In 1983, a talented young guitarist was kicked out of his band in the worst possible way. The band had just been signed to a record deal, and they were about to record their first album. But a couple days before recording began, the band showed the guitarist the door—no warning, no discussion, no dramatic blowout; they literally woke him up one day by handing him a bus ticket home.
As he sat on the bus back to Los Angeles from New York, the guitarist kept asking himself: How did this happen? What did I do wrong? What will I do now? Record contracts didn’t exactly fall out of the sky, especially for raucous, upstart metal bands. Had he missed his one and only shot?
But by the time the bus hit L.A., the guitarist had gotten over his self-pity and had vowed to start a new band. He decided that this new band would be so successful that his old band would forever regret their decision. He would become so famous that they would be subjected to decades of seeing him on TV, hearing him on the radio, seeing posters of him in the streets and pictures of him in magazines. They’d be flipping burgers somewhere, loading vans from their shitty club gigs, fat and drunk with their ugly wives, and he’d be rocking out in front of stadium crowds live on television. He’d bathe in the tears of his betrayers, each tear wiped dry by a crisp, clean hundred-dollar bill.
And so the guitarist worked as if possessed by a musical demon. He spent months recruiting the best musicians he could find—far better musicians than his previous bandmates. He wrote dozens of songs and practiced religiously. His seething anger fueled his ambition; revenge became his muse. Within a couple years, his new band had signed a record deal of their own, and a year after that, their first record would go gold.
The guitarist’s name was Dave Mustaine, and the new band he formed was the legendary heavy-metal band Megadeth. Megadeth would go on to sell over 25 million albums and tour the world many times over. Today, Mustaine is considered one of the most brilliant and influential musicians in the history of heavy-metal music.
Unfortunately, the band he was kicked out of was Metallica, which has sold over 180 million albums worldwide. Metallica is considered by many to be one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
And because of this, in a rare intimate interview in 2003, a tearful Mustaine admitted that he couldn’t help but still consider himself a failure. Despite all that he had accomplished, in his mind he would always be the guy who got kicked out of Metallica.
We’re apes. We think we’re all sophisticated with our toaster ovens and designer footwear, but we’re just a bunch of finely ornamented apes. And because we are apes, we instinctually measure ourselves against others and vie for status. The question is not whether we evaluate ourselves against others; rather, the question is by what standard do we measure ourselves?
Dave Mustaine, whether he realized it or not, chose to measure himself by whether he was more successful and popular than Metallica. The experience of getting thrown out of his former band was so painful for him that he adopted “success relative to Metallica” as the metric by which to measure himself and his music career.
Despite taking a horrible event in his life and making something positive out of it, as Mustaine did with Megadeth, his choice to hold on to Metallica’s success as his life-defining metric continued to hurt him decades later. Despite all the money and the fans and the accolades, he still considered himself a failure.
Now, you and I may look at Dave Mustaine’s situation and laugh. Here’s this guy with millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of adoring fans, a career doing the thing he loves best, and still he’s getting all weepy-eyed that his rock star buddies from twenty years ago are way more famous than he is.
This is because you and I have different values than Mustaine does, and we measure ourselves by different metrics. Our metrics are probably more like “I don’t want to work a job for a boss I hate,” or “I’d like to earn enough money to send my kid to a good school,” or “I’d be happy to not wake up in a drainage ditch.” And by these metrics, Mustaine is wildly, unimaginably successful. But by his metric, “Be more popular and successful than Metallica,” he’s a failure.
Our values determine the metrics by which we measure ourselves and everyone else. Onoda’s value of loyalty to the Japanese empire is what sustained him on Lubang for almost thirty years. But this same value is also what made him miserable upon his return to Japan. Mustaine’s metric of being better than Metallica likely helped him launch an incredibly successful music career. But that same metric later tortured him in spite of his success.
If you want to change how you see your problems, you have to change what you value and/or how you measure failure/success.
As an example, let’s look at another musician who got kicked out of another band. His story eerily echoes that of Dave Mustaine, although it happened two decades earlier.
It was 1962 and there was a buzz around an up-and-coming band from Liverpool, England. This band had funny haircuts and an even funnier name, but their music was undeniably good, and the record industry was finally taking notice.
There was John, the lead singer and songwriter; Paul, the boyish-faced romantic bass player; George, the rebellious lead guitar player. And then there was the drummer.
He was considered the best-looking of the bunch—the girls all went wild for him, and it was his face that began to appear in the magazines first. He was the most professional member of the group too. He didn’t do drugs. He had a steady girlfriend. There were even a few people in suits and ties who thought he should be the face of the band, not John or Paul.
His name was Pete Best. And in 1962, after landing their first record contract, the other three members of the Beatles quietly got together and asked their manager, Brian Epstein, to fire him. Epstein agonized over the decision. He liked Pete, so he put it off, hoping the other three guys would change their minds.
Months later, a mere three days before the recording of the first record began, Epstein finally called Best to his office. There, the manager unceremoniously told him to piss off and find another band. He gave no reason, no explanation, no condolences—just told him that the other guys wanted him out of the group, so, uh, best of luck.
As a replacement, the band brought in some oddball named Ringo Starr. Ringo was older and had a big, funny nose. Ringo agreed to get the same ugly haircut as John, Paul, and George, and insisted on writing songs about octopuses and submarines. The other guys said, Sure, fuck it, why not?
Within six months of Best’s firing, Beatlemania had erupted, making John, Paul, George, and Pete Ringo arguably four of the most famous faces on the entire planet.
Meanwhile, Best understandably fell into a deep depression and spent a lot of time doing what any Englishman will do if you give him a reason to: drink.
The rest of the sixties were not kind to Pete Best. By 1965, he had sued two of the Beatles for slander, and all of his other musical projects had failed horribly. In 1968, he attempted suicide, only to be talked out of it by his mother. His life was a wreck.
Best didn’t have the same redemptive story Dave Mustaine did. He never became a global superstar or made millions of dollars. Yet, in many ways, Best ended up better off than Mustaine. In an interview in 1994, Best said, “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.”
What the hell?
Best explained that the circumstances of his getting kicked out of the Beatles ultimately led him to meet his wife. And then his marriage led him to having children. His values changed. He began to measure his life differently. Fame and glory would have been nice, sure—but he decided that what he already had was more important: a big and loving family, a stable marriage, a simple life. He even still got to play drums, touring Europe and recording albums well into the 2000s. So what was really lost? Just a lot of attention and adulation, whereas what was gained meant so much more to him.
These stories suggest that some values and metrics are better than others. Some lead to good problems that are easily and regularly solved. Others lead to bad problems that are not easily and regularly solved.