260: Types of Success

I RECEIVED an email the other day asking about the advisability of pursuing a career in art. In general if someone truly wants to be an artist no amount of discouragement can stop them. If they aren’t committed to being artists no amount of education can help them. But between these two extremes are many options.

The most important idea to remember is that all successful artists invent their own career paths. A quick review of self-help books reveal such books are only useful if you have the right product to sell–this usually means real estate in a good economy, career counseling in a bad one, or ironically, a self-help book that resonates with the zeitgeist. You will never see a self-help book on how to be a successful artist because that path will be as unique as you are. Such a book could only tell you how others invented their artistic careers. Following their path can only teach you how to become them.

Many ask if they should pursue an art education. The answer depends on what kind of person you are. If you are highly motivated with a type-A personality perhaps you can move forward without a formal education. But regardless you need to acquire the necessary skills you will need to successfully navigate your chosen artistic journey. Remember that this journey will be long and will traverse many economic conditions. You most likely will have to adapt to many differing careers. A good rule of thumb is the less you are an A-type personality the more you can probably benefit from formal education–with the caveat that it is unwise for young artists to accrue debt. Avoid debt if possible. 

All the successful artists I know had a very intense education of some type, whether it was a formal education which they took very seriously, or a period of intense experimentation on their own, which they took equally seriously. The point being you must give yourself time to fully develop your artistic vision. The more dedicated to this early endeavor the more successful you will be in later phases of your career. If you do decide to attend a school remember that no one but you knows where you are going artistically, and even you may experience some surprises along the way.

If an instructor doesn’t know your journey’s end they won’t know what advice to give on how to get there. Exercise compassion and skepticism if teachers are dogmatic in their opinions. You must simultaneously be humble enough to absorb their knowledge but confident enough to resist advice irrelevant to your artistic project.

If you don’t have an A-type personality (and you need to be honest) and you know in your gut you may not have the drive to plow through all of the preparatory requirements you can still have an art career. There are many ways of having a satisfying creative career. One of the best overviews of creative options is outlined in the book Refuse to Choose. The book reviews various career strategies that apply to a variety of personality types. It is especially good for those who love a wide array of artistic genres. The book countermands a variety of myths–most seemingly contrived to make artists feel bad about themselves–that stymie many gifted and passionate artists. The book is too dense to review in detail here (read Amazon reviews for an overview) but suffice it to say it gives enough ideas I’m reasonably sure most can find a workable strategy regardless of economic or emotional requirements.

Equally important is to know what type of artistic success you want. In the book The Happiness Equation, author Neil Pasricha outlines three types of success–social, sales, and self success. Social success is getting the accolades you desire from peers and professional organisations. Sales success is monetary success. Self success is the personal satisfaction you derive from your career that is independent from all other types of success.

When I wrote and illustrated the graphic novel Cypher I naively felt it was going to be a commercial success and provide an ongoing revenue stream that would subsidize my painting career. And it was a success–it was accepted into the Spectrum annual and received accolades from peers including being anthologized in Heavy Metal magazine. But financially it was a failure because it never became popular within the very narrow window that publishers demand. Conversely it was a self success–I continue to be proud of it and still get fan mail from around the world.

The paradox is that it’s probably impossible to get all three types of success from any one career strategy. Most careers will be a blend. Knowing what kind of success you want will help you discover which path you need to pursue. The different types of success explain the phenomenon of the financially successful artist who is denied respect by peers (being branded a sellout), or the artist who can’t sell but is highly respected by peers, as well as the financially successful and respected artist who struggles with substance abuse or other addictions because he or she feels like a fraud (no self success).

In addition to inventing a unique style you also have to invent a unique path to success with that style. The more unique your style is–and therefore the more likely you are to succeed–the less others can advise you on how to invent your path to success.

Success in the arts is all rather confusing and much more complex than in any other field. Sometimes reading biographies are useful but two I recently read, Lucien Freud, Eyes Wide Open, and Picasso, Creator and Destroyer, could both be summed up as have a unique style in sync with your times and know Gertrude Stein or Peggy Guggenheim. Although such books are enjoyable to read and can spark ideas the bulk of the inspiration is applicable only to the respective artists.

I hope these ideas are helpful. If you have any others I hope you will leave a comment.

Brad Teare –December 2015

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Updated: 20th June 2024
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