Used to be there was one way to become a major recording star, and that’s by finding a major recording label. You could woo the crowds in Nashville and make the crowd swoon, but you weren’t going to make millions until Capitol Records showed up on your front step.
Had stage fright? Didn’t like to travel? Didn’t want a label producer tweaking your sound? You’re out of luck. You had two paths: you can be a gigantic player, or you could go home, unknown forever. You couldn’t both be successful and stay true.
And then, the independents rose in defiance, bolstered by 70s punk. There was another option — a way to be nationally known without exceeding scope. The floodgates opened, and suddenly everything started sounding a little different.
Updating the Path to Success
Most of us grow up assuming the road to success is paved — that regardless of the end destination, there’s one main artery with very few exits. You go to school. You get a degree. You work within that degree. You move up the ladder and retire at the top. Any other path is an uncharted dirt road, slower and more dangerous. Drive at your own risk.
It doesn’t take long before we understand the limitations of that career arc. The closer you get to the top, the more crowded things become. The road to success isn’t even a road — it’s a bottleneck of toll booths, weeding out people as the pack moves forward.
But, like those early record companies were usurped by both the advent of a viable independent record industry and the internet, so too is the traditional sense of success. Smaller voices are being brought to mainstream attention, and in some cases we're detouring around mainstream attention altogether.
Now, there is no need to aim for the top. You can do what you love — modestly, with attention to size and scope — without being tied to a larger concept of “success.” Those independent record labels? They were filled with fantastic artists who were trying hard to make great music — with or without the trappings of a major label arena act. Top-of-the-charts success was no longer the only path to happiness.
We’re learning this slowly in tech. Sure, some sectors are still focused on being that big dog mentality — getting backed by insane venture capitalist money, or becoming an agency executive, or landing on a powerful board of directors.
But not everyone. Not anymore. Sometimes, we’re just looking for a different destination. Not everyone wants to end up at the top. We’re slowly embracing the idea that sometimes staying small is exactly the right place to be.
On Being Happy With Small
Where I may have once measured my own success by where I fit along someone else’s career path, I now focus on what I can borrow to take me down my own road. I’m no longer looking for a map or compass — I’m looking for tools to help clear the brush.
We are fortunate to work in an industry where measures of success and worthiness have forked thousands of times. We don’t compare each other based on titles and location — we measure each other based on knowledge, community, and honesty. Which means what once felt like the traditional path — Work Hard, Get Bigger, Take Over — is no longer the assumed path.
Some people get to stay small. Some people thrive by staying small.
I may never work on a project as large as the New York Times. I may never speak on stage in front of 7,000 people. I may never own my own company. I may never write a book. I may never become the voice of my industry.
I’m okay with this, because these are not my goals.
My goal is to live a balanced life, where the work I do is important, where the time I have with my family and friends is plentiful, where I can grow and improve and do fantastic work. I don’t need the big stage to do these things.
Everything else is an added benefit. I might never get that hit record, but I’m going to have a hell of a time making something awesome.