June 10

Making Art is the Compound Interest of a Successful Creative Career

Making art is a habit and the compound interest of a successful creative career.

Because we don't see all the work that came before, we believe in the myth of the overnight success or "I've made it" moment. But people who have had successful careers in the arts create hundreds if not thousands of pieces of work before anybody has heard of them.

  • People thought Slow Motion was Dani Shapiro's first book because it was the one that put her on the map. But she wrote 3 books before that one.
  • George Clooney spent years in Hollywood before he landed his leading role on ER.
  • AR Rahman was writing jingles for television ads before he was the most sought after film composer in India.

One reason it's the greatest time in history for creatives is that you don't need a credit history or any experience to begin making deposits into the bank of your body of work. The only thing you need is time, desire, and consistent effort.

You can begin a creative career with as little as 10 dollars and the phone that's in your pocket.

A Body of Work is far more Valuable than a Resume.

When I graduated from business school, I was struggling to find a job. Eventually, I realized my resume was worthless. It was just a list of things I claimed I knew how to do.

A body of work on the other hand, is tangible evidence of what you say you can do. As your body of work grows, so does your reputation and your leverage:

  • Actor's with prolific bodies of work don't have to audition for roles. Directors reach out to them.
  • Investors with successful portfolios get invited to deals because of their track record.

A prolific body of work gives you the leverage to navigate the geography of a creative life on your own terms.

Compound Interest

Think of your body of work as a bank balance. With every word you write, audition you attend, song you record, photo you take, project you ship, and piece of art you create, you make deposits and increase the balance.

Every piece of work you do plants a seed. You can sit around waiting until that seed bears fruit. Or you can plant more seeds.

You keep putting messages in bottles until one of them reaches its intended recipient. With each deposit, the interest compounds. The probability of your success increases. And you don't need anyone's permission or approval.

In the same way your money compounds, the bigger your balance, the bigger your body of work, the more your creative career will compound.

The Work You do for an Audience of One

When people start out, they get discouraged by the fact that nobody is reading their content. But everybody starts with a balance of zero.

The early work you do is like depositing pennies and quarters into your account. Checking your stats when you're starting out is a bit like checking your bank account after depositing quarters and wondering why you haven't become rich from the compound interest.

What you do out of the spotlight matters because that's where the real work is always happening.

  • An author spends 2 years writing a book that a reader spends 2 days reading.
  • A musician spends thousands of hours in the studio for the 3 hour concert listeners to hear.

The real work of any successful creative is always done by and for an audience of one.

What you're willing to do when you only have an audience of one will ultimately determine whether you reach an audience of millions. It's how you develop the skill that enables you to make bigger deposits.

Career Capital and Bigger Deposits

Knowledge breeds knowledge, skill breeds skill, expertise breeds expertise. And each of these leads to success which builds on itself. 

Laszlo Barbasi

As you become more skilled and master your craft, you accumulate what Cal Newport calls "career capital." The value of each deposit you make into your body of work increases.

  • An author's second book sells more copies than the first.
  • An actor gets paid more on his 10th movie than his first.
  • More people listen to episode 300 of The Unmistakable Creative than the first 100 episodes combined.

If you want to increase the value of every deposit you make into your body of work, focus on mastery instead of metrics.

Time and Longevity

Getting to the place where you can put bigger deposits into the bank of your body of work takes time. Despite all the hacks, tips and formulas that litter the headlines of Medium, there are no shortcuts to elite performance. If you're serious about this, expect to spend about 10 years mastering your craft.

A Level Playing Field Raises the Bar

Having unparalleled, low-cost access to tools and distribution channels democratized creativity and leveled the playing field. But it also raised the bar. The only viable long term strategy to building a career in the arts is to be so good they can't ignore you.

There's a big difference between being famous on social media and talented enough to have a thriving creative career. Plenty of reality TV stars have a million followers on Instagram. But it's not likely any of them will be cast as a supporting actress to Matt Damon in his next Oscar-winning film.

A few weeks ago one of my coaching clients sent me a list of "best practices" for Medium. I told him that best practices were bullshit. If it's a best practice that thousands of people are already doing, it doesn't give you any sort of competitive edge. When it comes to competition, only is better than best.

John Weiss is one of the top writers on Medium. He writes pieces that are frequently popular on Medium. His work isn't successful because he's optimized his profile or followed any of the so-called best practices. It rises to the top because he writes great content.

Gaming the system in any creative endeavor is for hacks. It's like embezzling drug money and depositing it into your body of work, while hoping to get away with it.

That's why podcasters who participate in review exchanges, and optimize for iTunes, but don't create amazing content, don't stand the test of time. Or to put it more bluntly, you can't hide shitty art behind great marketing.

Resources vs. Resourcefulness

You can always get more resources, but resourcefulness is a competitive advantage. Resources become depleted. Resourcefulness does not.

Scott Belsky, The Messy Middle

One of our 7 commandments at The Unmistakable Creative is that your resources might be limited, but your imagination and creativity are not. No matter how much you have, resources are finite, but there are no limits to your resourcefulness.

My brother-in-law wanted to make an explainer video for his startup AverPoint. He got some bids on Upwork that were asking for thousands of dollars. I told him about Videoscribe, which costs 30 dollars a month. He taught himself how to use it in a day, recorded his own voiceover, and made an amazing video to explain his product.

If you're resourceful, you can do for dollars what would have otherwise taken you 1000.

The Internet Rewards the Prolific Creators

The path of least resistance is to be an anonymous critic. The path of most reward is to be a prolific creator.

The prolific creator gets rewarded because he's the one making the most deposits into his body of work. Seth Godin didn't become the author of 19 best-selling books by publishing a blog post whenever inspiration struck.

He made thousands of small deposits by publishing daily. Then he got to make big deposits with his books and special projects. Finally, the interest compounded into 19 best-selling books and the title of cultural visionary.

If you want to increase the balance and the odds of your success in a creative career, the best thing you can do is to become prolific. Make more art, make better art. The interest on your career compounds. Ideas transform into results.


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