Happiness vs. Success

Okay, this is a giant topic to write a short blog post about. But I'm going to do it anyway.

I have a history of being physically, mentally, and emotionally at my worst when my career has been at its best. At 24 years old I've now had about a decade of actively pursuing whatever the pursuit of the day, or rather, year was. Lately, I've had some time to sift through the noise and do some much-needed analysis. What I've been uncovering has been quite astounding.

When I was 20 years old, still in college, I noticed a grey cloud moving in over my head, and I couldn't figure out what it was all about. Each week it grew a little bigger and darker as it threatened my sunshine. It never poured, but it never moved away either. This is how I would describe my mood for about 18 months. Symptoms included generally being so chill that I had no preference to anything, no excitement, no panic attacks, and the strangest symptom to me was my extreme hatred and disappointment in the world as soon as I woke up, followed by an indifference as I pushed through and continued with my work.

At this time, my "work" was a band which I'm still in, called Helicopria. Helicopria was starting to become quite successful - we had a first EP, we played some great shows, we had beautiful, sponsored merch, we wrote interesting music, we were best friends, and we seemed to be acquiring a fan base by doing something we just naturally enjoyed. Life was great.

The turning point was when we were asked to perform internationally, forcing us to up our game. We now had a long list of sponsors who had our back, and we felt a responsibility to be fucking awesome at what we do. We played on TV shows aired to millions, were interviewed on CNN, and ended up opening for the internationally renowned band Mando Diao, which to date is the biggest show I've played. Out of respect for my band members and ex-band members, who to this day are still some of my best friends, I will say that we were pushed to our maximum and everything that tore us apart was because of this. For the first time in my life I got so nervous I fainted backstage, several of us went to the hospital for physical strain, exhaustion, or musician injuries, and reviews of the band surfaced that opened up our every move on stage to criticism. All of a sudden people also cared about what our backgrounds were, what we wore, and how we presented ourselves. The comments to this day that stood out were the ones focused on our musical education - all having gone to Berklee College of Music, people scrutinized our sloppy live performance and choice of noisy progressive rock. Oh yeah, if you don't know the band, we're a prog-rock band. In many ways, we didn't fit the convention of a rock band, and we took some heat for it. Eventually we turned on each other and we had to take a step back from the spotlight.

Coming back to class at Berklee, the come down from the Helicopria experience was very difficult. Tour was exhilarating, but it was back-breaking. It was love and it was hate. It was the best time of my life and the worst time of my life. I felt confused by all this and fell deeper into my continuous, unwavering sadness. Until eventually it came at me with teeth and claws and demanded I figure this shit out, that I figure out why I was so sad when I was arguably at the height of my success of a guitarist and band leader. Why was I sad and why were we all sad? Why were we falling apart? Were we not ready? Were we not strong enough? We were getting everything we'd ever asked for. 

This is one story out of many that I have combed through this last week. The formula has been pretty constant for the most part; idea, pursuit, honeymoon-phase, intense hard work to persevere, then a career breakthrough coupled with an emotional breakdown. If there was a graph to show this, there would be a steady climb with success and happiness both going up, and as the success ratio rockets up, the happiness nose-dives. Why is this? Could it be... dun dun dun... the breaking point? O_o

This whole blog post is being written because someone asked me yesterday if I believe that happiness and success could be the same thing. At first I thought well, yes, isn't that what we all strive for? But upon second thought I answered that if they are able to be the same thing, I hadn't experienced it to any great length. Hard work doesn't always feel good, and sometimes to do something extraordinary, you have to push yourself to extraordinary lengths. This is what I've done time in and time out. I was even led to speculate that there might be a masochistic part of me that thinks if it doesn't feel so good, that it's progress, and if it's easy, then you're stagnant. Then the feeling of success became mistaken for happiness. I think I may be onto something here...

I come from a family of doctors, lawyers, and generally intimidatingly intelligent and hard-working people. According to the family, there's always space to work harder, life is difficult, and sometimes "you're not going to always love what you have to do". This is interesting, I've realized, since my creative pursuits have often turned into a Frankenstein that gets out of my control.

If you're reading this in hope of me demonstrating my light-bulb moment where it all clicked and made sense, then I'm sorry to disappoint. As I sat down to write this, I hoped I'd have that moment and write it right here in this paragraph. I will tell you what I know so far - this week I have felt the most at peace I have felt in years. There is this calm inside me and I seem to be transcending mental and musical blocks, covering unchartered creative territory. I have been more honest with myself. It feels amazing. My career is at a standstill, yet I feel so peaceful as a person.

One could argue that each of these pursuits were just not what I was "meant to be doing". One could say I wasn't ready. One could say I was too young and dumb. Or maybe, just maybe, the dumbest thing I ever did was to allow constant unhappiness to be a part of the equation. We seem to all have a different threshold. I can tell you this much; if you're going to seriously pursue being in a band, and you're expecting to have a fun time all the time, you're in for a rude awakening. It will take years off your life and you will tear your hair out. I believe it was Bukowski who said "find what you love and let it kill you". I know, it's just a quote, and I can't possibly know what exactly he was referring to, but it seems appropriate food for thought right about now. Do I accept this as my truth? What is worth it, and what just isn't?

Right now, I have no job, no income, no visa, no lover, no band. I'm sort of a "non-person" floating through America, just being me until I get the green light. What an opportune time to figure some stuff out. In conclusion, long story short - I don't want to kill myself anymore. I don't want to work 'til I drop. I want to be healthy and happy. I want to use all of my musicality, my mind, and my body creatively. I want to be a great performer. I want to feel my body. I want it all to be unified. I want to be aware and in control. I want to be, dare I say, happy. And successful.

They say that change starts with awareness, and that that's the hardest part. It may have taken some time, but this is a new page. I am certain of it. Shall we see what happens next?

Share your stories with me. We're all in this together.


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