How do you become a success in the arts without losing your mind?
That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for decades. Unlike other industries where hard work and talent equate to more money and longevity, art of any kind is not a meritocracy.
In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell stated that you can be an expert in anything if you practice for 10,000 hours — but the truth is creativity takes more than just time, it takes passion, perseverance, and a healthy dose of natural talent. Yet out of a thousand equally talented artists, writers, musicians, etc, not all of them are guaranteed to make a decent living from their art.
This is why, although every successful creative started out as an amateur who didn’t give up, many do give up at the first hurdle. This is because it’s hard to stay mentally strong in a career in which you have very little control. Even if you are the best, and the hardest worker, success is still not guaranteed (especially financial reward).
So how can you make a living in a field that is both subjective and inconsistent? And how do you stop it from affecting your self-confidence, mental health, and productivity?
I’m a novelist who suffered from burnout in 2019 after I’d spent a couple of years putting all my creative eggs into one basket. I’d written a book that, like most, didn’t become an overnight bestseller; and with so much of my self-worth wrapped up in one piece of work, I found myself spiralling.
But I’m glad that happened because that’s when I had my lightbulb moment.
I stepped back and looked at what it means to be an artist, and that’s when I realised what all creatives with long and successful careers had in common…
When you’re forever moving forward, hope is always around the corner — and no one gives up or gets down when they feel hopeful.
As soon as I began my research, I discovered that the artists with the most longevity were prolific and creatively diverse, trying lots of new things and collaborating with other talented artists. In other words, they didn’t overthink what they did or put their eggs in one basket. They just kept going…and in more than one direction.
The more I learned about creative diversity the more I realised that artistic longevity was about staying in the game and staying current, by trying new things and working with others.
Talent and hard work matter, of course it does, but much like sales, art is a numbers game and success depends on getting seen. And how do you do that? You try as many things as possible, and in turn, reach as many audiences as you can.
Through creative diversification, you always have more than one plate spinning, so when one falls and smashes it doesn’t matter because you get to remain hopeful about the rest (sanity). It also helps you make more money (even more peace of mind).
Everyone knows that being an artist means feast or famine. Even if you’re lucky enough to get a big payout for your work, it doesn’t guarantee there will be another. The concept of a poor artist may sound romantic, but when you have a mortgage to pay there’s nothing noble about making no money.
By diversifying your skills in order to be as prolific as possible, you can create many income streams. If you can write a book, you can write lots of other things. If you can paint with oils, you can most likely create art in other ways. If you can play one genre of music, you can probably teach it or write it for others. Talent can be stretched and applied in many places…all at once.
Let’s look at creative diversification in action through the life and works of Salvador Dalí.
I have a very personal link with this Catalan artist as my grandfather studied alongside him at art school. Needless to say, only one of them understood the secret to getting rich and famous!
Born in Figueres in 1904, Salvador Dalí was a talented artist from a young age.
Much like another prolific artist, Picasso, Dalí tried his hand at everything from painting and sculpture to fashion and film. And much like his contemporary, he didn’t stick to one genre or even one way to express himself.
By networking and branching out into other creative mediums, he was able to reach a vaster audience. Influenced by everyone from Miró to Freud, he even collaborated with fashion designers including Coco Chanel and filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney.
This expansion, this embracing of creativity without an end goal, will always bring opportunity. And with opportunity comes learning, growth, visibility, and money.
If I were to ask you to name all the works of art by Dalí you would probably say ‘the melted clock one, the lobster phone, and that one where the elephant has long legs.’ The truth is that the artist was so productive, so brave, and so commercially minded that during his eighty-four years, he created tens of thousands of pieces of work including paintings, prints, sculptures, costumes, movies, advertisements, and set designs.
And with every one of those projects, he orchestrated endless revenue streams and reached new audiences, forever increasing his chances of the next piece of art being ‘the one’. And many did. In 2011 his painting ‘Portrait of Paul Eluard’ sold for a whopping $22.5 million.
And that’s how I turned my career around.
As soon as I discovered that diversification was the key to creative success and peace of mind, my life changed. Many of the skills I already had for one type of creativity were easily applied to others.
I continued to write fantasy novels, but I also tried other genres like manga, middle grade, and paranormal romance. I started to co-write with other authors. I began lecturing, writing articles for magazines and newspapers (I have my own column in Inspire The Mind magazine), painting and drawing more, working as a consultant with big brands, teaming up with people in film, and eventually branching out into thriller writing (you read more about my journey here).
I stopped worrying about the success of each individual project or whether I was being taken seriously, and instead focussed on being prolific — which simply meant producing good art.
And it worked.
I started to not only get noticed, increase my portfolio of work, make more money and gain experience, but I once again felt hopeful about my career. By diversifying my creativity, I know there’s always good stuff ahead.
So if you’re struggling with what direction to take next with your art, or feeling like there’s no hope, try saying yes to everything, stretching out your skills, and hedging your bets a little. You may even find that your perceived failures turn out to simply be stepping stones to the next project.
And who knows? Your next project may well be the one that changes your life!