I didn’t come up with the concept of private victories. It comes from the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. (An excellent and extremely helpful and empowering book that somehow gets lumped in with manipulative pseudo self-help books and get-rich-quick schemers.)
I won’t go too much into author Steven Covey’s writings on private victories other than the concept that you must have private victories before you can have public victories.
It’s hard to refute this logic. I’ve used the marathon metaphor before and it works here – you have to build up to running 26.2 miles. Getting there requires lots of frequent, small private victories of running a little further and and little further every day. By the time you run in the event, you will have essentially already run a marathon privately!
(The amazing thing about marathons is that if you run one, you’re pretty much a winner in everyone’s book. It’s like a private and public victory at once. When my mom ran one in her late 40s, it was a massive private victory just to finish the event and everyone around her recognized it. Friends and family and neighbors congratulated her. None of them knew or cared who actually placed or won the event but they knew she was in it. In their minds, she may as well have finished 1st!)
I think a lot of times, though, musicians and bands want that public victory (a sold out show, a good review, money, etc.) so badly that we try to skip past the private victory stage and wind up presenting something that’s not really what we had in mind or is some half-assed version of it. This is like trying to turn a private failure into a public victory? “We couldn’t play a single song competently but we were signed to Geffen on the spot!” That doesn’t happen… often.
Before I moved to Austin, I was really into practicing and preparing before a first show with a band. Over the years I fell into the same trap as most Austin musicians: Performing in front of people was really just as private a victory as a good rehearsal because no one was going to be at the show anyway so why not at least get the name out there and start building it up? The problem with this Austin way of doing it is that, really, every show is an opportunity for a public victory… or a public embarrassment! Most people who see you live will only see you a few times in their lives. In a lot of cases they will only see you once. In spite of decades of fandom, I have only seen Van Halen – one of my favorite bands – one time and, while they played well, they sounded like crap. I didn’t go see them last month in Austin because they’re known for terribly live sound and I didn’t need to pay $100 to experience that again.
What If you suck or are half-assing it when someone sees your show? “I saw a mediocre band stumble through their first show!” Not exactly the kind of word of mouth commentary that spreads like wildfire through a community of gate keepers.
Comments from random people occasionally remind me of my own rush to public victory. “Oh, I’ve seen you guys before. You have the accordion and trumpet player.” Wow. That means they have seen the band in 11-12 years. And no wonder. They band they remember was pretty mediocre… except for the apparently memorable instrumentation.
(Of course, at some point, you just have to say, “This is good enough,” and go do your show or run your marathon. Austin is a great place to incubate your ideas/band, I just think we sometimes need a little more time under the heat lamp.)
I think private victory is ultimately more important than public because it HAS to come first. Public victory may never come, but private victories MUST. They may never make your wallet fatter, but they will make your life richer. I’d personally rather spend time on my death bed recounting the greatest moments I lived rather than counting the dollars I accumulated (especially the ones I never even used).
Here’s a list of private victories that many (most?) of us take for granted:
learning to walk
learning to read/write
learning to speak
learning to count
Those are some pretty basic skills but think about how much you use them!
I recently met a fellow who, at the age of 51, cannot read. Now, I have known that illiteracy exists, but really seeing how it affects people is staggering. Without reading skills, this guy doesn’t know what’s in his food, what street/warning signs say, what his mail says or even that he’s picking up the right supplies for his job. He can’t use the internet. He drives but not legally. Without that private victory of learning to read, this poor fellow is relegated to the most menial of tasks from temporary manual labor employers because there are some really basic things he just can’t do – like filling out paperwork.
It’s hard for me as someone who learned to read as a kid to understand why this guy has gone so long without learning to read. I mean, it’s a shame that his parents or teachers didn’t teach him but he’s 51 and knows that not having the skill has held him back. He could learn and could’ve learned at any point. Yet he chooses to go out there and find work that he can do with his current skill set and seems happy enough. And that’s totally cool. I don’t hear him complain.
But it makes me think about the bands and musicians I’ve seen or heard that are just barely stage-worthy wondering why they make such slow headway. So often I’ve heard some sentiment akin to “we’ve paid our dues, we deserve a weekend gig/opening slot for a big show/more fans/etc.” And paying dues is a GREAT metaphor for this kind of thing because paying your dues only guarantees membership — not success. I mean, I pay my dues at the YMCA, but if I want my abs to be as mouthwatering as my glutes, I’m going to need to do more than just walk on the treadmill a couple times a week. I’m going to have to do some exercises I don’t like or even know – get out of my comfort zone and take the time to develop my six pack before I start playing shows shirtless again.
Going through the process of achieving private victory prevents unnecessary public failure because you get the chance to “sound out all your words” (to keep the reading metaphor going) without criticism or scrutiny from anyone. It gives you luxury of (mostly) private trial and error. This is why school was invented!
When I was much younger, I was really into skateboarding but I was really terrible. I’d often get angry and throw my board on the ground. I felt so embarrassed to be so awful – especially in front of the kids a little older than me. Looking back on those days, the older and better skaters never made fun of me — because they had all been through the same process I was going through. They’d needed individual time to develop.
Plenty of people with a LOT of public success realize the value of private victory, too. For many of them, public victory can even lose its luster… “I’m the top selling artist of all time. Neat! Now what?” For many the answer is golf. For some, it’s a whole other career – Brian May. For others is philanthropic work. There are plenty of examples of people who achieved huge public success and then practically disappeared. I feel certain that Mark Hamil has had a very fulfilling life since Return of the Jedi in 1983. (Of course, that’s about to change since a contractual obligation will force (ha!) him back into the role of Luke Skywalker.)
Regardless of what’s next for already-successful people, they will need time to develop whatever it is – even if it’s just more of the same thing like a new movie or album – and that development is never or barely seen by the public.
You never stop having private victories and the most publicly successful among us know it.