Measure of Success

What does it mean to you to be successful? A hundred self-help books start with that short sentence and it has, in my opinion, become a cliche often treated superficially by authors and readers alike. But, it really is a fundamental question leading to actions and beliefs by you that influence your satisfaction with your life as an artist and, ultimately, with your life in general.

Determining for yourself the criteria of success as an artist is a complex process involving both internal and external factors and obstacles, starting with the creation of a way of being and expressing, of life and living, a structure that is your own. Do you want to be a full-time artist, a part-time artist, or improve your skill as a hobbyist? Do you want to have a solo exhibit in a well-known gallery? Do you want to be published? Do you want to establish an art school? Do you only want to be personally satisfied with your work and don’t care what others think?

Creating the structure of your own life provides greater freedom and opportunities for self-expression and happiness. If you do not have control over the structure of your life, you will have to accommodate the structure created by someone else and their vision of what you should be and do, which puts you in a position of powerlessness. The people who would love to create your structure for you (and do) are friends, teachers, family, lovers, mentors, colleagues, employers, strangers, students, even enemies and rivals. When you have control, you seize the initiative and move forward confidently and deliberately. An artist’s life is made from the inside out.

Many artists (if not all, even secretly) want one (or THE) measure of success to be financial security. As artists, one of the things we look for in our audience is approval. Approval is an external factor dependent upon others liking our work and showing their approval by positive comments and/or a purchase or two. We can become slaves to approval, however, and stray from our intended path if we only create art that is approved of (purchased) or suppress our talent or experimentation because we fear risking disapproval or because the “easier” or “safer” art sells better.

The best life would be doing what you love and getting paid well for it. But, financial security isn’t a true measure of success by itself. I know of several well-known artists who are (or have been) unhappy, although very financially secure, because they lost control over their work and life for the sake of financial gain. I think a successful artist is in control of their work and their life, whether it’s making a million dollars or a thousand dollars a year as an artist. Establishing that balance is a tricky proposition. Our ego and the desire to be somebody special helps turn us into slaves of approval, which diminishes the quality and impact of our work and our overall satisfaction.

A very close relation to approval, is fear. Where approval is external, fear is internal, wreaking all kinds of havoc with our dreams and intentions. Artists are great self-doubters and second-guessers, destroying many opportunities and limiting our potential. Here is a list of the possible fears artists endure and fall victim to:

Fear of
1. Failure
2. Rejection
3. Reality
4. Losing identity
5. Pain/Sacrifice
6. Commitment
7. Making the wrong choice(s)
8. Not being in control
9. That it will never work
10. Success
11. Inadequacy
12. Being misunderstood
13. Perfection
14. Annihilation
15. Expectations

Overcoming Fear allows you to become independent, to divorce the wishes and desires of others wanting to control or influence your work, and to do the work you were meant to do.

Artists have many obstacles, external and internal, to overcome on the road to success. Creating a structure to your life around your art, overcoming fear, understanding and taming the desire for approval, and a host of other barriers, milestones, and rewards make up your criteria for success.

In the end, though, you are the only one that can determine whether you’ve reached your goal and met your measure of success.

Good Luck!

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