Entrepreneurs

Here’s How to Tell in 20 Seconds if Someone Will Never Be Successful

Every week at least five people ask me how they can amass a million LinkedIn followers. Others ask how they can write for a site like Inc. Others ask how they can become a bestselling author.

And that’s a problem, because my LinkedIn following was partly due to circumstance, timing, and being asked to join the fledgling Influencer program. Writing for Inc. was mostly due to one editor who decided to take a chance (no one from the other nine business sites I pitched even responded) on a cold-email from an unknown writer.

Without those two things going for me, I would have never gotten a book deal.

So: I’m not an expert on personal branding. (Far from it.) I’m not a skilled social media strategist. (I don’t even have Facebook or Instagram accounts — much less Tik Tok or Clubhouse or the next “influencer” platform du jour.) 

Which means I never know how to answer.

When Sam Jones asked Dave Grohl —  my personal white whale — what he would tell four guys in a garage who had a good batch of songs, what did Grohl say?

Go play live. Just play live.

I don’t understand where music is headed. I don’t understand technology. I just know that when you walk into a club and you see a band that blows you away, you are going to follow that band. You’re going to either buy their CD, or find them online, or see them the next time they come to play.

(Forget) product placement and labels and A&R people and all that (bull).

I know what you’re thinking. Easy for Grohl to say: Foo Fighters benefited from the incredible success of Nirvana, his previous band. So he need to figure out how to get attention hack the system. He didn’t need to figure out how to make it because he had already made it. 

True — and not true. Grohl started playing in punk bands in high school and spent years in an underground scene where donating blood was a reliable gas-money-for-the-tour-van fundraiser. (A now-successful friend of mine says that early on his own band’s tour itinerary included the addresses of nearby blood banks.)

Also keep in mind that Nirvana’s success was only inevitable in hindsight: Grohl joined after their first album, Bleach, had only sold 40,000 copies.

The Two Types of Success

Where extrinsic success — money, fame, reputation, etc. — is concerned, hard work and persistence matters, but circumstances, timing, and luck always play a role.

As Mark Cuban says, “Life is half random.”

Or as Grohl says, achieving “success” starts with embracing an intrinsic definition of success.

If… just playing those great songs in your great live band is enough reward for you, then you’re set. 

As a drummer, I never felt like, ‘I’m going to be on the cover of Modern Drummer magazine because I’m the best drummer in the world.’ I just knew that if you put me onstage in a small club, that I would beat the (crap) out of my drums so much that people would go, ‘Did you see that drummer? Whoa!’ 

(If I did that,) at the end of the show I was a successful musician because I had achieved what I wanted to achieve.

But you have to be badass. You just have to be really good.

No one ever asks me how they can become a valuable member of a community of people with similar perspectives, interests, and dreams. No one ever asks me how they can make a genuine difference in the lives of people they don’t know. 

Even though that’s where it starts. You have to do the work. You have to, in the example above, inform, instruct, inspire, and maybe even entertain. 

Not that I am, but you have to be really good. You have to be a badass. 

Yet even that might not be enough: Plenty of incredibly talented people fail to achieve incredible extrinsic success.

Want to know if you’ll be successful? Ask yourself these questions — and when people look to you for advice, ask them the same questions:

  • Will you feel successful when you’ve connected with and helped a few people? 
  • Will you feel successful when you’ve managed to make a meaningful difference, however small, in a few people’s lives?
  • Will you feel successful when the intrinsic rewards — happiness, fulfillment, and a sense of personal meaning — are enough?

If the answer is yes, you will be successful. They will be successful.

Because no matter how hard you try, you can never truly control the level of extrinsic success you achieve. (Except by working as hard as you can to become a badass.)

But you can always control how you define success — and with it, the way you choose to live your life.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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