If you dislike the idea of ‘cheating’ your way to the top, look away now.
Building a rewarding career from your artistic skill takes a special combination of dedication, experience, hard work and talent.
Even more so if you want to be considered among the very best.
But as an apprentice gains from the wisdom of her mentor, having access to the right knowledge can help anyone get there more quickly.
And why not aim for the very top? To me, there is nothing more motivating than a plan to be the best, no matter how far along you are.
I’ve spent years looking at the characteristics possessed by those who make a big impact. I’ve worked for over a decade as a writer, an illustrator, and as a coach to hundreds of creatives.
These ideas are for anyone who wants to greatly exceed ‘normal’. But not everyone will act on these ideas, nor will they want to.
I know that success can be defined in different ways to different people, but if you want to make an impact while making an excellent living from your artistic skills, read on.
1. Trying your best
“The path of mastering something is the combination of not only doing the best you can do at it, but also doing it the best it can be done.” -Gary Keller, The One Thing
The big creative achievers understand that to create remarkable products, they need to at some point go beyond trying their best.
They commit to taking their craft to another level through deep study and practice.
They work on becoming a master.
They constantly push against the boundaries of familiarity through learning and trying new things so that new connections are forged in their brains.
The end result is something clear and valuable, but the process draws on many data points and experiences.
Stephen King, for example, is known for his horror writing, but according to his biography: On Writing, doesn’t just write. He reads widely and in huge volume to continually fuel his ideas.
Choosing to master something specific takes courage and hard work, but that’s where the biggest rewards lie.
2. Not ‘getting’ persuasion
Your target market are more bothered about whether what you sell will get them promoted, sacked, recognised, accepted, praised or laid.” -Chris Murray
After the success of her Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling submitted a new novel to publishers under the name Robert Galbraith. The book was promptly rejected. Galbraith was an unknown. ‘He’ had no credibility.
Success is more than the quality of the work alone.
The top creatives embrace the need to persuade customers and stakeholders, and they do this in these ways:
1) Understanding their audience and what they lack, using empathy to provide the relief they need.
2) Persistently putting work in front of people and being resolute in not going away. Most effective marketing is repetition, and being able to forgo repeated rejection in good faith.
3) ‘Humanising’ their creative product by talking to the people who stand to benefit from their work; revealing who they are, their story and their context; verbally explaining how they will solve their problems; and engaging them until a solution is reached.
3. Making crap deals
“In life you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.” ― Krishna Sagar
The top creatives are always looking for the deals in which both parties win big.
Being hired and paid well is of course part of this deal.
They work on honing a great creative product, they add as much value as they can to their service and they charge high through confident negotiation, even if they’re knees are shaking when they ask for the deal.
They understand their own value, and expect buyers to value the experience they have too.
Because they’re specialists who can solve specific problems the most effectively, they inevitably have more options, and they know this.
Therefore they’re willing to walk away from a poor deal.
4. Having reasonable targets
“Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone, and as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.” — Marianne Williamson
Those that are above average, were always motivated to be above average. And above average is never ‘reasonable.’
Whether they admit it or not, elite creatives are driven by huge dreams.
Your targets must appear ridiculous to those that know and love you. It needs to be awkward if someone asks because you are the sort that would never settle for being like the rest.
You need to dream big, and you need to work towards that vision every day.
Too many people fall short because they did not ‘think big’ enough. Their goals were ok, but inevitably uninspiring deep down.
We have more potential for incredible things than we could ever know. So give yourself some room to play in.
If you aim for number 1 in the world, you will have a near endless source of fuel for your passion to succeed.
And if you fall short, you’ll still land in a high place.
5. Pitching over collaborating
“Our thinking is our highest value product; we will not part with it without appropriate compensation.” — Blair Enns, Win Without Pitching
The relationship a bee has with a flower is a mutualistic one. The bee flies from flower to flower collecting nectar, which they use to make food that benefits them. The flower receives pollen from the bee’s visit to other flowers, which benefits the flower.
Like the bee and the flower, your relationship with your clients, buyers and publishers must be a mutual one, in which you see each other as collaborators.
Your job is to work with them through the process of helping them get what they need, from talking to them, to working out a solution together.
The approach is to exchange value as mutuals, rather than to queue up with crossed fingers, to send in your resume, to pitch for free, to take orders, and to take scraps.
The top creatives work with clients to help improve their lives.
The client hears this, respects their value and rewards them with well-paid work for all phases of the creative process.
6. Being in awe of money
“When it comes to art, money is an unimportant detail. It just happens to be a huge unimportant detail.” -Iggy Pop
If you are in awe of money, you might be a good creative, but you will have trouble being one that makes and keeps money.
You need to see money for what it is: a note of thanks rewarded for helping someone improve their life.
Those that earn well, must see it as a positive thing, and they need to be comfortable talking about it, prioritise earning it, and asking for it.
No longer can it be something that is above you, or something associated with the mighty rich asshole.
It is a means to continue to bring creativity, progress and beauty into the world.
It is a means — like with any successful business — to re-invest in yourself so that you grow as a person and a brand.
It is the life-blood of your business. Your business will only be a fleeting memory without a healthy flow of income.
7. Working to impress people
“He found something that he wanted, had always wanted and always would want — not to be admired, as he had feared; not to be loved, as he had made himself believe; but to be necessary to people, to be indispensable.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald
Creatives who saw their work take off all experienced this same realisation, whether conscious or not:
Making themselves valuable over trying to impress others is the secret to success as a superior creative.
You must turn your attention to persistently mastering all aspects of your craft and the business that props it up.
You must create for yourself first, within the boundaries of what works for an audience.
Creating to impress as many people as you can is what sucks the life and the richness out of your creative work.
You must strive to keep doing what makes you come alive, and then bring that work to the people who get it.
8. Creating without promoting
“Never be romantic about how you make your money.” — Gary Vaynerchuk
Whether it was achieved through a relentless stream of creative work or content shared with the world, or a relentless tirade of knocking on doors, the top creatives are ok with self-promotion.
Many of those at the top of their game got there because they went way beyond what was expected of a ‘normal’ artist.
They understood the need to promote and they figured out how to do it.
Most artists are uncomfortable with promotion and so do little of it.
But creative work has little use if no one knows it exists.
Understand why what you do brings worth to others, be proud of it, and do your damnedest to get other people to know about it.
Become known through as many channels as you can. There’s nothing stopping you.
The tools we can use for free are allowing us to be seen and heard like never before.
The field is too crowded and time is too precious to sit back and wait.
9. Stopping at quality
“Disciplined, consistent, and persistent actions are more of a determining factor in the creation of success than any other combination of things.” — Grant Cardone
It’s easy to get very precious about quality. It’s important, but it’s not all there is.
Meet Quality’s ugly, but secretly very saucy sister: her name is Quantity.
Successful creatives understand the importance of quality combined with quantity:
- To produce and share hundreds, thousands of hours-worth of work for developing mastery, but also to allow a greater portion of the world to see it.
- To persist through rejection after rejection. To keep writing posts when all you got was zero reads.
To keep knocking on doors that wouldn’t open. To follow up again and again when they forgot about that email you sent.
10. Letting doubt hold you back
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” William James
We all experience moments of doubt.
We worry that our work isn’t good enough. We fear that we won’t be able to make a living making beautiful things in a highly competitive industry.
It was never meant to be easy. The top dogs also feel fear and most likely still do even after they’ve seen success.
But what keeps those that perform over years and years, while others flounder?
The very best focus on what is working.
If doubt comes on, which it inevitably will, they actively shift their focus to being positive. And by positive I mean:
- Understanding why what you do is — or can become — valuable to others.
- Understanding that your weaknesses are what guide you to greatness because they point to your strengths.
- Reminding yourself of your vision. What excites you to keep going?
- What wins, big or tiny, do you have that you can build on?
In Matthew Syed’s book, Bounce, masters of any craft, be they artists or athletes, constantly work on convincing themselves that they will succeed.
They understand that failure is just feedback and they focus on their wins.
Their purpose engulfs any doubt that comes up from a setback.
11. Creating only when it feels right
“If you only write when you’re inspired you may be a fairly decent poet, but you’ll never be a novelist because you’re going to have to make your word count today and those words aren’t going to wait for you whether you’re inspired or not.” — Neil Gaiman
Those who produce and ship a lot don’t necessarily have strict routines. I’ve come across creatives whose days seem chaotic.
But the winners all share one thing:
They have all made a commitment to create.
Because they said they’d create something every day of the week without fail, they find the time to make stuff even when they don’t feel like it.
Creating valuable things doesn’t require genius or bizarre levels of self-discipline.
All it takes is the courage to make and follow a commitment.
Absorbing and applying these ideas will take a little time. But with the right knowledge put into action, making a real name for yourself might be closer than you think.