I think the reason many of us have chosen the path of being a musician, is that we aspire to greatness. Think about it, we could have chosen many, more secure, less risky paths in life, but for some reason you and I, and most of the people reading this, have been drawn to music as a vocation, or the very least, a serious hobby. But why? I’m sure are motivations are all slightly different, but I suspect that at on some level, everyone reading this wants to be “great” at music. Why else would we pursue playing music as a profession? To be mediocre? If you’re anything like me, you feel like you have greatness inside you and you want to express that and get it out into the world. Music is a potentially a great vehicle for doing that.
But how do we define “greatness”? It’s a little tricky if you think about it. We could take the very easy to measure approach of using something like how much money you make from playing music as a barometer of your greatness. But how accurate is money in terms of measuring musical “greatness”? We all know brilliant musicians who struggle to get by, or at the best, live a life of modest means. Conversely, the world is full of examples of artists that aren’t exactly pushing musical boundaries who, for one reason or another, become filthy rich and famous and are considered by many to be great.
So if it’s not just about money or the number of albums we sell, how do we measure greatness? Are we only “great” when others recognize us as being great? Are we only great when we make a certain amount of money? Are we by default great once a certain number of people appreciate what we do? Well, I think it’s clear that the answer is no, our greatness isn’t dependent on x number of people thinking we’re great or x number of people buying our albums. Greatness is more than just being commercially successful.
There are different definitions and ideas of what “greatness” is. My definition of “greatness” is being the best and most actualized version of ourselves we’re capable of. When I think about being “great”, it’s not about making a specific amount of money or achieving a certain level of fame. It’s more about the feeling that comes with knowing we’re pushing ourselves to become the best version of ourselves we’re capable of being. Although it’s not about money or status, it’s also not about resting on our laurels and not moving forward just because we don’t care about “success”. This is as bad as those who pursue fame and fortune at all costs. Both ends of the spectrum are out of balance. Greatness is about being the best we’re capable of being, whatever that means to us. If our goal is performing, than it’s about being the best performer we can be. If it’s about songwriting, it’s about writing the best songs we’re capable of writing, and so on. Chances are that if we’re pushing ourselves to become the greatest version of ourselves, other people will start to take notice and we’ll get closer, by default, to whatever external goals we have.
I think it’s ultimately up to us to define what greatness is for ourselves. I would love to make millions of dollars from my music, but I know this alone wouldn’t give me a sense or feeling that I’ve achieved “greatness”. For me, it’s more about how well I’m playing, how good I feel the songs I’m writing are and how much energy I’m applying to developing my craft. I know, intuitively, when I’m on the right track and I also know when I’m off track. For me, greatness, is about consistently following my muse and following that path as far as I can go. Sometimes, it’s simply about playing a really good show where I know “I’m on”. At other times it’s about getting a recording of a song just right and promoting it effectively. Greatness is about being the best version of myself, as consistently as possible.
Greatness is an ongoing process, it’s not some sort of end point we arrive at. Throughout our lives, we have the opportunity to achieve greatness in different ways and in different times. It’s about pushing ourselves towards the best versions of ourselves wherever we are in our lives. It’s not about neurotically obsessing over specific goals. It’s about always looking for and creating opportunities, as opposed to delaying our sense of gratification until our biggest goals our realized. For example, I’m going to be playing a show in a few weeks in a new trio I’m performing in with a mandolin player and percussionist. We’re expecting about 100 people to be there. I could look at this as just another random bar gig and not take it that seriously. But instead, I’m promoting the shit out of it, I have plans to film the entire performance for my Youtube channel and I’m practicing daily in anticipation of the show.
Greatness is about rising to the occasion for every opportunity that comes along, no matter how big or small. Greatness is about pushing ourselves to grow as people and musicians, as opposed to resting on our laurels and not moving forward. Greatness is about realizing we have just one life to live and every moment counts. Greatness is about being great, no matter how many people are watching. Greatness is about giving your all, whether you’re performing for ten people or ten thousand.
There’s an enormous amount of luck required to “make it big” in the music business. It doesn’t take any luck at all to be great.