When we think of artists we don’t usually think of them as successful. Instead, we imagine a half-crazy, hunger-starved artist with torn jeans and a paint-stained shirt. This, however, is a misconception and cultural prejudice. All the great thinkers in history were also great creatives: just think of Einstein, Edison, Steve Jobs – you name it. Anyone who ever invented something amazing or solved a pressing problem was a creative thinker and therefore in one way or another an artist. Society needs creative people.
But what is it that sets the successful ones apart from the not so successful ones? It’s definitely not just talent. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book Outliers, success has to do with many different factors; talent is more like the total sum of them, but not some kind of genetic advantage that some people have. Success is a matter of luck, coincidence, cultural heritage and hard work.
Now look at these again; these are all factors that we can’t influence, except one: hard work. Yes, hard fucking work. I know, it sounds daunting but that’s the key to financial success and recognition for an artist. Creativity sometimes seems like a magic trick. It’s not. Ultimately, it still comes down to work. And that’s what many people don’t realize. Doing the work is what sets a successful artist apart from all the others that could have been. It’s about doing something with your ideas. An artist is not an artist as long as he doesn’t put his pen to paper, his paint to canvas and his songs to sheets of music. Taking action is hard, but you won’t be able to get around it, if you want to do something in the creative industries. Focus your efforts! And keep in mind: creativity ≠ creation. Creation is ideas turned into reality.
If your goal is to become a professional artist, you should think about ways to monetize your passion. To do that, you have to create something of value – something that people REALLY want and will happily pay for, because they love your work. Just don’t make the mistake of doing work for free. Maybe it’s the notion that creative work is not real work, but many people expect that an artist will do work for free. Sure, you can make a painting as a gift for friends, but not for all the acquaintances that suddenly seem to crawl out of the woodwork. Selling your work for a reasonable price is part of being an artist. It’s neither selfish nor greedy. It’s only fair. And it will show that your work is being valued.
Another common pitfall for many people is that they take their work – even their creative work – too seriously. I understand that artists can be just as stressed over making the money that pays the bills as anyone else, but creative work has to be fun to be fruitful. Turning work into play is an art in itself. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “It is a happy talent to know how to play”. And playing – or playing around with ideas – is essential for an artist. It’s what makes it possible to create. It also makes it a lot easier to handle criticism and lessens the pressure to get everything perfect all the time. This, in turn, increases the odds of actually creating something. It’s a funny business, the art industry.
For me personally, and I think many creatives would agree, the real measure of success is something else, though. It’s being able to create for the sake of creating – without inhibitions and without restrictions. Being able to do the work that you love, that challenges you but doesn’t overwhelm you, is what it really means to be successful. I know it sounds cheesy, but I’m sure there are many artists who would happily sacrifice a moment of success for a lifetime of fulfilling work.
Isn’t it in the end all about making the most of our lives, anyway? No matter how you want to define success, go forth and be outstanding! Become an outlier in what you do and success will follow.