June 27

Why Successful Artists Throughout History Started Their Careers By Creating For an Audience of One

In a world where we've quantified the value of people's artistic endeavors with reviews, rankings, fan, and follower counts, modern-day artists have become excessively concerned with validation from strangers on the Internet, and metrics over mastery when it should really be the other way around. It seems counterintuitive that you could reach an audience of millions by creating for an audience of one (aka yourself).

Throughout history successful artists have started by creating for an audience of one. 

Because Everybody Starts at Zero

Most people who start making art don't know they're going to become famous. They love the work. So they keep doing it. You have to love the work to build a career in the arts. If you don't, you won't be able to navigate the geography of a creative life and get past those periods of lingering obscurity, which is a rite of passage for artists.

  • Every writer starts with zero readers.
  • Every podcasters starts with zero listeners.
  • Every musician starts with zero fans.

The only way you get past zero is by starting with An Audience of One. If you aren't willing to persist when nobody is consuming your art, then you'll never actually get to the point where people are consuming your art.

Because of the Eternal Gap Between Ambition and Ability

If you keep making your art, make better art, and eventually make unmistakable art, you will become so good they can't ignore you. You'll build an audience for your work. But you can't rest on your laurels. There is no "I've made it" moment because there's an eternal gap between your ambitions and abilities.

  • After becoming the most famous composer in Bollywood, A.R. Rahman has started to dabble in making his own movies.

  • Olivia Wilde went from acting to directing with her debut film, Booksmart.

Your ambitions will change and there will be a new gap to bridge. There will be new projects, new ideas, and new goals.

Because You want to Play the Infinite Game

The purpose of being commercially successful with your creative work isn't external recognition, fame, or wealth. Those things are byproducts. The biggest benefit of being commercially successful with your creative work is that you get to keep doing it.

  • If you write a successful book, you get to write more books.
  • If you're in a successful movie, you get to make or be in another one.

A lot of authors write books with the goal of using their book as a business card to do public speaking engagements. Writing my books has definitely helped with that. But I don't want to sell more books for more speaking gigs. I want to sell more books so I can write more books.

The real value of being commercially successful with your art is that you get to make more art.

Because it's More Rewarding

When you let go of your expectations, the work becomes much more rewarding, and your outcomes might exceed your expectations. You tap into the joy of being immersed in your work, experiencing the high of being in flow, that the work becomes its own reward.

I didn't have a contract for a third book with my publisher, but I wasn't going to let that stop me from writing another book.

Free from rules, deadlines, and any expectations, The Scenic Route was one of the most rewarding creative projects to date. I can’t tell you how many people read the free version or bought the kindle version on Amazon. I didn't write it to sell copies. I wrote it to touch hearts and I wrote it for myself.

Artists keep making art long after they've been commercially successful because they're more addicted to the process than the results. The results are out of your control, the process is not. So that's where you should be spending the bulk of your time, energy, and attention.

Because You Leave the World a Bit Different for Your Having Been Here

Maybe you won't build an empire, become the next Steve Jobs, Oprah, or Beyoncé, or put a dent in the universe. But you can, in the words of Neil Gaiman, "Leave the world a bit different for your having been here."

Every time you create something that didn't exist before, you change the world, you give the people in your life a gift, and you leave us something to remember you by. You get to say, "I was here. This is what I've made."

Because Making Good Art Can Be a Lifesaver

After 41 years of living a life that hasn't gone according to plan, battling depression, and a molotov cocktail of bullshit in my head, I'm convinced that surfing and writing saved my life. Surfing gave me passion. Writing gave me a purpose.

While interviewing people might be something I do for an audience of listeners, writing was something that I'd always done for myself. My writing skills pale in comparison to my interviewing skills. But, I get so much joy from it that for more than half a decade, I've woken up in the morning and written 1000 words a day.

Because the Work is Where You'll Spend the Bulk of Your Time

For the one day an author gets to upload pictures of his book on Instagram, or share the news on Facebook, there are hundreds of days, and thousands of hours of sitting quietly in a room, tapping away at a keyboard, battling fear, resistance, doubt, procrastination, and that voice in your head that says, "This stuff is really coming out the wrong end."

Moments in the spotlight are finite.

This is the reality of life in the arts. This is what you are signing up for. The question you have to ask yourself is if you're up for this.

  • Are you willing to focus on the process instead of the prize, do what it takes to master your craft, and honor your commitments day after day, month after month, year after year?

  • Are you willing to go far past where the average person quits? Whether that's crickets chirping after working on a blog for months or getting rejected by one publisher or casting director after another?

  • Are you willing to keep putting messages in bottles and keeping your fingers crossed that one of them will eventually reach its intended recipient?

Paul Graham has said you have to endure a million dollars worth of pain to make a million dollars. You might have to endure a million hours worth of pain to make good, great, and unmistakable art. It's up to you to decide if the juice is worth the squeeze.


Building an Audience, habits

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