Discover more from The Profile
The Hellish Curse of First-Time Success
You put your work out into the world. It was a roaring success. Now, you're miserable.
Flash in the pan. One-off success. One-trick pony. One-hit wonder. These are some of the ways we describe people who have fallen victim to the curse of first-time success.
I recently watched ‘Lewis Capaldi: How I’m Feeling Now,’ a documentary on the life of Scottish music artist Lewis Capaldi. Prior to watching, I had no idea who he was, but I knew every single one of his songs, and you probably do too.
With hit after hit, Capaldi’s debut album blew up right before the pandemic put the world on lockdown. Although from the outside he looks like a hit machine, he’s actually an aggressively ordinary guy. “Ordinary is such a remarkable thing. Do you know what I mean? There’s something to be said about the beauty in everyday life.”
Spotify featured his song on a major playlist, and he exploded. His song “Someone You Loved” has been streamed more than 2.7 billion times on Spotify. He truly became famous overnight. “Fame doesn’t change you,” he says. “It just changes everyone around you.”
As you see in the film, Capaldi continues to see himself as an ordinary guy, while those around him continue to raise the bar and expect something extraordinary.
“I still feel like an impostor,” Capaldi says. “I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. Impostor syndrome — I think you can have it at any level. It bleeds into every single decision you make and everything you do. I love the fact that people do give a f*ck and listen to my music, but I just don’t get it. I don’t get why people would turn up and see it.”
Capaldi was able to produce his first album because he did it for himself instead of for the world. It was the same for me when I was writing my book, HIDDEN GENIUS. I partook in “selfish writing,” the act of engaging in a creative act for personal enjoyment. I had nothing to prove to anyone because it’s my first book. I was able to work with no external expectations hanging over my head.
But many writers of successful books may have experienced “Second Book Syndrome,” the notion that a writer will fail to write a second book that will live up to the first one.
It’s the pressure to perform again.
As the pressure continued to build, Capaldi began to experience a Tourette’s symptom in the form of an involuntary shoulder shrug while he was working on his second album. The twitch came to a head during his performance at Wembley Stadium in London where he had to pause and take a break as he failed to regain control over his body.
“My confidence in my own abilities [is] lower now despite the fact that we’ve just done something quite incredible,” he says. “Some days I think like, ‘This album’s gonna be f*cking ready to go, gonna be class,’ and other days, I’m like, ‘F*ck, this is a million miles off.”
There’s a widely-believed superstition in the music industry that whoever wins the “Best New Artist” category at the Grammy Awards is doomed to a lifetime of obscurity. It’s believed that the winners wouldn’t be able to replicate the success they achieved in the year of their debut. (Some notorious winners? Starland Vocal Band, Milli Vanilli, Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, and Evanescence.)
It’s less about the category being “cursed,” and it’s more about the pressure that the artists put on themselves to be the best again. As Capaldi says, “You can only be the next big thing for like, a year.”
As the success mounts, so does the pressure. That’s the thing about success, isn’t it? It builds until it crushes. “I think I’ve never been more insecure in my life than I am now,” Capaldi says, after his debut album sold over 10 million copies worldwide.
He eventually decided to pause the writing and recording of his second album to focus on his mental health. He started eating better, exercising daily, and seeing a therapist.
So can you replicate success? If you’re anything like me (and Capaldi) you doubt yourself and you overthink things. It’s not until you actually sit down, get lost in the process, and use your skills to create something exceptional.
You see him regain his confidence when he starts writing. He begins to trust in his own abilities and put the world’s expectations to the side. That’s when the anxiety starts to subside. “I can’t expect anyone else to do the album for me,” he says. “I need to take responsibility.”
And that’s the irony of it all — the only way to cure impostor syndrome is to start. Pressure is often anticipatory — you worry about a speech you haven’t yet given and you feel pressure about an album you haven’t yet written. Only once you start can you remind yourself that you possess that skillset no one can take from you. If you’ve done it once, you can do it again.
The problem is that the brain forgets that it’s capable, that it’s been there before. In the documentary, Capaldi is headed to his first solo show in three years when he says, “Right now, I find it very hard to see a way back to playing on stage. This thing I did every single day … I can’t believe I ever did that.”
Capaldi’s second-album single ‘Forget Me’ landed him back on No. 1 on the charts, and most recently, he had three singles in the Top 20. So objectively-speaking, his second album was a roaring success.
But now, Capaldi’s learned how to release some pressure. He’s made peace with the success of his first album while hoping for the best with his second.
“I just want people to like [the second album] as much. Like, the people who come to the gigs, I want them to enjoy it as much as the first one,” he says. “But that being said, not many people get a very successful first album, so I’ll just be quite happy with that for the rest of my life. I’ll happily be the guy that comes and sings ‘Someone You Loved’ at parties and stuff for the rest of my life.”