Defining success on our own terms

“To be an artist – actually, to be a human being in these times – it’s all difficult… What matters is to know what you want and pursue it”
– Patti Smith

A few weeks back, I spoke about how society has us preconditioned to chase certain goals that we think we’re supposed to want. The universal symbols of success. I wonder if I sound a bit like a conspiracy theorist when I say things like that – as if it’s some plot by the government to consciously manipulate us to behave in a certain manner and stay in line. I don’t think that.

Instead, I think that we humans keep ourselves in check through our evolutionally-derived desire to fit in. It takes a certain sort of person, an outlier, to start questioning the actions of the rest of the tribe and explore new directions. I’m sure this is an evolutionary trait too – a sort of mutation – having a handful of individuals who thought differently from everyone else would have helped our ancestors to find new, better ways of doing things. But for the rest of us, it’s only natural that we start off down the path that we see people around us most commonly taking. And right now that usually means following these recent, and very much western, societal benchmarks without really thinking about if/when/why we really want them.

A few years ago, I noticed an uncanny domino of marriage proposals that cascaded through my friendship circles as soon as one couple in the group got engaged. I think we’ve all experienced that year when everyone we know got married? I’m not for one moment suggesting that the couples who followed didn’t love each other dearly, but the pattern of break-ups that occurred soon after did make me wonder if perhaps some were at least influenced and rushed into their decisions by the number of marriages going on around them.

In the same vein, I recently had a conversation with some friends who were telling me about their property investment success and found myself thinking about how I would go about starting a portfolio of my own. Not really in line with my focus on simplifying, minimising my outgoings and trying to live a freer and more flexible lifestyle! It’s funny how one conversation with a convincing speaker or validation from someone we respect can influence our thoughts and derail our ability to focus on our own priorities. When we see the achievements and life events of those around us, this fresh awareness in our minds can so often make us covet the same so we don’t feel left out.

When people tell us about their major life events and achievements we’re obviously going to become more aware of the state of our own lives. But, in reality, comparing yourself to others in any way is actually just comparing to your own perception. The moment/situation/item in question, the part you are aware of, is not the important bit. You never have the full story – you don’t know what’s happened behind the scenes, how much time and effort went into that project, the full details of that huge deal – what foundations this apparent success is really built on. People brag, exaggerate and edit their stories. I don’t blame them for that. Our memories are bad. Sooner or later, we’re only remembering the anecdote of the event, and it’s human nature to keep refining our truths, wanting to paint ourselves in a good light. Our entire knowledge of human history is grossly skewed for this very reason. Anyway, I digress… My point is, it’s easy to be influenced by the apparent achievements of others, but this is so often based on incredibly limited information.

“Our lives are frittered away by detail … simplify, simplify”
– Henry David Thoreau

In that earlier post, I also touched on the fact that it’s so hard to know what we really want because of the unlimited possibilities we ‘enjoy’ today. If we don’t know what we want, it’s easier to follow the crowd and trust that, collectively, we have the right idea. But I’m not convinced we do. And the torrent of books, articles and podcasts I come across discussing why we’re all unhappier than ever would seem to suggest I’m not the only one to think that. If we’re relying on the same benchmarks of a successful life as everyone else, we’ll always be in competition – coveting whatever achievements and milestones draw our intrigue at that moment. In this system, we can never be satisfied. There will always be something that we haven’t seen/done/owned. The only antidote is to do the incredibly hard work of identifying what we, individually, really want and what is truly important to us. The clearer we can be with that knowledge, the easier it becomes to focus our time and energy on the things that matter and realise that everything else is a distraction that’s stopping us from achieving the life we want.

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
– William Morris

I’m aware that I’m becoming a major proponent of minimalism as the path to freedom. Minimalism to excess, sometimes… I can be obsessively utilitarian, but can equally contradict myself in the click of an Amazon ‘Buy it now’ button. Thankfully, minimalism doesn’t necessarily mean ‘empty’. We live in a world of material things – there’s not much we can do about that unless we go wandering off into the wilderness and abandon everything, and consequently everyone, we know. It’s crossed my mind a few times but I’ve not quite reached that tipping point yet… It’s about finding a balance between the enjoyment we get from things and the pleasure we get from the freedom from things. It’s about identifying the priorities in all parts of our lives and not allowing ourselves to be distracted by all of the other exciting/endless possibilities that we are bombarded with every day.

In its simplest form, that means identifying:

  • What are the most important things in my life? What do I love to do?
  • What else is going on in my life? What other non-essential commitments do I have that are taking up my time?
  • What possessions do I have that are not useful or don’t in some way enrich my life?


“What you decide not to do is probably more important that what you decide to do.” – Tom Peters

Billionaire investor, Warren Buffett, talks about a 5/25 rule to clarify your priorities. The idea is to write a list of the 25 things you want to accomplish. From that full shortlist, you then take your time to identify and highlight the 5 things that are the most important. Clearly this can be a challenge in its own right, but it’s worth spending the time to think about exactly why certain things are important to us. Once you’ve identified your top 5, Warren suggests making the remaining 20 items your ‘avoid at all costs’ list – at least until you’ve been successful with those you’ve identified as your priorities. Every behaviour has a cost. The time we spend experimenting with lower priorities is simply a distraction and the reason we have 25 unfinished projects rather than 5 complete ones.

To give you an example, below is a list of 25 activities that I’ve been working on, experimenting with or at least researching recently. They are all time-consuming activities and any of them will need sustained, focused and committed practice to achieve any level of proficiency. I’ve highlighted what I think my top 5 would be, but I’m still a long way from having enough willpower to focus my energy.

Compose music every day
Film and edit music videos
Record a podcast series
Grow record label
Speech coaching
Singing lessons
Read books every day
Music mixing course
Jiu jitsu 3 times a week
Yoga every morning
Run every day
Learn to program synth patches
Learn to play the piano
Learn to play the guitar
Sell photos online
Launch photography meetup group
Write every day
Social media marketing course
Develop live music show
Go climbing regularly
Volunteer regularly
Improve my swimming
Learn to ski
Work exchange at wilderness retreat in Canada
Backpack around South America

You might have noticed that I’ve experimented with quite a few different techniques to try and figure out what the hell I really want to do with my life. Another technique that worked well for me a couple of years ago – which coincided with the start of my pre-turning-thirty panic – is to write out what my perfect day would look like, in as much detail as possible.

This wasn’t something I’d ever really thought about before. I was intrigued though, so I combined it with another technique I use when journalling, which is to write as fast as possible without thinking or editing and just let my stream of consciousness hit the paper. So often, this technique has led me to discover my opinion of a situation when I hadn’t previously been consciously aware of it. As I read it back, I couldn’t deny it sounded spot on. Here’s my perfect day – dated 13th January 2015:

I wake up around 8am, in my coastal cabin in northern California. It’s a single storey wooden structure on a hill overlooking the coast, with a veranda that runs right around the outside. My wife is a stunning, tall and slim brunette. She wakes me as she leaves for work. She’s an artist, but she also teaches at a nearby school.

I listen to the waves for a while as they crash along the rugged coastline, before walking out onto the balcony with my pet beagle. The sun’s out but it’s not too hot yet so, after a quick cup of coffee, we head down for a 20-minute jog along the beach. Sometimes, if the sea is calm, I might swim instead. Either way I use this time to recap on the previous day and make plans for today.

I return to the house for breakfast, usually eggs or maybe a smoothie, which I consume back out on the balcony. I also listen to music now, something new that I’m getting into and pretty chilled. I’ll also check my emails and reply to any other messages at this time.

Once that’s done, I’ll head into the studio to practice for an hour before lunch. After running through a few scales and rhythm combinations, I usually try to play a few of the melodies I’ve just heard from memory, either on the guitar or piano. Then, if I’m in the mood, I’ll bust out a few old classics for fun.

By that time I’m ready for lunch, which is usually just a mixture of vegetables, olives and bread. A couple of times a week I’ll walk down the road to a little restaurant in the bay. I’ll sit outside with my dog and chat to the owner, perhaps meeting up with a friend for a bit too. We’ll eat fresh fish and drink good wine, and chat about the projects we’re currently working on. There’s a strong creative community in the area, my friends are a mixture of artists, photographers, film directors and craftspeople, and we often get involved to help each other out.

After lunch I’ll head back up to the studio to compose for a while. I record a lot of my own samples in the area around my house, and often use these as a starting point for my productions. I spend a lot of time thinking about the emotion in different sounds and like to complement or contrast these with a combination of analogue and electronic instruments.

I’ve produced a number of commercially released albums, but my music is also often used in film or TV because of its emotive nature.

In the evening, when my wife gets home, we’ll take a walk through the woods or along the beach before dinner while we chat about the day.

Dinner is simple; mainly vegetables and perhaps fish, and we eat on the veranda. Often we’ll have friends over to join us, and we’ll sit out around our fire pit for hours talking and playing music.

Photo by Sonja Guina

It’s funny looking back at the overly specific, granular details in there, which I was obviously experimenting with at the time of writing. My interests have moved on a little now. I don’t think I’d want to spend all my time in the woods and there are a few other minor things I might change. That’s fine though. Everything’s a prototype – we’re all evolving all the time so our dreams are going to shift a little. The trick is to just set our course in the general direction, start building momentum and adjust our sails as we go.

“To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”
– Picasso


This article was originally shared on the Escape Everything blog. Read more here

Whatever your discipline, I’d love to hear about your own experiences and the challenges you face in your creative process. If you have anything to share, or to suggest questions you’d like us to explore, please comment below or get in touch through the contact page.