On The Creative Warriors podcast recently, I brought up one of my favorite lessons: Hearing how Michael Jackson handled the success of his breakthrough album Thriller.
In short, the late icon worked with megaproducer Quincy Jones and essentially redefined R & B - Thriller is still one of the top 20 selling albums of all time. The problem? Jackson wanted to do it again. According to Jones, he spent the rest of his life, album after album, trying to create something bigger than Thriller. As a result, he never felt quite satisfied.
Keep in mind, Jones wasn't saying something equal to Thriller. Something more successful than Thriller. One of the best-selling albums of all time.
The Atlantic explained the challenge during the 25th anniversary of Bad, the Thriller follow-up:
Jackson in interviews more often expressed Olympian commercial goals of breaking the sales records of his previous album than he did of pursuing new musical territory. And very much like how many filmmakers of blockbusters beef up defining fight scenes and plotlines, Jackson conspicuously restaged and amplified Thriller's signature moments with perfectionist's precision, making Bad sound sterile in too many places.
It is an amazing trap: You naturally hit a home run and, next time up to bat, you're checking wind conditions, wearing a lucky hat and trying to recreate the previous experience.
The rub is that what you did - the success you had - wasn't just based on your actions. It is both timing and inspiration, too. The sales success of Thriller could not be recreated because the whole record industry sold less records, as we would see with Napster and iTunes and Spotify. The needs of the listeners changed (ironically, because of Thriller itself), so doing another Thriller wouldn't recreate the same sea change. And Jackson was arguably in a different place, as he now had ridiculously high expectations of himself and a new set of pressures.
Sometimes we expect to do the same amazing work twice, so we get sloppy the second time around. Just as often, though, we can give ourselves too much credit for our success, overanalyzing what we did initially as if our win was completely based on our actions.
Big Magic author Elizabeth Gilbert has a great TED Talk about failing after the blockbuster Eat, Pray, Love. She had to virtually sequester herself to get her mind right. I had my first Amazon best-seller in 2010 and I just had my second with The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur - but I wrote almost ten books between them!
Being famous or prolific won't help you succeed again. What matters is the work and your intention. Is your product or service being done with the audience at the forefront? Are you contributing something more to the cultural conversation? Ego-driven enterprises rarely rise as high as purely-motivated work - and we are in the most danger of doing the former after a big win.
Did you get a major victory? Take a breather before you get back in the arena and remember why you fought in the first place.