Why Artists Fail, Go Broke and Die Unfulfilled

January 6, 2016

Anyone can be an artist who does work they love, and gets paid well for it.

I’ll warn you though, this isn’t a feel good article designed to get you drunk on possibility. It’s a reality check. It’s a conversation about what it actually takes to be successful and the mindsets that keep us stuck.

Struggling artists tend to fall into one of two categories, I’ll call them the cynical day-jobbers and the egotistical entrepreneurs. The cynical day-jobbers have the patience to grow their craft but don’t have the guts to put themselves out there. The egotistical entrepreneurs are willing to share their work but lack patience and are prone to selling out before their work becomes extraordinary.

Here’s a closer look.

Approach #1: The Cynical Day-Jobber

Some people simply don’t believe you can make a living doing creative work you love. Maybe that belief was passed down by their parents or maybe they just decided that the uncertainty of a career as an artist isn’t for them. Their approach is simple.

Keep art as a hobby and make money elsewhere.

There is safety in this approach, and people will defend it to the death, because shattering this belief would call into question their identity as a creative person.

Cynical day-jobbers fail because they don’t throw their hat in the ring and they don’t go for it. They use “I’m not ready” as their excuse and are forever waiting for their ducks to be in a row.

Approach #2: The Egotistical Entrepreneur

The egotistical entrepreneur would rather die that not see himself as a full time artist. He takes pride in the fact that he “does what he loves” but is making sacrifices to the integrity of his art because he is constantly seeking the feeling of arriving or having made it.

His work is good, but it’s not great.

It’s not great because his focus on selling his work and relying on it for income is getting in the way of the seclusion and immersion needed for good work to become great.

How Do You Know When Art is Great?

Great art spreads.

In 2007 Jason Mraz played a music festival in Sweden. When began the song “I’m Yours” the crowd erupted. The funny thing was, that song hadn’t been recorded yet, but live bootlegs had made their way to Sweden, and the song went viral, becoming a smash hit even before it appeared on a record. He talks about his surprise to the crowd’s response in this video.

That’s the difference between good and great.

Great art has a viral quality to it. You tell one person about it and they tell two, then those people tell four, and so on. Does this always happen predictably? No. It took ten years for Paulo Coelho’s famous book The Alchemist to become a world wide success.

The sad truth however, is that most artists are working hard to market and promote work that is just good. They would be better off spending more time improving the quality of their work and less time promoting it.

What It Takes to Go From Good to Great

In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell famously shared that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to master a skill, and I don’t disagree. What we don’t realize is that the growth curve isn’t linear, it starts fast then tapers off to a plateau.

why artists fail graph

Notice the difference between the time it takes to go from zero to good, and the time it takes to go from good to great. When we begin learning a craft, our rate of improvement is high. We show our “good” work to family and friends and they love it, they encourage us to promote it and sell it, and we get excited about a career as an artist.

The problem is most people stop there and promote what they’ve done without a plan to continue growing. We must continue to focus on our development, or we will get stuck in trying to market something that’s not extraordinary, which is a frustrating task.

What’s Your Medicine?

If you are the kind of person who thinks of a new project and is already buying the domain name, dreaming of how big it will get and doing the math on it’s projected monthly income, you probably don’t wait long enough. Your medicine is patience.

If you are the kind of person who does good work but tends to keep it to themselves, doesn’t like sharing what you do and has all sorts of limiting beliefs about whether your work is “good enough”, then you probably wait too long. Your medicine is courage.

Creative Incubation

What happens when you combine the merits of both approaches is something I call creative incubation. It’s a devoted time where you can immerse yourself in your craft without the pressure of needing it to produce results.

It’s the patience to make something great, and the courage to share it.

Creative incubation is a space where artists get the chance to grow their wings without the pressure of needing to fly. It’s a simple, time-tested method that artists have used for thousands of years to cultivate their greatness.

Creative incubation is a necessary time when your work must be done for it’s own sake and not for an outcome, if you don’t want to compromise the work’s integrity. When it’s ready, you may choose to take it out into the world and monetize it, but often we do that too early.

How long should you incubate?

The egotistical entrepreneurs typically don’t want long enough and the cynical day-jobbers typically wait too long.

In Conclusion

Whether we do it on purpose or not, creative incubation is the way all artists become great. We all need a period of time where we are intensely focused on our craft and not stressed about it producing results.

Instead of this happening by luck, you can arrange it. You can dedicate time each day to your craft and have another income source so you aren’t putting stress on your art. You can be patient while you progress and courageous in sharing so you can refine your work and get feedback from your audience.

Consider this bold statement.
The only reason artists fail is they quit.


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