The five (actual) factors of success for an artist.Posted: February 27, 2020
Every now and then on Twitter, a thread goes viral about how the Real Path to Success in a Creative Field just comes down to a combination of persistence, resourcefulness, and “being true to oneself.” The authors tout them as some kind of secret knowledge when really, it’s just garden-variety meritocracy porn, almost always written by white men who imagine that their audience is also white men who inhabit a reality similar to their own. If the authors consider the realities of the rest of the population at all, it’s as an afterthought: “Oh right, and—I’ve heard none of this applies if you don’t look like me? Idk.”
To its credit, science fiction—the field I know best—has become much more self-aware in recent years. But I’ve recently started to follow screenwriters and showrunners, and I’m really surprised at how popular (and uncontested!) these threads still are.
So I want to write my own list, based on my own experience and that of artists I know. I’m a USian able-bodied white cis woman from a middle-class background, with a lot of educational privilege, so of course my perspective is informed by that, and necessarily incomplete. But I’m hoping it’s a closer snapshot to the lived reality of the larger artist population in the U.S.
Here are my Five (Actual) Factors of Success for Artists, ranked by importance. Some qualifiers: All the factors intersect with each other—it’s like a five-way Venn diagram, rather than five discrete factors. I wrote it specifically for the U.S. context, which I know best. None of the factors are meant to be determinative or absolute; there have always been exceptions and compensations. But overall, I hope it’s a more accurate picture of how creative success is achieved than the one presented in so many of those viral threads, where success is achieved by effort alone. In mine, an artist has control over only one and a half of these factors—#3 (Hard Work) and #2 (Connections). This isn’t meant to be discouraging; on the contrary, the only way we can change is to first tell the truth.
And—to be clear—none of this is new. A lot of folks have been telling this truth for a long time already.
- Privilege. Your privilege is a huge factor in your ability to achieve creative success. This is by far the most important factor, because it intersects with and constrains all the others. U.S. society is built for the advantage of white men (given changing definitions of “white” over the centuries), and has been since the Spanish invaded in the 1500s. If you’re disabled, trans, poor, queer, indigenous, chronically sick, neurodivergent, an immigrant, a person of color, a woman, or a combination of these, then our society is deliberately designed to make it more difficult for you to prosper, including in creative fields. The cumulative, intergenerational impact of this design is impossible to overstate.*
- Community and connections. An artist has two communities. The first is the one you’re born into, which you have no control over and largely overlaps with privilege. The second community is the one you seek out as you grow up, to whatever extent you’re able. Both of these communities determine your connections—that is, supporters and gatekeepers. Supporters are the people who love you, who encourage your work, who read it or listen to it or come to see it, who talk about it with you, who wish you well, who want to see you prosper. Supporters are essential, but they might not have access to capital. Gatekeepers do. Gatekeepers are the people who say yes, who buy your story, who read your screenplay, who loan you money, who give you a chance, who do you a favor, who pull some strings, who write a recommendation, who donate a space, who put in a good word, who pay the tab, who introduce you to other gatekeepers. Work and talent can only get you so far. A career is built on connections.
- Hard work. On this factor, I agree with the viral threads. Hard work is incredibly important. So much of the job is just showing up, day after day, and doing the work even when you don’t feel like it. I’ve seen so many talented artists give up after a few years, or a lack of attention, or a series of creative rejections; when setbacks, fallow spells, and rebuilding years are just part of the job. But again: the ability to put in the work—usually without pay, for extended periods of time—is largely determined by privilege.
- Talent. This one is controversial. I do believe in raw talent. That is, an artist either has the spark or they don’t, and it can’t be taught, only encouraged. But again, it’s nearly beside the point, because the question of who has talent is impossible to separate from the question of who has the opportunity to develop their talent. As Leila Janah said, “Talent is equally distributed. Opportunity is not.”
- Luck. Again, it’s hard to distinguish pure luck from the cumulative “luck” of privileged circumstances. But sometimes, crazy things just happen because someone was in the right place at the right time. This factor is maddening because it’s the least controllable, but its role in “success stories” is very real—I know a lot of artists who’d put it higher on the list.
Again, as you can see, privilege is the factor that encompasses all the others. I don’t want to imply that anyone born to privilege has to feel guilty all the time. I do wish, however, that those born to privilege—including the authors of those viral threads—would express humility and realize their responsibility: humility, that whatever success they’ve achieved, they’ve achieved because they had the chance to build their skills in the first place; and responsibility, to help build a world where everyone has the same chance. I hope this list is a useful baseline for anyone who truly wants to do that. Also, I encourage anyone reading to comment with their stories of how these factors played a part in their careers.
Also: I approve all comments before they get published. So if you want to write about how white men are actually very disadvantaged or something like that, I’ll likely just delete it and block you from being able to make further comments. Thanks.
*If you’re curious about learning more about the role of privilege in U.S. society, I recommend “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” the classic essay from 1988 and “The Myth of Meritocracy,” a new classic from 2019; The 1619 Project, which demonstrates how the U.S. was built by disenfranchised people who remain so to this day, by design; “The Case for Reparations” explains how to begin to right that wrong. And finally, “Explaining Privilege to a Broke White Person” and “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting” are really useful pieces by white people who came from poor backgrounds.