One of the easiest and most common things to do is look at people who’ve “made it” and say, “I wish I had that kind of success.” The truth is that this expressed wish is very rarely sincere. The simple fact is that except in unimaginably exceptional cases there is no such thing as a supernaturally lucky “big break” that just hands out wild success against all odds.
That’s just not the universe operates.
Reality has always been pretty very clear about this: Getting to the top of any business, field, or market generally happens to those who sacrifice the most. Let me provide an example of sacrifice and suffering I learned first hand from the The Jets, a hugely popular band in the 80’s and 90’s.
Many years ago when I was 15 I met an unusual family that changed the course of my life. My family was struggling after a financially disastrous sojourn to Arizona. We returned with lots of debt and no money, so we took up residence in a rather dumpy duplex.
We eventually had enough money to buy a very used green stationwagon that leaked an enormous amount of oil which we dubbed: the Lizard. Behind our raggy home was another duplex whose driveway was soon filled with a large blue bus. A huge family had moved in, and I was especially curious. I made friends with this enormous family (eventually totaling 17 children) who were dedicated musicians even though most were not even in their teen years. Eventually, I moved in with this family (21 of us in a 4-bedroom house), the Wolfgramm family, entirely and went to work for them. In doing so, I received the greatest education I would ever acquire in life: I learned the value of passionate purpose, maniacally hard work, and the health benefits of green baloney.
Because I was truly an aimless kid with no idea what to do with my life, I was immediately struck by how hard these kids worked just because they wanted to do. The older ones attended high school with me, but all of the kids would attend school, then return home and practice until the evening. Then, they would pile into a green cargo van (no insulation, no seats except for the driver and one passenger, no heat—entirely devoid of safety and comforts. Each weekday they would load the instruments in a trailer and take off to perform from 9pm-1am at local bars. They would return home by 2:30am and were awake and ready by 5:30am the next morning for school. I had never seen anything like it, and I soon became a regular companion to nearly every show. All along, they were still getting better grades than I was in school! These kids were something special.
As the oldest of us graduated from high school, things became even more serious. Their father’s vision of what the family could achieve became clearer, sharper, and more urgent. He felt the time was coming for a big break. At this point, they hired me to work as their sound man (a clear sign of a–Their incredible generosity and b– How short-handed the business surely was. because was I wasn’t a very good soundman). I immediately went on the road during a year where we did 200 shows in many different cities. It’s an exhausting lifestyle that leads other bands to turn to drugs, sex, and alcohol to pass the time and stay engaged. We were different despite the ubiquitous temptations. To this day, many people who became attracted to the positive message and example the Wolfgramms and I set express gratitude for helping them change their lives.
It’s important to know that during a grueling 18 month period I gained only a taste of the hard and satisfying work these kids had lived since they were old enough to dance or hold a microphone. They were stage veterans at 13, and I was an entirely green stage hand at just shy of 18. Each day on the road was spent:
- Driving to some remote city with a bar that reeked of stale beer and decades of cigarettes
- Unloading all the instruments, setting them up and rehearsing all day into the evening
- Taking a small break to eat a burger and soda before the show
- Playing 4 sets from 9pm to 1am
- Tearing down the stage, lights, instruments, etc. and loading it all in the trailer
- Driving all night to another remote city with a bar that reeked of stale bear and decades of cigarettes. (repeat steps 1-6)
If you do this long enough and with enough passion and stay united, good things WILL happen. Eventually, word got around about an amazing and talented family. We landed a pretty nice gig at John Escuaga’s Casino Cabaret in Reno Nevada where Jheryl Busby from MCA came to see the band perform. He was blown away, and an impressive recording contract followed.
To the outsider who does not know the full story, how we froze in a van with no heat in the dead of Minnesota winters, how we ate moldy baloney, how we fit 15 people into a small hotel room, and how these kids had given up so much of the entirely wonderful and good play time that all their peers enjoyed—that outsider will most likely look at the final success and think, “I wish I could be a star like that.” As I said at the outset—that wish is usually not very genuine. Few people are willing to make the relentless sacrifices it takes to get there. However, for the kids who suffered and sacrificed, it wasn’t just a wish—It was a mission, a commitment, an incredible attitude for people at such a young age. I was fortunate to come in contact with them and “get” it. I became one of them in my drive to succeed among other things. I learned what it takes for a shot at the top of any endeavor.
As we turn our attention to business, family life, developing talents, and so on, we can learn a lot from Maikeli and Vake Wolfgramm and their remarkable family who remain my very closest friends to this day. The principles that led them to achieve their successes, including the great success they have their vast clan of children and grandchildren are ones that apply elsewhere—You need to eat a lot of ‘green baloney’ for a shot at the top, my friends. There are no shortcuts to the top.
–John R. Durant © 2011