Becoming an Overnight Sensation

September 8, 2010


I admit that I am a huge Robin Sharma fan.  Years ago I stumbled upon his blog, downloaded a few articles, and purchased his bestselling book The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.  Sharma is a business coach/leadership guru and best-selling author (The Leader Who Had No Title is his latest book – highly recommend).  In a post on his website, “Robin’s 73 Best Business and Success Lessons”, one of the points he makes peaked my interest; “It Generally takes about 10 years to become an overnight sensation.”  Most musicians want to achieve a high level of success, become an overnight sensation, and the fortune that comes with it, but few want to do the work it takes to become an overnight sensation.  Thomas Edison once said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Can we really develop the musical traits and expertise on our instrument in a short amount of time?  We gravitate toward myths like Robert Johnson, who sold his soul to the devil in order to play guitar better than anyone else in the Delta (I’m not saying go make a pack with the devil – the same was said of Paganini, by the way), and want that quick fix to guitar greatness.  We want great success immediately upon picking up the instrument and shy away from hours of diligent practice.  What few people see in great musicians is the hours, days, and years they put into mastering their craft and art.  I would even posit that great artists spend even greater amounts of energy on a specific repertoire and genre in order to further distinguish themselves from the rest.

Here are a few of my thoughts on becoming an overnight sensation:

1) What people see as an overnight sensation will be born of years of sacrifice and dedication:
-To be a great guitarist you must make daily deposits into your musical bank account.  There will come times in your life where you will need to make a withdraw (I tell my students this typically happens around mid-term when papers are due and exams are in full swing).  By putting in these small, sometimes seemingly insignificant, deposits you are accumulating skill, knowledge, technique, and musicianship that will never be bankrupt.  There is no substitute for self-leadership.  None. The compounding effect of these deposits will reward you greatly

2) Learn a little about everything and a lot about a little:
-In the world of academe we want our students to know everything about everything.  In music we ask our students to have a great recall of music style and nuance over thousands of years of recorded music history.  It is not possible to become an expert in everything.  You can, however, glean ideas, receive inspiration, and maybe discover your life’s music through a study of history.  Instead of becoming a generalist in music become an expert in a little.  Bill Frisell is one of my favorite guitarists.  He spent years in relative obscurity before his overnight sensation.  He wanted to do his own music, play guitar his own way, and as a result he was not successful early on.  The story goes that he was supported by his spouse for years before his breakthrough.  He kept moving forward, never losing sight of his “a lot about little”, and forging his own style.  Through years of dedication, practice, and persistence, his music/style caught on and he is viewed as one of the most influential contemporary guitarists alive. Become an expert at your niche, not someone else’s.  If the music of Argentina is your bag, then do it with great excellence.  Focus on the little, be influenced by the everything.

3) If it doesn’t lead to your goal, don’t do it
-Caveat: if you are studying guitar with a teacher or in an institution, subject yourself to the process.  This process helps you become who you are, and makes you a better guitarist/musician.

-Many of us take gigs that are not in line with our goals simply to make a buck.  It is easy to get involved with music or developing bands that are not part of your goals.  This often leaves us questioning ourselves and our goals.  Know that time spent away from the path that leads to your goals delays your attainment of the prize. Get good at saying “NO” to good things so that you can say “YES” to great things.  Know your priorities and stick to them.  Do not be swayed, keep your focus on your goals.

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