It’s a perennial trope that working hard is the only way to get ahead, or be successful—whatever that means in a hundred variations. But some people work hard for a little while and not after, yet still maintain a success rate. Some just get lucky. Some keep working hard no matter how successful they get.
If we never get lucky (enough), what then?
I think it’s important—or rather, it’s meaningful to keep working. But how hard you work is relative. I think what matters most is that you do it. You can always adjust the effort to suit. Because how can you adjust nothing, or get cosmic dice rolling on an empty set?
Work some. We can discuss how hard that needs to be.
Art, of course, art isn’t a competition. There areoccasional exceptions, as when someone wins a first place at the fair, say. But in general, we aren’t here to win any games or contests. We’re putting stuff out into the world because of loving the making.
This one, which is going to feature the work of newly-graduated MFA students, is something I’d like to see. But then, in the details, are things like the prestige of venue, and the million dollar cost.
I’m not sure it’s the direction I want to see. The art world is already so focused on sales, and this is more of the same system that pushes artists to structure work to market preferences.
I get the opportunity to the students, and congratulations to them for getting in on this. But I’d like to see a bigger push to strive for meaning and broad openness in both art and its exhibitions.
From the ever-bountiful @WomensArt1 on Twitter, this wonderfully caring and open-hearted letter from Frida Khalo to Georgia O’Keefe is a reminder that we need our friends. And some of those friends who are fellow artists often understand best how the journey feels.
It coincides with this article on how artists tend to find their fame through their professional networks, that is, their artist friends. Food for thought.
There are a lot of moments in art where I have an idea for a project or series of things, but I don’t know if it’ll result in anything fully realized or not.
Creative life is full of false starts and failures. Sometimes there are successes. You need some of the former to discover the latter. I remember thinking a particular series of paintings I was working on in art school were going to be received well and progress in a predictable path. But then they ended up not going anywhere, or the execution didn’t match my vision. Sometimes, a project that became one of those little triumphs or breakthroughs wasn’t much of anything until there were two of them.
You just have to trust your instincts and your dedication, and keep moving forward, that’s all I can gather. And then you see where it’s gone when it seems like it’s finished.
We’re told—and often, by experts self-styled and acclaimed—that we need to keep doing our work and things will happen. Is that the goal? It seems a prescription, hoping for some tangible, recognizable event that tells us, “hey, you’ve made it, you’re now a success. Boom.” We tend to accept the advice from those who are famous or at the least, making rent from their work. Is it inevitable?
I’m not sure. What if, just suppose with me, here, that you never make a living from your art. Are you still willing to do it? Deciding that the dice won’t roll your way—not just that they might not, but they will not—does it seem worth it?
If not, why continue? Give yourself a few years to get discovered and have an exit plan. Easy peasy, little harm done to your well being and your life. But maybe you can’t handle that notion. Maybe you still need to get the work out.
If that’s the case, you’re in a different category, one where success has a different measure than popularity or wealth. It could well be self-defined, and you might not have the tools to quantify it, yet. That’s fine. I’m pretty sure I don’t have them, myself. I’m making it up as I go, trusting that my need to do the things I’m working on are enough to scratch the itch, to keep riding the wave of desire that an urge to create swells within. There are a couple things to keep in mind, I think.
Don’t discount the few eyeballs on you. They matter. It can seem like social media, particularly, is full of more views and likes than you’re getting. But even if you’ve only got friends’ views and listens to chalk up, they’re probably steady ones. It means someone is paying attention, and if they’re already your friend, they’re more loyal than the average casual viewer. Cultivate those views and appreciate that they keep liking the things you’re making. It’s good and humbling that they make the effort and take the time.
Also, always renew your sense of love for the work you’re making. If you don’t love it, it becomes tedious, like any other job in the world, unspecial. Your work needs to matter to you first. It’s what you alone can bring into the world that no one else can.
All these things mean we can switch from waiting for some outside force or entity to bestow success and meaning upon us to finding success and meaning in the everyday work as it happens. Keep doing the work and maintain the success and meaning. Boom.
Picking oneself back up is the perennial topic of any number of motivational speakers and books. It’s rare you’ll be a person who can consistently and sustainably get yourself to the creative task you’ve set, day-after-day. For the rest of us, we just have to realize we’ve not done work for a bit and get to work again.
I write on this a lot, but I think it’s because I need to remind myself over and over: it doesn’t just fix the problem to know about it. Greater than knowing you’re going to slip up, though, is the idea that it doesn’t matter. There’s no real world penalty for missing a session or two in the studio—substitute wherever you do your work for the word “studio,” here—while you’re distracted by shiny things on the internet or plain old daily life. No one fines you for not working on your paintings or album. You’re just one day fewer without something done.
But, again, it doesn’t matter. We all fall short of our most lofty ideals at some point. It’s part of being human. We spiral around again, we trip over the same stupid crack in the sidewalk. But what isn’t often discussed in the talk of our failings is the corresponding attribute of our successes. Nobody’s going to glorify your completion of the next piece of the artistic puzzle you’re figuring out. But we spend collective hours and miles of text lamenting shortcomings. It doesn’t have to be of any more significance, in my not at all humble opinion.
You failed! But everybody fails, every last one of us. You’ve got to let go of that harsh voice and be kind to yourself. It matters that you don’t let it get to you, beyond that initial disappointment. You’re still alive, you have one more day to pick up where you left off. Once you finish a thing, that’s the time we should be all appreciating you, acknowledging you made that thing and it’s done. Maybe it isn’t perfect, that’s also not important.
If you have the urge to make things about and for the world, all you have to do to rise above our darkest emotions and harshest contempt is to start again.
There’s a longtime meme circulating in the business world, to the effect that one should fail fast, because we grow and learn more from failure than from success. At least, from early failure, or in many cases, testing raw ideas and methods. In creative circles, this has been labeled “fail faster.” It means we shouldn’t try to make things perfect up front, we should try out ideas and concepts to see what will best fit. The quicker we weed through our early failures, the more likely it is we’ll find the best elements of the thing we’re working on and succeed with the final version.
If the idea seems at first counterintuitive, there’s some other research suggesting why. Researchers published a paper last December that links social anxiety with a preoccupation of making mistakes. If further research holds this up, we have insight into the fear. Some of us don’t want to interact with each other because we’re afraid we’ll do or say the wrong thing.
But in art, there isn’t much that’s “the wrong thing.” You need to be better at trying new things, different things, crazy things than you were the day before. It’s openness to experimentation that knocks work into a new realm, a higher level. Make mistakes. Make them faster.
And if you fail, so what? That thing needed failing. It means you’ve got a clearer path to the work that will, well, work.
There’s a feeling of dread that surfaces sometimes, when you’ve been working on something a long time and it just doesn’t seem to be successfully presenting the ideas you had for it. The vision you started with hasn’t come to be.
The feeling is often temporary, a loss of confidence we all feel now and then. But if it persists, you have two choices when that feeling arrives: abandon the project, or forge ahead. I can’t say which is best, it’d depend on the circumstances and the work. If you still believe in the vision you had, it’s probably best to live with the feeling for a while, but trust in the vision until the work is done. Only then can you look back with perspective at the whole and decide what serves it and what needs fixing.
If you’ve lost the vision, though, or the connection you had to it, you might do well to move on to something else. I don’t advocate throwing it away, at least not yet. But put it out of sight for a while—a month, a year—and get your newly-refreshed eyes on it later.
Unless we believe in the work, few or no others will. You can show works that you think are less successful, but don’t show anything you don’t believe in or that’s disconnected from your vision.
First drafts, like first attempts at anything, can succeed, even messily. But usually they don’t. When painting, we can touch up, fix wavering lines, or paint out the whole thing white again. When writing, we can cut massive sections, or tweak phrases and words in sentences till they look better, seem more true.
It isn’t in our first attempts that we deliver our best work, or our best selves, which is really at the heart of making art of any kind. Self-discovery is an essential part of our artistic growth, and parallels our (hopefully) growing skills.
Anxiety is natural, but so is a rewrite. You’re free to change your mind and your work as it gets done and you can see it more clearly.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.