that only Kelly Clarkson is Kelly Clarkson, but that doesn't stop the Parade of the Freaks on our TV.  Being realistic, I would never want to be Kelly Clarkson; I don't have her life experience, her knowledge or her goals (to say nothing of the wailing soprano notes).  I just want to sing and, just maybe, entertain people while doing it.  If I can make money all the while, that's golden.  That's my personal metric—my success.

It's not hard to get paid to sing.  It's not even hard to make a living while doing it (remembering that one only really needs a roof, a meal, and to not run afoul of decency laws).  It's hard to get wealthy, sure, but that's an external metric; making a living is the internal one, IMO, as you get to decide what that means.  Personally, I don't need to have a million in the bank to be wealthy, nor have everyone scream when I walk into a room to be famous.  But I admire musicians in my life who, without a steady paycheck, wake up every day and live their lives while making music.  By my—external—judgement they are successful because they decided they wanted to be musicians, and they are.  Maybe they don't have enough money at times but that doesn't make them any less a musician.

And one last digression; we need to stop the notion in this culture that money/fame is the most important thing.  I've heard the quote too about "rich being better", and I get it—I have 4 dependents in my life—but if at the end of your life all you can say for it is "well, at least I had a lot of money and stuff", that's not rich to me.  I'll take my wife, 3 kids, friends and AcaFamily any day as a measurement of my wealth.  And I acknowledge fully that this comes from a privileged place of having; but I could look at Donald Trump and cry "life isn't fair". I think someone else looking at what I have should be looking inward as well.  This "have/not" discussion we're currently having is going to take us nowhere in the end except varying degrees of have/not-ness.

So maybe the point of your post is just that you just need to set realistic goals for yourself and ignore other people's metrics, but I still support anyone who wakes up and says "I want to be a singer".  As you said it still works for self-motivation and, as our lottery slogan goes, "you can't win if you don't play".

Lastly for the record, I find the idea that all I need to do is "wash my hair" to be successful to be offensive.  ;)


Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

What I'm trying to say is that it's not simple, it's not easy, it's not for everyone, and it's not a given. Just as you say.

You work hard, you have successes and setbacks small and large, and you get up and do it again. That's all there is, and all there will ever be. The rest is mythology. 

- Deke Sharon • 800.579.9305 • http://www.dekesharon.com

How Timely...

I had a little reminder yesterday from one of the most charismatic, optimistic, and accomplished beatboxers I've met when he greeted me and my morning coffee on the Today Show. Major props to Kevin; your success is well deserved. Consequently, I spiraled into an introspective analysis of success and realized how a beatboxer on the Today Show might actually be a great benefit to beatboxers/a cappella singers and in some way myself. So thank you, Mr. K.O. 

It came down to a simple mantra:

Don't be the best, just do the best.

Thanks Dekey!

LAAF discussion

This actually came up in one of the workshops in LAAF. When someone wants to enter "mainstream success," they first need to ask 2 questions: One, what is mainstream? And two, why do you want to enter mainstream success?

To address the first, the definition of mainstream is different for everyone. Someone believes that mainstream is television, radio, movies, etc. The pop star treatment. Personally, I believe something is mainstream when it can be organized into though and taught in classes. To me, mainstream is an all-encompassing word. Saying one artist is mainstream is a misuse of the word. 

Second, why do you want it? Unfortunately (and I know I'm making a generalization with little empirical evidence) I believe that many want the fame more than the art. Fame and money are fine, but they should be a consequence of your actions, not the intended goal. Those who work towards the fame, the status, the award are ignoring the fundamental reason we are artists. But unfortunately, in the American society, the american dream has often been described as "mainstream success." 

Personally, I enjoy these philosophical conversations. Keep it coming.

Oh...and there already is a new happy birthday. It involves living in a zoo and looking/smelling like a monkey.

Marc Silverberg

Anyone Can Do It

"Anyone can do it" is the catch-phrase of just about every multi-level marketing company. I was an part-time MLM rep for a year, and that experience taught me a lot about advertising, promotions, and a lot about my own personal growth. It also taught me that "anyone can do it" is a lie. I am self-motivated, hard-working, and focused - ask anyone who knows me. I was NOT a successful MLM marketer (as in, I lost about $500 and never made a penny).


Anyone can take their own aptitudes and build on them.

"Talent" is a four-letter word in my vocabulary, as expressed in this article from my blog. We all have aptitudes of varying levels in many areas of intelligence, and those aptitudes determine our starting point. What happens after that is what Deke is talking about.

The late Arnold Jacobs was the pricipal tuba player with the Chicago Symphony for 44 years. He did so with the impaired use of one of his lungs due to a childhood illness. To be one of the world's most celebrated professional tuba performers, he had to learn how to operate efficiently with one lung, and in the process he became one of the most important brass pedagogues in history. He is an exception to the rule - someone who succeeds in building past their deficiency.

For the rest of us, it is wise to take stock of where our strongest aptitudes lie, build on them, and work like crazy on our weak points along the way. Self-awareness, self-motivation, and self-growth are key. If you don't work on it, who will?

Tom Westhttp://keystoneacappella.comhttp://projectphilly.org

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