“How do you measure success as an artist?” A reader asked me recently in response to reading this post.
It is a good question because I have often struggled with feelings of failure. Let’s look at this together, because how we measure success has a deep impact on our lives.
How successful do you feel currently?
Ideas of success and failure hold sway inside each of us in different, but significant, ways. We carry both conscious and unconscious measures of success.
And these measures have a great influence on how we feel about ourselves, our work, our lives. They affect our health, happiness, creativity, prosperity and more.
So, it is wise to bring these measures of success to light and consider how we might need to transform them to support us living full, joyful lives.
When we choose our standards of success with care, we can change not only how we feel but also free ourselves to become more successful in many ways.
How the culture views success
In American culture, success is measured by two things: fortune and fame.
You can be miserable. You can do terrible things. You can have little love or joy in your life. But if you have fortune and/or fame, you are seen as a success.
We have all been fed this message so many times that none of us is completely immune to it. Although you may have other, healthier, measures of success, most of us find it hard to feel like a true success as an artist (or in life) if we are poor and unknown in our work.
I am no different, though I have my own slant on it.
Fame and fortune in my childhood
I am, and have always been, way more interested in fame as an artist than fortune. This has a lot to do with how I was raised.
My parents were quite concerned with having a good job and earning a decent living to survive well. They grew up during the Depression and World War II. So they were practical, and sometimes fearful, in this way.
But they were staunchly non-materialistic. They did not go in for the accumulation of money or things. They did not care about designer labels or fancy things and frowned upon consumerism and ostentatious wealth.
But my father, a philosophy professor, was enormously famous in his field. He frequently won prestigious awards and prizes, and traveled around the world, giving lectures, being published and praised. That fame mattered to him a great deal.
So, I grew up obsessed with fame as not only the measure of success in my mind, but as the measure of what makes a person valuable and a life worth living.
The longing for fame
I have longed for fame as an artist my whole life. And been pretty uninterested in fortune.
My ambition and ego nearly destroyed me in graduate school. And I had to rebuild my connection to my creativity, my art, and myself in a healthier, more loving way after that. This led to the teachings I share (and to many wonderful things).
But I still have a longing for recognition and to reach a wide audience with my art. It is still an important measure of success for me, even as I recognize both the pitfalls and blessings in it.
Two kinds of fame
Let’s consider two major divisions of fame: popular success and critical success.
At the extreme, popular success looks like Michael Jackson, creating art that is loved by millions of people.
While I desire for my creative work to touch many lives, I am not looking for massive popular success. The art forms I practice and the kind of work I make are not going to speak to people in that way, and I would not want the burden of that sort of massive fame.
Critical success is when you are acknowledged and respected by your peers and by the cultural establishment. You may win awards and/or be highly praised in the press and admired by other artists.
Critical success is important to me because, like many artists, I hunger for validation. I long to make art that is truly great, and this is one measure of it.
And most of all I long for the doors it will open for me, the creative opportunities that become available, the support for my art that would come from this kind of success.
I long to offer something of deep value, hopefully lasting value, to make a difference in our world by bringing more beauty, truth, connection, something extraordinary into it. So I want to reach people with my work.
But all kinds of fame—whether popular or critical, local or international—are dangerous measures of success. They put your sense of your worth as an artist in the hands of others.
And many things, beyond the actual worth of the art, determine whether you gain critical (or popular) success. Factors like gender, race, income, geography, age and connections all influence this.
Whether you succeed in terms of recognition has a lot to do with your opportunities in life. This is why historically we know of so few women artists before recent times.
Also the style of art you are making and whether it is in vogue is a factor. The gatekeepers of culture can be capricious and even cruel, and certainly biased.
The costs of ignoring fortune
In order to make time for my art, I have, over and over, made choices to work less, live on less, and forego careers, or advancement in careers, that would have meant financial prosperity, security, stability and measures of financial success in the eyes of the world.
I have scraped by most of my life, living with massive financial insecurity. At 53 years old, I now have virtually no savings nor investments, no retirement fund or plan, and do not even own my home.
I made these choices because I valued time to create over money. I valued making art over having some other impressive job title. Many people can do both but I found I could not.
There were also unconscious limiting beliefs and patterns at play.
At my age now, changing these patterns and making a decent living, enough to reliably pay my bills and save a little for the future and fund my art-making, does matter to me. Though I still cannot sacrifice my art for it.
Like most artists, I would love for my art to pay the bills, to make my living. But not so that I can feel successful about it, just so that I can have even more freedom to make art. That’s why I love Patreon.
External measures of success
There are external measures of success, which matter to me and over which I have some power.
I look at the amount of work I create, how much time I spend creating, the number of readers I have, the number of publications I have and who published them, awards won, books sold, rave reviews from readers, press and peers.
These measures show me that I am working, putting time into my art, and also putting it out in the world. I don’t have control over all of these things, but I can take steps to promote them. And I can choose which ones to focus on at any given time.
Internal (better!) measures of success
Internal measures of success are more subjective, but also the most valuable, because they have the greatest influence on your/my actual experience of life.
- How good is the work I am making? Am I proud of it?
- Am I growing as an artist, taking risks, learning new things, refining my art?
- How much joy do I have in the process?
- How fulfilled do I feel in my life? How much do I love and enjoy my life?
- What are my relationships like? Is there love and companionship, partnership of various kinds, collaboration, creative community in my life?
These internal measures are extremely important to me. And fortunately, I am doing quite well in all of them. They are also the measures over which we have the most control.
I have spent the last fifteen years helping other artists realize the importance of these measures of success and learn how to grow in them.
At the end of the road
In the end, success for me will not be measured in wealth or fame, but in how much I loved my life and lived it in ways that are aligned with my deepest values.
I need and desire a roof overhead, good food to eat, enough to live on without constant worry and stress.
Yet, as an artist, it is also vital to me to have created a treasure trove of art of which I am proud, to have been devoted to my art and to have grown as an artist throughout my life. To create beautiful art and reach as sizable an audience as I can, to be of service in this way.
The highest measure of success for me is to create exquisite works of beauty and truth, to share them generously with a world that needs them, and to be received in that work by many others.
I have a lot of work to do. Joyful work and sacred play.
I would love to hear your responses to reading this, your thoughts, feelings and experiences about success in your life. Let’s learn from one another.