Success is Not Success

I failed my audition for The New Monkees, but I’m in a much cooler band! (read the article for an explanation)

In keeping with my theme of presenting chapters I’ve written from books I never finished, here’s another chapter from the self-help book I tried to write but never finished. Maybe I should finish this book one of these days…

If you want to write a popular self help book you need to appear to be a successful person. At least you have to appear to be “successful” according to the lowest common denominator definition of what constitutes success. This is why authors of self-help books always look like such a bunch of dweebs, at least by my definition of what constitutes looking like a dweeb. 

They’ve all got $400 haircuts that somehow manage to still look idiotic. They’ve got expensive suits. When they speak they’re surrounded by symbols of opulence. There’s always a lot of dark brown wood behind them, and a few ferns. They’re sitting on a plush red chair. There are some ferns nearby. On their videos there’s always a bit of echo on their deep an resonant voices.

The message is subliminal as well as overt. You too can be successful just like me.

But how have they achieved this success? By and large they have achieved their success by selling others the idea that they’re successful. And, in fact, they might not actually even be as successful as they look, at least not at the outset.

Hollywood uses this very same technique all the time. Years ago I worked for Tsuburaya Productions, a Japanese film and television production company. When I first joined the company we had a US-based licensing and distribution agency located in Los Angeles. This agency wasn’t really making a whole lot of money for the home office. In fact we were constantly sending them big checks to cover their expenses. Of course there’s nothing at all sinister or wrong about this. You often run a business at a loss in the hopes that eventually it will turn a profit.

But I clearly recall a moment that really shocked me at the time, although now it makes perfect sense. Our US-based agency was going to represent us at a television trade show in Cannes, France. When it came time to book their hotels the president of that company insisted that we book him into a high priced suite at one of the most expensive hotels in the city. At the time, this sounded outrageous to me. Why did he need to stay at a hotel like that? He could still do his job just as efficiently even if he stayed at the local YMCA. After all, he wasn’t doing business from his hotel room. He was doing it at the trade show.

But he was right and I was wrong. It matters a lot in the TV business to project the image of success. It was important that every aspect of the president of our US-based agency’s visit to Cannes, France should appear to be done from a standpoint of security and wealth. That way the people who he was trying to sell our shows to would imagine that they too could enrich themselves by buying our programs.

Hollywood is full of people driving cars they can’t afford, eating dinners they can’t afford, living in houses they can’t afford and so on and on just to create an impression. And this often works. When the rock band KISS first started the fact that they wore make-up on stage helped hide the fact that they were also their own roadies. The Who used to build giant dummy speaker cabinets just to make their stage set up look more impressive. 

Spiritual development coaches do precisely the same thing when they try to sell you their various secrets for success. They play on their audience’s greed. Greed is a powerful motivator. And people will pay good money in the hopes of finding ways to turn their greed into riches. But it usually only turns the audience’s greed into riches for the performer.

But is the “success” they’re selling really success at all? This is the crucial question, as I see it. Does “success” as it is measured by society at large really create deep and lasting happiness? 

The ancient Buddhist sutras are very clear in their condemnation of greed. Christianity, too, is full of cautionary tales about the desire to acquire wealth and power. I think all the great religious traditions have an aspect of this in their teachings to one degree or another. 

But why? Didn’t the Eighties teach us that greed is good? What’s wrong with wanting a big house and a nice car? What’s wrong with wanting the finer things life has to offer? Isn’t that what makes us happy? The commercials on TV certainly seem to tell us so. And you know you can’t say something on TV if it’s not true. Can you?

This aspect of Buddhism always baffled me when I first started practicing. I wondered if the Buddhist masters were teaching austerity for the sake of austerity. What was so great about poverty? 

When I first started practicing Zen meditation I was a struggling punk rock musician. I knew what poverty was. It was getting paid $40 for a gig you drove six hours to play. And that meant $40 for the whole band, not $40 per member. Poverty meant not having health insurance and not being able to go to the doctor when you were sick. It meant eating Top Ramen instant noodles for dinner five nights a week because they sold for twenty-five cents a package. It meant living in a dump of a house where the gas and water were constantly being shut off because nobody could afford to pay the bills. Poverty sucked ass.

There was a point in the mid-eighties after 0DFx (Zero Defex) broke up (and before we got back together again) where I was not only willing to sell out, I was desperate to do so. I heard they were having auditions for a TV show called The New Monkees. It was supposed to be a reboot of the mega-successful 60’s TV series The Monkees, which had been based on the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night. I had serious doubts a concept like that would catch on. But I knew that even if it failed, it could be used as a springboard to getting me the hell out of Ohio and into contact with people who might help me make some kind of career for myself. 

So I campaigned hard for a role. I sent the producers a letter each day extolling my merits to be in their show. I made each letter brief, to the point, and as creative as possible. Some were postcards. Some contained little weird trinkets or videotapes of skits. Each one was a unique expression of what I thought I could bring to their project.

As a result of this campaign I was granted a very rare private audition with the producers. I didn’t have to stand in line with all the others at the big cattle call in Manhattan that they announced on MTV. Instead, I went to an office the day before and was ushered into the presence of the very movers and shakers themselves. 

Unfortunately I froze up at the audition. Oh I was bad! I was shy and nervous and I sang off key. I also had a totally sixties inspired haircut and outfit. Later, when I saw the people the producers actually picked for the show, I realized that they wanted the most stereotypically Eighties looking guys possible. Which, of course, made perfect sense. What a dunce I was!

I was terribly disappointed when I was not picked as a New Monkee. Although these days I feel like my life turned out better for having never been a New Monkee.

The point I’m trying to make here is that I’m no stranger to greed. I wasn’t then, and I’m not now. I wanted success. I wanted riches. I thought that would make me happy.

Now I realize how lucky I really was. I guess the four guys that got chosen for that show did OK in life. But if I’d gone that direction I would have missed out on things that ended up being so much better for me. If I’d been a New Monkee I don’t think I’d ever have gone to Japan or done the deeper Zen training I did. I’d never have worked for the coolest monster movie making company in the world. I probably wouldn’t be writing books now. And I love writing books more than just about anything else.

If I had been successful according to the definition I held back then I wouldn’t have been successful at all.

The reason the Buddhist sutras tell us to shun greed isn’t because the writers were poor people who wanted the rest of us to be just as miserable as them. Quite the contrary. Buddha himself started off life as a very wealthy and powerful individual. He gave up a life of creature comforts and cash to go on a spiritual journey because he knew for a concrete fact that money and power do not lead to happiness. 

The problem with defining success and then making your efforts to achieve that thing you’ve defined is that you never really know if what you’ve defined as success really is success. To me the word success implies that life here and now is not good enough. 

You often hear of people who have achieved what most of us think of as the pinnacle of success, but who aren’t happy at all. Kurt Cobain committed suicide when he was one of the wealthiest and most beloved rock stars on the planet. Howard Hughes went insane in his mansion. Elvis, the King, died on his throne — the toilet, his body full of drugs he took to try and deal with his success. Other successful people have crashed in far less spectacular ways, but have crashed nonetheless. It’s such a common story we’re rarely surprised when it happens.

The real fact is that real success is not measurable according to some kind of outside definition of wealth or fame or comfort. Real success is learning how to harmonize with the life you have right here and now.

This doesn’t mean being complacent or accepting a bad situation. Once you are in harmony with what actually is, you can see the most efficient way to improve a difficult situation. You can begin to act in this concrete moment to make your life better right now.

Let me try giving you an example from my own life. I’m very awkward socially and do not make friends easily. I’m shy and introverted around strangers. The way I get around that is by being famous. Not Elvis or Kurt Cobain-level famous, or even New Monkee-level famous, for that matter. But I’m famous-er than most folks. And because of that, people want to talk to me. Otherwise nobody does. Ever. It’s true.

This means a lot of weekends I’m just home alone at my stupid computer typing stuff. I wrote four books that way. And three screenplays, too! Though I doubt anything will ever become of those. 

But sometimes I’m just in agony over the fact that I’m so socially unskilled. If I’m not in a position where I can go somewhere and be the “Brad Warner” people want to talk to, I’m sunk. When I make the effort and actually go out, I end up standing in the corner of a room somewhere and sulking until I can’t handle it anymore and then I go home. This happens all the time, even now.

But last winter while I was living in Brooklyn (NOTE: This was written about ten years ago) I decided to start enjoying my loneliness. I stayed home just like always. But instead of hating it I loved it. I learned all kinds of stuff on the bass. I wrote. I watched movies I knew anyone else would hate but that I loved. I did zazen even! I got very into being this kind of urban hermit. It’s then that I realized I actually like being alone. I always did. I’m sure I always will.

It only took me forty-odd years with a bizarre and unnecessary detour into being marginally famous plus twenty-some years of Zen practice to figure this out. Hopefully I’ll live long enough to get the proper enjoyment out of the discovery.

So if you think your life sucks, maybe it doesn’t actually suck. Maybe it only sucks in comparison to what you think your life ought to be. Throw away the comparisons. When they appear in your mind, put them off to one side. Those thoughts will be persistent. But just keep putting them aside. Even if they come up one after another — zap! zap! zap! Just put each one aside. Don’t dwell on them. Don’t look at them. Don’t wonder if the newest variation on an old theme is correct. Just put them aside.

When you find the spot at which you enjoy being exactly who you are, then you can start moving within that framework. 

I am guessing that right now there are things you actually like about your life that you are not able to admit to yourself because they seem so at odds with how you imagine things ought to be. I’m saying this because it’s what I discovered.



September 1, 2021 LECTURE Turku, Finland

September 2-5, 2021 RETREAT Hämeenlinna, Finland

September 8-12, 2021 BENEDIKTUSHOF RETREAT near Wurzburg, Germany

September 15, 2021 LECTURE at LibrairieAlmora Paris, France

September 18-19, 2021 TALK and more in the Ashram de Gilles Farcet, Angles-sur-l’Anglin, France