Success is a tricky word; it’s totally subjective and relative. There are a number of other concepts that are in the same vein—beauty, interesting, fun. One person’s definition is just as true as the next person’s and each definition is based on one’s personal make up, so I say this upfront - This is just my opinion, my world view. I don’t mean for it to be a definitive statement about how anyone else should feel, but I do feel passionately about these thoughts. 

I am, in my opinion, one of the most successful people that I know. My perceived success is mainly due to a choice I made when I was around 18, stemming from some amazing advice that I received from an unlikely source. 

During my senior year in high school I had taken a part-time job as a telemarketer at a home improvement company. It promised the chance at WAY more money than I could ever hope to make at your run-of-the-mill teenager job and the hours were perfect for a gigging musician. I showed up at 3 pm to prepare to call people, until 8 pm when I would run out to my car and drive to wherever I was playing that night. It paid $6.50/hr as a base, but the hourly went up based on how many free estimates I could get people to sign up for. I would routinely earn around $15-$20/hr… I was a natural at the job, I loved talking to people and was pretty undeterred by hang-ups and angry people eating dinner. My ability to just talk to people relaxed them and made them pretty open to having a free estimate on a home improvement. Within a month I was among the top earners in the phone room and after 3 months, I had already moved from caller to trainer to part-time manager of the call room. As soon as I graduated high school they took me on full time as a sales rep going out on those free estimates that I was previously signing people up for. At first it was fun to go into people’s homes and get them to buy stuff but the darker side of a job in sales came out and I was turned off from the whole experience. It turned out that the things we were selling were grossly overpriced and we were told to blatantly lie to customers. The managers of the sales department demanded that we do whatever it took to extract the maximum amount of money from people with no regard for integrity. This really bothered me but I was making more money at this point than I could have dreamed of. The day I turned 18 I was on pace to make over $75,000 before bonuses. I didn’t see how I could turn down the money, but between being completely tired all the time (I was going to community college and gigging about 2 nights a week) and feeling like a scumbag I knew something had to give.

Enter our unlikely hero.

Rob was the guy who recruited me to be a telemarketer and who pushed me up the chain as his protégé. He wasn’t really a close friend but he had come out to a couple of my shows out and I had been to a party at his house. We were work friends but there was at least a 10 year age difference between us. He was one of the smartest people working at the company, but Rob was a company man through and through and had a vested interest in me continuing to work there. As my recruiter he got a little piece of each of my sales—I sold over $50,000/month in work, so he was getting a nice bonus check every month from my success. One day after coming in to drop off the paperwork from a long day in the field, I ran into Rob in the conference room. He told me that I looked worn down and asked if I’d like to chat in his office. We sat down and started talking and it all came out—the crooked business, the early classes, and the late late gigs. What came next changed my life. 

Rob said “Tom… You can do something you hate and make a lot of money, but you will spend every dime that you make trying to forget that you do something you hate every single day… OR… You can do something that you love… You might not make a lot of money, but you’ll never work a day in your life. I have seen you play [music] and you’re really talented. Of all the time that I have known you, when you were on stage was the happiest I have seen you. I’m not telling you to quit, but if the only reason you are doing this is for the money it’s not a very good reason.”

I quit the next day, I stopped going to school the next semester, and within a year I was playing 5 nights a week. 

This story is the beginning of a new me, not the current me, but the me that became the current me. Within a week of that conversation I had completely changed my view on what success was. To me, success became never allowing anyone else to coerce me into changing my values and to use music as the vehicle to take me through life. Fame and fortune as goals were abandoned. I realized that the thing that I admired about my musical heroes wasn’t their bank accounts, it was their stories. I decided to make my life my art, and music was going to be both the journal of my story and the vehicle in which I traveled. 

To me, success isn’t measurable from the outside, it is a self-determined answer to a core question, “Am I accomplishing my goal?”. In my world the answer is a resounding YES. It is a yes because the goal that I set out for myself is completely in my control, and this gets right to the point of this post. 

If you allow outside forces to determine your personal success, you will have a very slim chance of achieving it. If, on the other hand, you build your concept of success around your own behavior, then you have a good chance at living a life that feels fulfilling. At the end of the day that feeling is the difference between sleeping at night and staring at your phone at 3 am.

I’m writing all this now because I have been asked in a number of interviews lately about success. I am 36 years old and 20 years into a musical career without a major breakthrough to show for it. I’m sure there are people out there who wonder why I keep playing music and why I don’t give it up and chase down the “American dream”. The answer is that I am in my American dream. This is what that American dream looks like. I am a man without a boss, I don’t make much money (I qualify as well under the poverty line in my area) but every dime that I make is from me. From my mind and my hands I turn life in art and art into money. I can’t explain how honored I am to get to do that. I have traveled all over the U.S. and Europe and seen things that I couldn’t have dreamed of as a child. I have partied and talked with the rich and famous and the poor and amazing. I have a self confidence that is just short of hubris in my ability to write and perform music and it comes from thousands upon thousands of hours of experimentation and refinement that constantly finds me in a place where I have never been as good at what I’m doing as I am now (with that now being an ever-moving thing). 

I don’t know if me writing this helps anyone or not. I’ll admit that it does feel a bit embarrassing to admit that 20 years into my chosen career I make less than I did as a senior in high school, but I can say this unequivocally—I am one of the most successful people that I know and I wish you all the success in the world.