‘When do you think you will make it then?’
‘Did you see that x seems to be finally making it?’
‘When will you give up on this if you haven’t made it by then?’
If you are creative and are serious about your craft then you will probably recognise the sentiment behind these questions. Many people ask these sorts of questions without thinking, yet when you actually consider what is being said, the whole concept doesn’t really make any sense. It is loaded with false assumptions about reality and carries a weight to bear upon the artist that declares, albeit inadvertently that they are not yet valid.
For the artist, this can damage our view and understanding of success. By passing the job of defining our hopes and dreams to people outside of our context (informed in all likelihood by popular mass media), we allow the way we see our art and our relationship with it to be influenced by fabricated notions of what success ‘should’ look like. We are then in real danger of narrowing our own dreams to stay within these tiny abstract and arbitrary boundaries.
This is true in any field of work and essentially comes down to the underlying presence of ignorance and stereotypes within us all. When you talk to someone outside of your own area of expertise you draw on what limited knowledge you have of their area, and this is made up of ideas rather than experience. But these stereotypes are possibly more powerful within the creative world because it is public opinion that artists can want to either influence or adhere to. This means that we are in turn influenced by public opinion on what constitutes a successful artist, even though there is no consensus on such a thing. Public opinion is that, as artists, we must be ‘trying to make it’, which on the whole (eg. for a musician), to the general public maybe means getting a record deal and being on radio/TV. For the writer it might be getting a book published and being short-listed for a big literary award etc.
Success is therefore measured specifically by what happens beyond the work itself. People don’t care if you have written an astonishing 800-page masterpiece that would easily hold up next to War and Peace. Unless you are lucky enough to find an acclaimed enough agent who can be bothered to read it and pass it on to a reputable publisher who is willing to take a chance on it so that you can earn abundant royalties and receive a large advance for your next book, you have failed. At least that is true in accordance with general public opinion.
If you are rich and famous you have made it.
If you sign a record deal you have made it.
If you are/have neither of these then you must be failing for they are the very definition of success.
Take a moment to think about some of the ways success in your field might be stereotypically measured by public opinion. Is this a satisfactory way to measure it? Have you been influenced into defining success in these terms?
More often than not public perception of success, in any field is measured by image and fortune – everything is seen through the money lens. This is designed to leave us in a perpetual state of discontentment.
It is blindly assumed that if you have made money and notoriety you are successful. Most of us know somewhere deep down that this is not true, but we still believe it. We also know that happiness is not tied up in these things, but we still assume that we would be happy if we had them, and again strive to get them.
Success is encountered in the personal external rewards rather than the product of what we do. We falsely identify ourselves then not by what we do, but rather in what we have and what others think we are. The notion of success has therefore become extrinsic rather than intrinsic, and we chase after meaningless expectations rather than real world value.
Do you listen and believe other peoples’ expectations of what success should mean for you?
Have you ever made a list of what you would genuinely like to achieve?
What is the heart of your ambition – is it intrinsic or extrinsic? i.e. Do you focus on the dream of fame and fortune, or is there something more meaningful driving your passion for your work that you would (ideally) do whether you got paid or not?
This is an important question to answer when it comes to knowing where you want to take your work, and what you will say the next time someone talks to you about ‘making it’. Perhaps you could ask them what they mean. Chances are they wont really know because they wont really have ever thought about it.
In the next post I will be talking about the problem of fear and how we can sometimes sabotage our own potential because we are afraid of abstract consequences.