Bobby McFerrin on Distancing Yourself from Your Best Work Don’t let expectations consume you.

Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy is the first a cappella song to rank number one on BillBoard’s Hot 100. The song debuted in September of 1988, and in the 17 years following its release, no other a cappella song has claimed its spot. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was awarded the Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance at the 1988 Grammy Awards.

Prior to striking gold with a simple melody, and even simpler lyrics, McFerrin was unknown to the broader American music audience. Succumbing to financial hardships in his early thirties, the pianist-turned-singer and his wife lived in a garage and had their Ford Pinto repossessed. McFerrin attended any and every jam session, and took up numerous low paying piano gigs to make ends meet.

The immediate success of his song brought new opportunites that years earlier seemed unlikely. But McFerrin does not adhere to conventional wisdom and McFerrin does not travel the beaten path. Instead of embracing the bright spotlight and touring the world like a maniac, he receded into the shadows of family life. The new found fame did not distort McFerrin’s expectations for himself and his music. He had made his art and wanted to be left alone.

In a documentary produced by Bravo, Bobby McFerrin explains his thought process after releasing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

“I took a sabbatical. The tune was riding the charts and against conventional music wisdom of touring like crazy, I stayed home. I stayed home while the song worked. I wanted to be home with my family. I could have really gone nuts at that period. I could have really gone crazy.” 

McFerrin’s manager and producer echoed the same sentiments as him.

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” bought this avalanche of attention that was almost unattractive. It was overwhelming.”  — Linda Goldstein

Do you allow your magnum opus to define the rest of your work? McFerrin would argue that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was not his best work  —  and he’s right , it’s his most recognizable work. How does an artist ensure that a single piece of art does not define them and the rest of their work? Simple. Do what McFerrin did and completely disregard the spotlight your work brought. It seems inconvenient. How can you step away from opportunities that can indefinitely change your life? Living up to unreasonable expectations can be overwhelming, especially if your expectations are built on a song as enormous as “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Heed McFerrin’s advice, ‘don’t worry, be happy” and don’t be lured into a sick cycle of expectations that can destroy you and your future work.

Step back and go back to creating and partaking in things that you truly enjoy.

Learn More:

Bobby McFerrin had ‘No Idea’ ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy” Would be so Successful 

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