Trading Self Pity For Gratitude

© 2010 Rand Bishop 

How often do we sit, wallowing in self-pity, because no one of importance seems to be taking notice of our work? Then, when we somehow finally get a person of influence and supposed expertise to pay attention — even for a few moments — how do we feel when he or she can’t seem to find anything encouraging to say? When the fruit of our efforts, our most personal inspirations, our creative life’s blood is ignored or dismissed, it can be painful. [private_member]

Now, you might be thinking, This guy couldn’t possibly have a clue what that’s like. With all his success, Rand can get anybody to listen to his stuff. 

While it may be true that 40 years as a music-biz pro and a respectable track record has earned me access to a lot of decision makers in the industry, my name or reputation doesn’t incline those muckymucks to love my song any more than yours — despite what you may think. You see, it’s not enough to get your songs heard. They need to be heard in the right context. Because, even if one or more of these “important” people listen and respond with an overwhelming “yes,” their endorsement does not guarantee that song will be heard by anyone outside the confines of that corner office. Like you, I have absolutely no sway over how anybody else will respond to my creations. All we can really do, quite honestly, is to try to come up with fresh ideas and write the best songs possible. And, believe me, even though I’ve seen the view from a few mountaintops, I’ve waded through a number of valley swamps as well. 

Besides, having a certain level of success doesn’t necessarily mean that rejection doesn’t sting. True story: Just as My List hit the top the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, I distributed a CD of some of my latest demos to labels, managers, producers, etc. This attractively packaged comp was intended to be a kind of a calling card to re-introduce myself as Music Row’s latest number-one writer. The CD’s five-song sequence closed out with the made-at-home demo that had attracted Toby Keith’s attention, ultimately leading to the big guy cutting my song. A couple of weeks later, I received the following voice-mail message: (Now, remember, My List was still sitting at #1.) “Mr. Bishop, this is Bryan, an intern at Sony Records. I’m calling to inform you that we’ve passed on the following songs: How Cool Would That Be, Good, Trouble With Trouble, Such a Sweet Sight, and My List.”

 This message was fraught with textured layers of meaning. First, I’m sure you’ll agree that it didn’t reflect very well on the Sony A&R department. That somebody in that office, even an intern, failed to identify the song that was presently sitting atop the charts seemed pretty inexcusable. Secondly, it obviously meant that, even though I was the composer of that unrecognized, current #1 song, my name still lacked much industry clout. But, this is what surprised me most: My feelings were really hurt. Even though I was enjoying the biggest triumph of my career (so far), a lowly, uninformed, unpaid intern’s pass ruined my day — on a song that wasn’t even available, a song that was already a proven hit, and would go on to become the most-played song on country radio for that year.

 Even the biggest players can be wounded by rejection. Just the other day, I was talking to Tim James, the co-writer of My List. Tim collaborates regularly with some of the top tunesmiths in town, and almost always has a single or two on the charts. Tim reported that during a recent writing session, one such big-name collaborator said out of frustration, “Man, I think I’m gonna go back to law school.” James inquired why his co-writer seemed so down and discouraged. Apparently Mr. Hit hadn’t seen the top of the charts for too long and was feeling like his day in the sun was past. I’m a big admirer of that guy. He’s unbelievably talented and a very, very nice man. Not to be critical or judgmental, but maybe being one of the top song scribes in town has twisted Mr. Hit’s priorities just a bit.

 Sure, this is a business. We all want to see our songs leap-frogging up the charts, bringing us recognition, scooping up awards, and reaping fat royalty checks. That, in fact, should be our ultimate goal. However, when a songwriter’s happiness starts revolving around having a smash 24/7/365, he’s headed for some very unhappy days ahead — whether he’s an unproven novice, or an established hit maker. That’s the nature of this crazy game. As Heidi Klum says on Project Runway (imagine her cute, Austrian accent here), “One day you are in. The next day you are out.” And, there’s no reason why Tim’s famous co-writer can’t reclaim his status as Mr. Hit again — unless, of course, he really does decide to go back to law school.    

 Understandably, many sensitive, creative types have extremely thin skin. If that’s one of your traits, it will not serve you well in a business in which, as Jimmy Webb says, nearly all of our work “will be completely ignored.” Every one of us needs to develop the ability to absorb the inevitable blows, get up, dust off, and move on. 

 Once in awhile I’m struck by a realization, a revelation, a ring of bottom-line truth that clangs my heart with a soft mallet and continues to resound (until it eventually fades away and I start feeling sorry for myself again.) This may seem like a simple epiphany, but it’s one that I occasionally need reminding of. With your permission, I’d like to share it with you:


(No one, that is, but myself.) 

We constantly put ourselves in the vulnerable position of being the subject of the scrutiny of others or of some imposing entity. It may be the finicky, tyrannical boss at work, the parent or sibling, the pastor at church, or the snide neighbor with the obsessively manicured garden. What those people think matters to us — too much. (Of course, sometimes those “opinions” spell the difference between getting that next paycheck or lining up for unemployment. In those cases, they kinda hafta matter.) 

 To one degree or another, we all thrive on praise. It feels good to be complimented, to receive positive recognition and acknowledgment for our talents and achievements — especially when we’ve put some real heart and soul into an endeavor. It’s only natural. And like everything that feels good — from the dull buzz of a shot of tequila, to the luxurious flavor of buttery-rich ice cream, to the ecstasy of a lover’s touch — we can easily become a little too enamored of it. And like a drug, the first hit of praise is always the best and biggest charge, a rush that can never really quite be recaptured, no matter how many times we seek out its fuzzy warmth or its exquisite deliciousness. Praise, too (like a drug), is a transitory and elusory thing, one that tends to evaporate too soon, only to be overtaken by those insecurities that will certainly be lurking behind every shrub, ever ready to pounce when our guard is down.

 However, to live harboring the constant expectation and desire for the approval of others is a sure-fire recipe for disappointment — just like living to see one’s songs atop the charts. Too many factors in those scenarios are out of our control. What if our critic, our reviewer, our “superior” is simply not in the mood to hand out kudos today? That person could be immersed in her own insecurities, possibly even concerned and fixated on making a good impression on one or more of her own higher-ups. Bad mood, not enough sleep, a sick puppy, or an unwashed grape — whatever. It could even be something far more dire and daunting. Do we really want other people’s life-dramas, large or small, to be the arbiters of our own self-worth?

 Besides, I’m the only one who can give another person the authority to pass judgment on me and/or my work. Sure, maybe the guy has a bigger office and a more impressive title. And, maybe I answer to him, and my livelihood might depend on his giving me a passing grade. But, in the long run, if I’m really honest with myself, I know when I’ve done my best. I know when I’ve summoned up all my resources and dedicated myself to a job well done. In actuality, there is nothing more hollow than receiving praise for a less-than-all-out effort, or for a task that simply took little or no effort at all. Just skating by does not lead to fulfillment. Temporary relief, yes; a momentary blush of self-congratulation, yes; satisfaction and contentment, no.

 Sure, we must take our acknowledgments where we can get ’em. And it is a true virtue to be able to accept praise and encouragement graciously and with genuine gratitude. Being a toe-gazing Finn with extremely lofty standards, receiving a compliment with grace is a quality I’ve struggled for years to acquire. (And, believe me, I’m still workin’ on it, kids.) 

 But let’s face it, living a truly creative life requires the creative one to find fulfillment and satisfaction in the work itself — not in the results of the work or in recognition supplied by someone else. The actual process is all we have any control over anyway. In the course of any given day, it should be fulfilling in and of itself to know that we have conceived of and made some measurable progress toward manifesting a worthy creative inspiration. All the rest — the acknowledgment and the paycheck (should they ever actually appear) — would be frosting on an already sweet, layered, and hopefully nourishing cake. We owe it to ourselves to not depend on kudos from someone else, while savoring every morsel of our creative progress. (That, however, is not human nature, and certainly not the way most creative folks are built.)

 Don’t get me wrong. I ain’t no saint. In fact, I go through periods when I NEED, NEED, NEED so much to see some kind of demonstration out there in the real world; something, anything that tells me that my work is making an impact. Those needs have, on occasion, led to depression and near paralysis. But, I know this: I am filled with gratitude for my gifts, for my every creative inspiration, and for every opportunity I get to use and grow my talents. Note: the key word here is GRATITUDE. Anyone who gets to spend a good amount of his or her time “makin’ stuff up” is blessed. Billions of human beings on this spinning globe have to devote every, single, perilous, waking moment of their lives scraping for the next meal. Surely, those people would envy you for any time you can set aside to live creatively, just as you may sometimes envy me — or Tim James, or Mr. Hit. Yes, the three of us have had some very good fortune; but that could be said of just about every one of us, assuming he or she is willing to step away from the pity party and see the upside of this wonderful life.    

 Only by approaching our work with passion and vigor, giving thanks for every chance we get to express ourselves, can we truly honor our talents — regardless of the responses or results we get. And, only by wading through the darkest, dankest swamps of the valley can we appreciate the view from the top of the mountain. (And sometimes, even that phenominal specter can be tainted by a careless, insensitive rejection.) 

 If you or anyone else should say positive words about me or my work, I will receive those words with a smile. I will likely point out that you are extremely generous to share those kindnesses. It is deeply fulfilling for a writer to be listened to and appreciated. To know that somebody is affected positively by my work is a joyful thing. To feel the pride and happiness from playing a part in concocting a song, in discovering and ordering the words of a sentence, in spreading a moment of genuine beauty, truth, laughter and/or poignancy is a divine experience.

That being acknowledged, I will try not to be needy of your praise or anyone else’s. I will endeavor to never be so dependent on results or recognition that I am paralyzed by unrequited expectations. After all, I can’t go back to law school (because, I never went in the first place).

 Rand Bishop

Songwriter, music producer, song-craft coach, author of Makin’ Stuff Up, secrets of song-craft and survival in the music-biz [/private_member]

About The Author

Vinny Ribas

Vinny Ribas is the founder and CEO of Indie Connect, an artist management, consulting and training company. The company also hosts networking and educational events and has published an app that connects people to the Nashville Music Industry. During his 40+ year career, Vinny has been a full time musician, artist manager, booking agent, songwriter, studio owner, producer and the Entertainment Director for the NV State Fair. He has also coached over 1000 artists and songwriters. He is a sought after speaker and has authored over 400 music industry articles. Vinny is also the CEO of Top 4M Entertainment, an independent film and television production company.