Building Blocks

How do you measure success? Who doesn’t ponder this somewhat pointless question (at least for some scholars)? With noses in books during study hall, college students grapple with the secrets of success while reading a challenging chapter on the Middle East for American History 307. Inside a boardroom, professionals weigh Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) before the upcoming career-defining presentation. And stay at home parents, holders of the most challenging job title of all, often scratch their head while staring at their child’s grade card. Is this good? Bad? Or, something else entirely?

I’d like to think we all struggle with measuring success day in and day out. Media Editors. Tech founders. Teachers. Fireman. Mayors. County Commissioners. Astronauts. Data Scientists. Scores of creatives rip up canvases, erase entire stanzas and rewrite major characters in one’s quest for perfection.

This summer I drove to Atlanta to catch Jack Johnson in concert. I meant to see him in Chicago, but, due to a life-changing event, I gave the tickets away. Give me some slack, how often do you pick up and move? Then, a month later, I realized Jack hadn’t toured most of the year. Worse, he had skipped 2016 entirely because he commandeered a ship trying to save the ocean. I can’t fault him. Someone has to take a stand and defend our environment. So, there I was in the middle of the concert and the Bahamas, Jack’s opener, started jamming to a tune I thought I knew. Yes, I had heard the song before. The lyrics I recognized:

When I was a young boy

My mama said to me

“There’s only one girl in the world for you

And she probably lives in Tahiti…”

For the life of me, I had no idea who brought this relatively simple song into the world. The verses are in a steady 4/4 beat, except for the finish. After a few searches, I found Wreckless Eric, who wrote this tune after a breakup in 1974. Stiff Records released the song in 1977. I wondered how many failures Eric had before recording this on his first album. Were his fingertips calloused? How many songs had he put pen to paper for before finishing this one? Each failure a lego block on the way to completing a larger castle.

Yet, I had never listened to his original version of the song. Why did I recognize the beat at the concert? Well, because this is probably one of the most covered songs in a generation. Elvis Costello, Monkees, and the Wallflowers have all taken their turn. I think I remembered the beat because it’s the only song Will Ferrell’s character could play in the movie Stranger than Fiction. No, Whole Wide World isn’t the most covered song in history. The title belongs to Paul and John. Yesterday wins by a long shot. The Beatle’s masterpiece has been covered over 2,000 times (a conservative estimate). If you took the time to type each artists’ name on a page, it would take a ream of paper and an ink cartridge. Long list. Yesterday will live on forever. As Molly from the movie Tin Cup would say, “My God, Roy, it was … Well, it’s immortal.”

Still, Eric’s song continues to gain momentum. Months later, the song dances about inside my head. Cage the Elephant has my favorite cover, released just this past year. How do you define success? Well, I suppose that depends on your time horizon. It took forty years for Matt Shultz to release his live cover of the song. For success, critical KPIs are best measured by the time horizon. If you make great work, whatever medium your magnum opus takes, think the long game. The same holds true for all professions, even those who serve the highest office in the land. What projects do you work on? Where do you spend your time? Challenging questions. Only by looking backward can you see the castle in the sand.

And thank you, Wreckless Eric. One heck of a tune. May your world ripple across the pond for a lifetime.

Pretty good article on everywhere the song has been covered.

Will Ferrell playing Eric’s song in Stranger than Fiction

All-time list of most covered songs. John and Paul make the spot with Yesterday. Note, this article has the song coming in at about 2,200 covers. The Guinness Book of World Records has it somewhere around seven million. That’s a delta.