‘Am I Successful?’ Navigating the Dangers of Comparison

Mike Lawson • String Section • February 6, 2020

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“Am I successful?” is a question that affects everyone who considers themselves in an educational or professional path.

It’s a question we can’t help but ask ourselves. We are prodded by society to self-evaluate at certain times of the year (like for New Years’ resolutions, or the beginning or end of the school year). Often, we are forced to do so by evaluations at work. Maybe our environment holds or incorporates certain profession-specific “landmarks,” triggering self-evaluation as we (or others) reach them.

The Busy Factor: The Most Dependably Misleading Measurement It is natural and tempting to compare scheduling density with your colleagues to determine if you measure up, or if you are doing enough. In this community of musicians eking out a living, the “busy factor” is a professional image that is intentionally cultivated.

On the inside, one’s experience looks very different than what others see from the outside. Even if you think you have accurately factored in all the important variables (such as family), you are likely still not seeing someone else’s reality. I have found this a damaging way to determine how I fare in the local professional scene.

What Am I Measuring?

Let’s examine how to asses and focus during self-evaluation. It is imperative that we are aware of how approaches differ so that we might apply useful behaviors.

• Goal oriented achievement

• Professional ability and status within the accepted standards of chosen career: musical and professional criteria used

• What one needs to sustain a healthy life and prepare for life events

Goal-Oriented Achievement

Goal-oriented achievements are the obvious wins; we use them best as points of proof for whether your life is “going well” or if it “is on track.” They are tangible growth and provide a means to measure one’s ability to reach goals.

These successes make for a dependable and consistent musician. If a person has not learned how to set, work, complete, and understand the proper management of goals, the larger question of success can’t be grounded.

Context is paramount. Always keep within what life (currently) needs in order to maintain, survive, or provide for you and your family. Hardships come and go -so do one’s feeling of success. Everything else is going to be secondary if the basic necessities of life are in such flux that survival is a constant stretch of management energies.

Most people will move within a spectrum that follows life events. Use guidelines as they pertain to what your life requires. Not everyone starts with nothing, and everyone prioritizes differently.

A Guide for Measuring Stability and Maturity

• Appropriate and adequate housing

• Not overdrawing bank account

• Stretching thin before paychecks; worrying about “making it to payday”

• Maintaining a reliable cellphone that fits your career and personal needs

• Having good health insurance, car insurance, homeowner or renters insurance

• Stability of available resources for regular monthly payments, the same time each month (for utilities, car payments, etc.)

• Transportation that is reliable and safe

• Creating and contributing regularly to savings versus living paycheck to paycheck (not needing to use savings very often)

• Owning and maintaining the upkeep of quality musical tools, which allow you to reach your potential quality of work

• Dental and vision needs are met

• Resources for non-work activities, relaxation, hobbies and/or entertainment

• Ability to travel

• Can afford to plan ahead for things like retirement

• Can get loans for large Investments

• Flexibility when considering more extensive types of financial management

• Progressively less rigidity when shopping or considering purchases

• Taking care of yourself: Managing a schedule and routine including sleep, nutrition, fitness…

What to Do with It: The Adverse Conclusion

What is the best way to handle the knowledge that, in fact, we are not currently succeeding? Reacting in a healthy and useful fashion is very important. When we don’t, it is easy to spiral. A lack of success does not equal failure! It means we can act to improve our situation for the better. The evaluative process is intended to help us find the areas that would benefit from changes. It educates us so that we are aware of our areas of weakness so that we can apply something different to our behavior or habits – create or change our environment.

Otherwise, the whole exercise can diminish the very confidence we need to perform well in our endeavors and on our instruments. It can so easily affect our decision-making process that we very much need intact in order to keep moving in a positive and life-affirming direction.

Or, it can breed bitter attitudes which can then display in ways where decisions are ultimately made for us. If you are someone who has difficulty with awareness of personal shortcomings, that is okay. However, I suggest avoiding the plunge into self-evaluation in the first place. Also, you can seek a friend with a very similar professional life to do this with you and help you keep context, perspective, and balance with the process as well as your findings.

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