Shape of success: should we all follow Ed Sheeran’s surprisingly effective career strategy? | Music

Ed Sheeran has announced his sort-of-retirement at the tender age of 28, with a reported net worth of £160m. On stage at Chantry Park in Ipswich on Monday night, the last gig of his two-year Divide world tour, Sheeran said he would be taking an 18-month break from touring – probably to spend time with his new wife, Cherry Seaborn, and do a bit of DIY on their ever-developing Grand Design in Suffolk.

This seems to have been his plan all along. In 2012, when Sheeran’s album + had just spent its fifth week at No 1 and he was well on track to become the megastar that he is today, he told the Guardian’s Alexis Petridis that, no, he was not surprised by his success. “Because the music I write is like love songs with big hooks, I kind of knew it would end up where it’s ended up if it got the right radio play.”

Sheeran went on to outline his career plan with, in hindsight, unnerving specificity: he wanted to release two more albums, each named after a mathematical symbol, then one of duets with big-name stars. And lo! It has come to pass, with + followed by x, Multiply and No 6 Collaborations Project. Even this recent quasi-retirement gels with what Sheeran told Petridis seven years ago, that, after all that success, he would “calm it down a bit”.

Given how many of us vaguely say we’re going to put out a chart-topping album then retreat to Suffolk, it’s easy to see this kind of granular prescience as a sign of destiny and talent that would inevitably out. We are less inclined to attribute it to a work ethic and strategy because of what that says about ours – but what if the secret to success really is making a plan and sticking to it?

Taylor Swift recently released excerpts from her teenage diaries – in which she happily writes, at age 14, about getting a solo part in chorus and “a standing ovation and everything” at the school talent show – that give the sense her stardom was inevitable. In fact, Swift famously decided she wanted to move to Nashville to pursue a career in music when she was just 10 years old, after learning that both Faith Hill and Shania Twain had started their careers there; her family relocated from Pennsylvania three years later. As the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica wrote in response to the diary entries: “Here was a teenager with uncommon drive, fully formed ambition, and the wherewithal to write it all down, as if anticipating the needs of fans, scholars and the New York Times.”

I have a dream … Drake.

I have a dream … Drake. Photograph: Arthur Mola/AP

You can see similarly specific visions of success in the rapper Drake, then 21 and not yet signed to a record label, making his computer desktop background a photo of a multimillion-dollar mansion that he had found by Googling “world’s craziest residential pools”. Five years later, he bought it – a feat of manifestation to rival 15-year-old Meghan Markle posing for a picture outside Buckingham Palace.

Their achievements may not be exactly scaleable, what with their good looks, supportive (and probably wealthy) parents, connections and talent – but many successful people find taking a mid- to long-term view pays off. After founding Spotify at age 23, Daniel Ek took to organising his life in five-year commitments. “I really wanted to see what would happen if I applied myself to one thing, and only one thing … And the longest I could imagine spending on anything was five years.” He has since ramped it up to 10 years.

You might find it hard enough to plan for the coming days, let alone decade – but “the beneficial effect of goal-setting on task performance is one of the most robust and replicable findings in the psychological literature”, to quote a 1981 study reaffirmed in 1993 and 2016. In setting themselves “Smart” – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely – goals, it seems some people just take a broader view of the “achievable and realistic” part.

The real work may start when they achieve them. As a child, Boris Johnson wanted to be “world king”, a dream he partially fulfilled when he became prime minister – though, as the Economist noted, “that does not mean he will be any good”.

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