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The Unfair Truth About How Creative People Really Succeed

30 September 2015

From Medium:

The other week, I was invited to a dinner hosted by a friend. Those attending included people I’ve admired for years. Halfway through the dinner, I silently asked myself, “How did I get here?”

For years, I heard people talk about their influential friendships and subsequent success, and I would seethe with envy. It seemed unfair. Of course those people were successful. They knew the right people. They were in the right place at the right time. They got lucky.

Years later, I would discover that success is born of luck (I don’t think any honest person can dispute that). But luck, in many ways, can be created — or at very least, improved.

The truth is life is not fair. For creative work to spread, you need more than talent. You have to get exposure to the right networks. And as unfair as that may seem, it’s the way the world has always worked.

The good news, though, is you have more control over this than you realize.

. . . .

In his decades-long study of creativity , Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes what he calls a “systems approach.” Since creative work tends to be subjective, he posits a model that includes three systems. They are:

  • The Domain
  • The Field
  • The Individual

In order for a work to be considered Creative (in the sense that it offers some kind of enduring work the world remembers), it must satisfy all three of these areas. Here’s how it works.

First, an individual must master her craft in a given domain (art, science, mathematics). Then, this person must offer the creative work to a field of influencers in that domain who are trusted experts. Finally, the gatekeepers decide if the work is worth being accepted as authoritative into the domain.

That’s the systems approach to creativity.

And as much as I initially winced at the word “gatekeepers” when considering what makes creative work succeed, once I started reading biographies of famous artists, scientists, and musicians, it made a lot of sense. Talent is only part of the equation. The rest is network.

. . . .

Networks. Partnerships. Creative collaborations. This is where enduring work originates, and, incidentally, is how we get works like The Lord of the Rings and The White Album. Creativity is not a solitary invention but a collaborative creation. And communities create opportunities for creative work to succeed.

But how do you apply this approach if you don’t live some place like Paris, New York, or Rome?

Well, of course, you could move. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it’s better to move somewhere new than it is to will yourself to be more creative. And now, it’s easier than ever to transplant yourself someplace inspiring, even if temporarily. I did this eight years ago, relocating from northern Illinois to Nashville and unknowingly implanted myself into what would become a hub of creativity, technology, and entrepreneurship. I’m glad I did.

But you could also let go of your excuses and realize there’s a network available to you right now, wherever you are. This may come in the form of an online mastermind group or a series of events you attend, maybe even one you organize yourself. The truth is there are connections everywhere and always more resources available to those willing to look.

Link to the rest at Medium and thanks to Joshua for the tip.


19 Comments to “The Unfair Truth About How Creative People Really Succeed”

  1. “Years later, I would discover that success is born of luck (I don’t think any honest person can dispute that). But luck, in many ways, can be created — or at very least, improved.”

    Luck, or opportunity, is one aspect of the success equation. The other is preparation. Are we ready when opportunity presents itself? Have we prepared for post-opportunity success?

    Of the two, we can only completely control one of them.

  2. Hope for the best
    Plan for the worst
    And try to remember that it’s as much (if not more) luck as skill that got you where you are today …

  3. Luck, sure.
    To an extent.
    Luck + hard work > hard work alone
    But luck alone rarely gets you very far.
    (Not even in Vegas. )

    And networking?
    Depends on the business.
    They old “…it’s who you know” thing isn’t essential in disintermediated businesses.

    • For the writer it isn’t who you know so much as who knows of you and/or your stories — and then tells their friends! 😉

      • Unless your uncle was roomies in college with an exec at the randy penguin. Or you’re running for president.

  4. Networks. Partnerships. Creative collaborations. This is where enduring work originates, and, incidentally, is how we get works like The Lord of the Rings and The White Album.

    Eh? My understanding is that Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings by himself, largely for himself. He first invented High Elvish (Quenya) then needed to do something with it, so he started writing stories, inluding LotR. Who the heck was he collaborating, networking or whatevering with when he wrote it? (I know he read portions of it at informal gatherings with people like CS Lewis, but that’s about the extent of any sort of collaboration.)

    And the White Album might even be a weirder example, if I’m remembering this correctly. As in, Lennon and McCartney were barely on speaking terms by the time the White Album was made, and kept the song credits as Lennnon-McCartney for legal reasons only. They were not only not doing much in the way of collaboration by they point, they were actually really a few degrees away from open hostility. (And things only went downhill for them from there.)

    I’m not saying the thesis here is necessarily wrong, I honestly have no way to judge that, simply that these strike me as two very odd examples put forward to advance it.

    • There is an entire school of sociopolitical thought devoted to devaluing talent and achievement.
      It’s all about dumb luck and connections being the differentiator between success and failure. C.f., Malcom Gladwell’s OUTLIERS.
      Populist collectivism in diguise.

      • The presence of connections doesn’t devalue talent. It can perhaps make it easier for the talent to be noticed. The connections we tend to think of (the traditional gatekeepers I guess) may not be the connections that are as relevant today.

    • My eyes glazed over on this post so I just skipped to the comments. If this person is offering “Lord of the Rings” as an example of networking, partnerships or collaborative work, then it’s probably just as well I didn’t read the article. I looked at the comments to his story on his site, and it appears that no one has caught the wrongness of the examples just yet. I’m going to guess they’re the target audience for whatever he’s selling.

    • Plus, Tolkien is pretty famous for doing things his way whether anyone wants him to or not. His publisher wanted The Hobbit 2 and got Lord of the Rings (a completely different beast), and they discovered pretty quickly that you don’t try to edit Tolkien. Either he will write you a dissertation on why he chose that word or punctuation instead of the one you wanted, or he will scrap the whole manuscript in disgust and start from the beginning again. Collaboration was not a thing he did–like at all.

    • He certainly did write it by himself. And he read parts of it out to the Inklings, a group of fellow authors including C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. You can argue that Tolkien was a greater influence on Lewis than Lewis was on Tolkien, however. And Williams, though not as famous as either of them, was an influence on both.

      The fact that they all taught at Cambridge gave them a certain amount of social heft that may have made it easier for some publishers to take notice of them.

      I certainly do believe that having access to a network of people who can provide some level of support to your work can make easier for you to succeed. I don’t think this negates the need for you to create something that is actually GOOD, and I don’t think it lessens the accomplishment of your work.

      What is changing, It think, is the nature of that “network of people.” I don’t think it’s disappearing but I also don’t think most of us really understand what it’s turning into, so for a lot of us it effectively isn’t there, simply because we don’t recognize it, even if it is.

      • One of the Inklings’ more “influential” members (a lit prof and writer who’s forgotten today) spent most of his time trying to discourage Tolkien from writing or reading anything. This same envious nasty piece of work eventually was instrumental in breaking up the group, as well as stopping the writing of LOTR for several years.

        So yeah, tell me all about how networking helped Tolkien.

  5. Lyle Blake Smythers

    Those examples also stopped me dead in my tracks, particularly the Lord of the Rings one. After I thought about it for a minute, I found myself wondering if he meant the movies. If so, an even stranger choice of example.

  6. Now that Medium is selling itself as delivering press releases in the guise of news, I’m not buying any information coming from there without vetting it first.

  7. Luck is important, of course it is. Quality is necessary. Networking… well, I consider networking an unpleasant necessity. Essentially because it cuts into my writing time.

  8. Jeff Goins seems to be equating commercial success and creative success.

    The two can overlap (Shakespeare), but they do not always.

    I see how mingling with other creative people and learning from them might help one to grow as an artist.

    I also understand how networking with socially/financially successful people would afford you opportunities that would not come your way otherwise.

    And those two groups of people might overlap. Or they might not. That one place is where luck figures.

  9. First of all, this is outdated.

    You used to need to know the right people to be published. That is no longer true. As for who hits the zeitgeist and becomes widely read, that is luck.

    Or a better word for it is timing.

    Although – I actually think of it as….your path. Karma is a close word for it. Whether it’s your time to be seen or heard in that particular way.

    For many people, it’s not the right timing. They are growing and developing and maybe working on other things, having other experiences. it will happen when it’s the right time. Maybe this lifetime, maybe later…

  10. Oh, I’ll add that if you want to be a writer, I believe you should write. Work on perfecting your art and your talent.

    Of what true value is it anyway, to be published and read out of networking, when your work is not truly your best?

    Write, practice, learn and grow.

    Leave the results up to the universe.

  11. The article is essentially saying this: a writer needs advocates and community to better his/her chances of reaching upper levels of success–defining success here as recognition and reward.
    The example of Tolkien aside, current examples of this might be Hugh Howey, and Andrew Weir, author of THE MARTIAN. Howey, I believe, had that community from the start, readers involved in the early stages of WOOL, and thus were invested in it. Community=advocacy=visibility=sales.
    And didn’t Weir post on his website chapters of an ongoing work that later become THE MARTIAN? So he developed community from fellow techies, geeks and space travel advocates.
    Advocacy and community, however, remains a challenge for indie writers though hardly an insurmountable one. There are few good things you can say about traditional publishing, but the latter still ‘does’ advocacy better than indie. Even trad-pubbed midlisters come out of the gate with better visibility–which means a better chance of being seen by potential advocates of their works.

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