When it comes to finding success and happiness most of us get prettty myopic. We are convinced we need an exact cocktail of events to occur before we allow ourselves to believe we have achieved success. If only we had that job, car, house. But the reality is that success comes in many forms. You can thrive at any time. The key is to recognize and embrace those riches when they come your way.
Melissa Levis and her pup Jetson in front of The Wilburton Inn
This lesson took Melissa Levis years to learn. She had always been keenly influenced by her mother’s siblings Wendy and Bruce Wasserstein. As chairman and CEO of Lazard, her uncle Bruce was a titan of finance. Levis’ Aunt Wendy was a Pulitzer Prize playwright who made history as the first solo woman playwright to win a Tony Award. “They were great role models to me,” says Levis. “Because they were self-made, they gave me the possibility that if you work hard, have talent and commitment, you can do it too.”
But she also convinced herself that unless she found success on the Wendy and Bruce scale, she hadn’t flourished. “Especially,” she shares, “because they became household names and very respected in their different industries.”
After she graduated from Brown, ever resourceful, her first paying gig was singing at the Palm Restaurant in East Hampton while guests waited for their tables. Combining cover songs with her witty and smart original ones, diners took notice. “You’re so funny,” one told her. “I’m throwing an engagement party for my friend. If I tell you about her will you compose a song?”
That opportunity launched Levis’ custom song writing career. Each time she turned up to sing a biographical song that she had crafted, the work snowballed. She was hired to compose songs for Jonathan Tisch, Wilbur Ross, Eli Wallach, Governor Bill Richardson and other CEOs, socialites, movie stars, Prime Ministers and presidential hopefuls.
From there Levis joined forces with business behemoths who aspired to become rock stars and put together the aptly named band, Melissa and the Moguls. “I called Mort Zuckerman and Ron Perelman who were listed in the East Hampton phone book and said, ‘Do you want to relive your youth and play drums or the harmonica?’ They declined but she did enlist Dan Rattiner, Pat Malloy, Andy Sabin, Jonathan Farkas and others. They recorded a best-selling CD “Ooh La La Hamptons.”
With the blessing and financial backing of her songwriting clients Levis parlayed her talent into writing an off Broadway review called The Joys of Sex. More success came when she discovered her passion for children's music. In 2005, after becoming a mom to her son, she wrote a vast repertoire of songs for kids.
She created her band Moey’s Music Party and was dubbed “The Pied Piper in Pink” by The New York Post sporting sparkly pink dresses and boas. “I had all of these children following me from concert to concert,” says Levis. She built up a massive kids following singing for 10,000 children a year. “There was not a New York City playground that I did not sing in,” she explains.
Fueled by her life as a mom, her hits like “I’ve Got To Go Potty” were sung by children and parents all over New York City. She wrote a "Princess Revolution" CD for empowered princesses. “I rewrote the endings to all the famous fairy tales,” she explains. “I was also inspired by my father’s work as a psychiatrist, which is all about changing metaphors and stories and writing your own ending. I gave the songs new kid-friendly, girl-power endings.”
But even with all her success and dreams realized, Levis still felt empty inside. She remembers when The Joys of Sex was reviewed in The New York Times. The show had taken her five years and $1 million of fierce fundraising. “I looked at the review and felt very much like the song from A Chorus Line, where Diana Morales sings “And I felt nothing,” shares Levis. “I didn’t get a sense of joy and satisfaction.”
Levis realized that even with all her hard work, she never let herself feel truly present. “I was always so aware of what was next,” she explains. “Here I was being Moey, having concerts with moguls. Bianca Jagger and Barbara Walters sang and clapped to my songs.” She thought of what her young son had craved. “He said he wanted more Vermont, in his life,” says Levis. “I had to really pause because having grown up in Vermont. I always thought the point was to make it in New York.”
But Levis discovered the joy she was seeking went back home to Vermont to work at her family’s beloved Wilburton Inn. “Slowly I began to appreciate the beauty and pace of Vermont,” says Levis of the locale where she grew up.
In fact, art still abounds and is a large part of her life at the inn which the family has had for 30 years. As her father believes that creativity is the ultimate spirituality, they have a Museum of the Creative Process. She is doing a play each month in the inn’s living room. Each November her sister, Tajlei, a prolific New York City playwright, writes a murder mystery which is performed on property.
After all the accolades, Levis has a keener sense of what it means to feel successful. “Happiness is wanting what you have, not having what you want,” says Levis. “My mother told me that years before I truly understood it. But now I wholeheartedly agree.”
Levis shared her best tips on bringing happiness into your life.
Let life surprise you. I never in a million years imagined I would find so much satisfaction in returning to a small town life. When he was in the third grade my son surprised me by saying he wanted more Vermont in his life. I changed my life that day for him. Little did I know how much happiness it would bring me.
Count your blessings. Make a written list of 128 of your accomplishments that make you proud. A teacher at a retreat called Kripalu shared this exercise with me and it changed my life. It's a great opportunity to reflect and see what makes you proud. For me, it was the first time I realized that in my 25 year career as a songwriter, my songs had generated $1 million! Coming up with the full list of 128 things is a challenge, but take this opportunity. It will change your life.
Learn from testing your self awareness. It's so hard to know how to make big decisions. You can get confused listening to your heart, your mind, your body, your friends, therapists and family. I have consistently found that my best path to finding the right answers for myself was by doing my father's Creativity for Self Discovery testing on line or in a workbook. It gave me a self awareness about myself that I didn’t have before.
Remember people matter more than success. In a city like New York everyone is bustling about to achieve, earn, make their mark. Now that I'm in Vermont, I find people linger over breakfast and a stunning country view. I have had so many real connections through shared moments with a never ending stream of diverse and wonderful people. The true happiness comes not from achieving but in experiencing, slowing down and connecting.