What Is Success?

Success is as deeply personal as thing a person can decide upon for themselves.

There is for each of us who pursue a dream, a parallel reality track. The latter is the one on which we run our daily lives, the former is engine for our aspirations. Most of us need both to get by, to make sense of our lives.

Sometimes the two tracks intersect in the most meaningful and profitable ways. The stories from these chance occurrences fuel the dream track. Often times the vagaries of everyday life widen the distance between the two. For many of us, today's challenging economy turns the distance from a minor rut to a major chasm. A chasm that causes reflection on the plausibility of successfully pursuing a career in the arts.

Pursuing a career as an artist in any field is a daunting task under the best of circumstances. Sure, there are the storied fortunate few who seemingly don't pay their dues, but instead are catapulted to stardom at an astounding rate. Such success is what we all hope for, but planning on it to materialize is akin to buying lottery tickets as a financial plan. Since the odds of winning the lottery are the same whether you buy a ticket or not, it's not advisable.

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What is Success?

Success is as deeply personal as thing a person can decide upon for themselves. Certainly, society has its markers, notably fame and fortune. I say success is being happy in achieving what one sets out to do. Nothing more, nothing less. If you are happy with the results of your chosen endeavors, then you are blessed and successful in my book. Taped to my computer monitor as a daily reminder is a classic description. It is a famous short essay that often is incorrectly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

What Constitutes Success – Bessie Stanley, Lincoln, NE 1905

"He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction."

Stanley won a contest sponsored by the Lincoln Sentinel newspaper. The $250 prize was a remarkable sum by 1905 standards. Adjusted for inflation, it would be $5700 today. But, her success was not monetary. It was to become a legacy that lives on more than 100 years later. I like to think the personal joy and satisfaction she took from merely writing the words was for her success enough. The rest, money and timeless legacy, just icing on the cake.

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Sometimes when one is painting or creating with a mercenary goal in mind, this joy is hard to find. Not to say one can't feel righteously proud of creating something regardless if it was made purely for artistic expression or purely because it was certain to sell.

Creativity and Commerciality Cannot Co-exist for Some Artists

For some artists, it is difficult to work at making art as if it were a craft such as bricklaying. It robs them of the joy in creating. For this reason, you find supremely talented artists who labor in anonymity. But take no pity for them, most have made a conscious choice about what success is for them, and being commercially viable is not one of them. At least it is not a driving criterion. I personally get this. I have a day job marketing for a successful high tech firm. It pays the bills and provides the bennies and allows me to publish this blog on my own schedule without being at the mercy of a publisher or advertiser's demands.

Some hobbyist artists will create priceless gems only a few will every enjoy in comparison to star artists. But at the moment of self-satisfaction wherein one quietly and privately basks in knowing this work of art before them came from their imagination, skill and creativity, a wonderful warm glowing feeling is generated. And, that special moment runs as deeply and pleasingly in a happy hobbyist as it does the most acclaimed artist.

You can't take self-satisfaction to the bank, but you also can't put a price on standing before something you made that gives you pure joy in having it come from your hand. With any luck, your work will live out in a legacy in ways you as the creator can never imagine. This is true whether you achieve tremendous success or make your art for the enjoyment of your family, friends and, of course, yourself.  

Free Art Business Checklist
Get your free Goalkeepers Club checklist. All help. No pitch.

Free Art Business Checklist
Get your free Goalkeepers Club checklist. All help. No pitch.


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  1. Hello Barney,

    Just wanted to let you know that I always read and enjoy your business blog. Don’t often get a chance to say thank you and respond.

    I Keep telling my wife that I should go back to a full time job to get some free time. That certainly weighs in to your topic on the definition of success.

    In a recent presentation to some University Fine Art Grads, who seem daunted at the prospect of stepping into their field in these challenging times. I suggested they break their days and progress down into small attempts which should lead to small achievings which, with time and effort may lead to a small achievement. If they can approach this career as a journey instead of a destination. I think it might help. Not everyone Is wired the same though, and some have more affinity for success based on ‘The Public Media Measure’. A good artist friend of mine said, lets face it Cliff, we’ll probably never attain that ‘Public Measure’, so I suspect we’re successful when we realize that … while still working diligently towards making that next NEW Discovery in the field of Art.

    On the home front, with a wife of over forty years (no easy feat) and 3 successful healthy offspring (no easy feat) I wouldn’t have traded for Gauguin’s life as they (our children) may well be my greatest collaborative creation … and success.

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