A person in a record shop.

4 Hard Truths about Chasing Goals Most People Don’t Know

The thin line between success and failure.

The lights go dark. A slight thumping noise resonates all around. It grows louder by the second. You hear cheers ahead of you, though you can’t see who they emanate from. You climb up one step. Then another. Then another. You reach the stage. You look around. Everything is in the right place. Including you. You slide your headphones on. The crowd spots you. Their cheers grow even louder. Even more excited. The bass continues to grow. Though the lights are off, you can make out slight figures of people dancing, jumping, clapping.

The darkness suddenly comes to life in a variety of colors. Reds and blues and yellows and oranges. White shreds of confetti fall from the ceiling. Streams of light bounce off drinks in hands. Off mirrored walls. Off smiling faces. The steady rhythm you walked out to has crescendoed into an all-out explosion of sound. The crowd is alive. And they’re all there to see you.


The pupil’s question

Later that evening, you sit down in a leather chair. You sigh. Job well done. The crowds have been getting bigger lately. More excited for your entrance. You’ve worked hard to get to this moment. You close your eyes and appreciate the night you’ve had. Just then, someone knocks on the door. You open your eyes and spot your “apprentice.”

She got into the music space a few years after you. You’re her mentor of sorts. Regardless, you’ve always abided by the old saying, A rising tide lifts all boats, and have tried to help others as much as possible. You welcome her in.

“Huge turnout tonight!” she says. “I know, right? It’s crazy!” you reply. “I was in the crowd the entire time. They were loving it!” she says. “Tell me,” she continues, sitting down in a nearby chair, “Is there something in particular you’ve done to get to this point?” Always right to business with this one, you think. You say, “Something in particular? Hmm… not exactly. Rather, there are a small handful of things that have helped me move forward. You have a couple minutes to talk?” “Of course!” she says.


What do you want?

You explain that at the start of your career, everyone told you to learn the basics of playing to an audience first. To master the clubs before attempting to create your own sound. And so you did. But that wasn’t what you were excited about. Playing songs for people was fun, but that wasn’t what filled you with meaning. It was making music that you cared about. It took you a long time to figure that out. Too long. Before that realization, you thought about quitting. Of doing something else instead.

Because playing other people’s music all night wasn’t doing it for you.

When it finally dawned on you that you wanted to produce music first, everything changed. You began to steer your focus in that direction. And the hard times became that much more manageable. You were doing something that gave you purpose. Now looking at your pupil, you recommend that she figure out what fulfills her before spending any more time on her journey. Lest she pursue the wrong thing and quit from frustration like you almost did.


Charge the batteries

“From there it’s easy, right? You know what you want. You just need to go get it.” you say. “Sure,” she says nodding. “Wrong,” you say, feeling pretentious for setting her up like that. Instead, you explain that there is more to the process than just stating what you want. “See it like an objective,” you say. “You must write it down, plan it out, think it through, make time for it. The thing is though,” you pause, not wanting to overwhelm her. “Yes?” she says. “The thing is, this process of physically setting the goal can be a bit… draining.” She looks at you confused.

You explain, “There’s a good amount of things you’ll need to write down. What, specifically, your goal is. Why you want to achieve it. Any notes you need to keep in mind. As well as the progress you make along the way. To be honest,” you continue, “It requires a good deal of mental power just setting up the goal for yourself. It can be downright exhausting. So set the expectation for yourself. Know that setting the goal is time-consuming. Don’t go about doing it tonight. Go home, get a good night’s sleep, and focus on it in the morning.”


Songs over Spotify

You look at her. “Want me to keep going? I don’t want to throw too much at you,” you say. “No, no,” she says. “Please, continue. This is great!” “If you say so,” you reply. You go on to recount the first goal you set for yourself. To get a number one hit on Spotify within two years. You blush telling her about it. It seems so silly to proclaim out loud. She gets it though and urges you to continue the story. You tell her that the goal seemed perfect at the outset. But two years quickly came and went and you had barely made a dent in the charts.

You tell her that this time too you thought about quitting. You had wasted two years, failed at your goal, and weren’t where you had ever hoped to be at this point in your life. “So what did you end up doing?” she asks. Upon reflection, you realized you made one critical error at the beginning. You set a goal out of your control. Meaning that you had no say over how your songs performed, all you could do was create the best song you could. Yet your goal was entirely based on how other people would react to it. Something you had and still have no say over.

“Isn’t that how all goals are though?” she asks. “It is,” you say, “But there’s a better way.” You tell her about the change you made. From that moment on, you vowed to only set goals within your control. That way you have total power over whether or not you achieve it. You scrapped your Spotify goal. In its place you set a new one: Release a new song every week. “Has it worked?” she asks. “You were in the crowd tonight. You tell me.” Her eyebrows raise. “That said,” you continue, “it hasn’t been easy. Which leads me to my final point. You still with me?” She nods.


Climbing the charts

You go on to explain that even when you focus on things within your control, you don’t always get the result you want. For example, in the first six months of your new goal, you released close to 30 new songs. Something you were incredibly proud of. However, you still hadn’t made much progress on the charts. You were achieving your goal, but not getting the results you had hoped for. This time, though, your morale wasn’t crushed. You were disappointed, but you kept thinking of those 30 songs.

It was more songs than you had ever released before. And you loved them all. You felt like you were onto something.

So you kept the goal, trusting that you were on the right path. From there, you began investing your time in creating better songs. You listened to others you admired and reverse-engineered their work. In doing so, your songs began to dramatically improve. “And when that happened,” you say, “everything started to click.” “Is that when you first hit the top of the charts?” she asks. “Exactly,” you say. “The thing to note is that even when you focus on things within your control, you can still come up short. You can still fail to progress. But so long as you keep iterating and improving, so long as you keep going, your success is inevitable.”


The new opener

Your pupil glances up from her phone. All this time she’s been taking diligent notes. She looks at you, waiting to see if you have any more advice to give. You say, “Let’s stop for now. I think you have more than enough to work with. Plus, I’m exhausted. I’m going to head home. Before I do though, I just want to make sure everything I said makes sense.”

She looks down again and unlocks her phone. “Good call,” she says. “First off, thanks so much for your help. I really appreciate it. And yes, let me read my notes back to you.” You see the plethora of notes she’s taken and say, “Umm… no don’t do that. How about you summarize the four major points instead? I just want to make sure you got the gist before I leave.” “Sure thing,” she says. She then explains the four truths you learned the hard way:

  1. Focus on fulfillment over what everyone says you should do.
  2. Setting goals is mentally exhausting. Only do it when rested.
  3. Set goals within your control so that you fully own the achievement.
  4. Even still, know you won’t immediately get results. Keep iterating and improving.

“That’s it,” you say. “It’s only a matter of time until I start opening for you.” She smiles. “See you in the studio?” she asks. “See you then,” you reply.

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