I’ve always had this assumption that real artists, real creatives, live lives without much commercial success.
But today’s show directly confronts that idea… hell, it blows it up.
We brought in Jeff Goins who’s just written a book called Real Artists Don’t Starve to break down 3 myths about starving artists.
(Note: the Michelangelo story was well worth the cost of admission.)
(Note: there is no cost of admission, this episode, like all our episodes on The Fizzle Show, is free!)
Jeff breaks down 3 myths of the starving artist and helps us all get a much clearer perspective on how we can pursue our own success with creativity.
Listen to this podcast episode because it is entertaining and informative:
Destroying 3 myths of the “starving artist”
Chase: I’d love to hear if there’s a place in your life where that intersection between creativity and commercial success, like where did that start to happen for you? Is there a moment or was there a season where that started for you?
Jeff: Well there’s two moments. One was when I sort of had the opposite experience, where I began to believe in what I call the myth of the starving artist, which is just a story that we creative people tell ourselves, which is basically I’ll never make any money off of this. There’s no money in art. You can’t make any gimmick living off of that. This happened when I was touring with a band professionally a year after college. We made like I think between all seven band members like $8,000 net for that year. We would stay in people’s homes to not be homeless. I remember like we would stay in trailer homes or mansions. We played sometimes a dozen shows a week.
Every few nights we’d go to a different city, stay in somebody else’s home and without fail almost every city we were in, some well-meaning adults, a grown up would come tell us, “Hey it’s great that you’re doing this while you’re young because when you get older, you’re not going to be able to do this for a living because you can’t make any money off of music.” These were adults so I was like, “Yeah, of course. Yeah, that makes sense. You’re right.” So a year into doing this, I quit the band and I moved to Nashville which is kind of the opposite order of which those things tend to happen.
I moved here to chase a girl and we got married. I got a job working as a marketing director for a nonprofit. That was most of my 20s is I had this pretty secure, pretty good job where every year I’d get a raise and a little bit more responsibility. There was no … I did not fear losing my job and I got very comfortable doing this. Every like six months, every two weeks, something like that I would get this whim to go do something. To go start a blog, create a business, go do the next creative thing because I’m somebody who’s always just made things.
I would tell myself, “Well, you can’t make any money off of that.” So I’d try something for a week to a few weeks maybe a month or two and then I’d get bored and move on and nothing would ever really take off these little projects that I would start. So like that just reinforces the story. Well this is just a hobby. You can’t make any money off of this.
Then I remember five, six years into this job so I’m in my like late 20s at this point. A friend of mine emailed me and asked me if I would do some copywriting for her. What it was is copywriting … it was like I was writing the copy for the signage in like a national park in Toronto. She says, “Hey, will you do this?” I’m like, “Yeah, that’d be great.” She’s like, “I’ll pay you $100 for this.” I was like, “Really? You’ll pay me money to write?” Never mind that like … it wasn’t like writing a short story or an essay. I was writing signage copy.
The fact that somebody would pay me for my writing it was a new thing. I remember … this is kind of an embarrassing story. She sent me the check for $100. I was like, “Wow this is amazing.” I lost the check and I was too embarrassed to ask for it like, “Hey, can I have another one of those checks?” So I never cashed the check, the first $100 I made off of my writing. People like hang up the first dollar bill and [crosstalk 00:03:35] Mine is like in a trashcan somewhere, in a sandwich shop in South Nashville.
Chase: That’s amazing. So that was the first time you got paid for writing. From that point, that started this question in your head about, “Can I find more sustainable ways to do this kind of work?”
Jeff: Yeah. I don’t think like it was a lightbulb where I was like, “Now I can do this.” but it was going from zero to one, technically zero to zero because I never cashed the check. Like the fact that somebody valued my work so much that I could make money off of my writing, it made me really curious. So I started writing articles for magazines, getting a few hundred dollars per piece and then eventually I started getting back into blogging and got in kind of the internet marketing thing. It made me curious enough to see if this was something I could actually get away with.
Chase: Got it. So looking back on that time, I’m very curious about this question. Since then you’ve gone through … you’ve written so many things. You’ve written … was is this your fifth book that you’ve written?
Jeff: Fifth book, yeah.
Chase: It’s your fifth book that you’ve written. You’ve been a very successful blogger. You’ve got courses. You run a conference like all of this kind of stuff. So you’re earning a living doing this thing that before was just a dream and you’ve even got a team working for you. Going back to that original Jeff, that early … that like the Jeff who’s just realized he lost the check I guess basically. Going back to that Jeff. If you got to tell that Jeff one piece of advice, what would you tell him?
Jeff: I would say you actually can make money off of your writing and you don’t have to starve to create interesting work and you don’t have to sell out to make a buck. There was a real fear for me that if … I think this is a common thing that if I take something that I love like writing, something that feels pure and creative and I commercialize it, I start making money off of it, that somehow it’s going to lose the purity and the passion that I bring to it. I think to be fair like there are some things that are hobbies and ought to remain hobbies. The idea that if you start paying me for something that I love, that somehow I’m going to lose the love of that thing, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It’s not been true for me when it comes to writing.
Myth 1: You can’t make money off of art
Chase: I love that. Maybe let’s just jump into these myths right now because I think this just feels like really natural to head towards this first myth that you talked about. You said myth number one is you can’t make any money off of art. I think this dovetails nicely into that. What does this mean? People have this myth in their mind that they can’t make money off of real art.
Jeff: I think like there’s this idea that if I do that I’ll have to sell out or I have to get really lucky. I’ve got a become a Picasso or some sort of elite person or I think there’s also this idea that the greatest geniuses of our time in a previous generations in terms of artistic genius like they starve to do it. It was like painful and full of suffering. The argument of the book is evident. It’s in the title Real Artist Don’t Starve at least they don’t have to and so I believe that to be a starving artist today is a choice not a necessary condition of doing creative work.
For me how that began was starting to get paid for my writing. One of the other things that I realize is I started living here in Nashville there’s a good creative community here. Musicians, creative entrepreneurs, lots of fizzle kinds of folks, the indie entrepreneur, the person who wants to work for themselves, wants to work on their own terms but doesn’t want to be like a broke freelancer doing it either. They want to make a good living, writers and so on. So one of the things that happen for me was I started seeing other people succeed. I’m not talking about like Taylor Swift although I was in a pub one time in Nashville and she walked in. That was cool. It was just seeing other people do the things that I wanted to do where I started to believe that it was possible for me. This was around this time that I got this writing gig.
A few months later I just started to feel this itch that I couldn’t quite scratch. So I started going to conferences. I started following blogs. I started following Corbett early on in his blogging journey. I started just paying attention what other people are doing and how they were doing it. I started applying those things. Around this time, I stumbled upon this story about the artist Michelangelo. Basically the story is this. That in 2003 there was this art historian who found these previously unknown bank accounts belonging to Michelangelo and found out he had $50 million to his name when he died and had been rich for most of his career. This made Michelangelo not only the richest artist in the Renaissance, it made him at that point the richest artist who’d ever lived.
Wow this is interesting. Here’s the guy who’s top of his game, wasn’t a sellout, wasn’t starving, arguably one of the greatest artists of all time and he was also the wealthiest of his time. I talked to a guy named Bill Wallace who’s another historian. He studied the life of Michelangelo. He said that what Michelangelo did in the Renaissance was he made it possible for other artists who were essentially blue collar workers at the time, he made it possible for them to follow in his footsteps. What happened was there were generations of wealthy artists who came after him.
All these things happened at the same time and I realized, “Wow! Maybe this has always been true that if you really wanted it bad enough and you understood how the rules of the game worked, you can make money off of art. If Michelangelo could do it and all of my friends around me are doing it, maybe we live in this new kind of Renaissance where if you understand how this works and how to get your creative work to a point where it can thrive, anybody can do this.” That’s what set me on my journey to start finding ways to charge for my art, my writing and make a living off of it.
Chase: Wow! So this story … we didn’t know about Michelangelo had like money in the bank.
“‘You can’t make money from your art’ is a myth!”
“You can’t make money from your art” is a myth!
Jeff: Not really. Basically … and he propagated this myth. So if you went to art school you understood that maybe Michelangelo was better off than most but Michelangelo when he was painting the Sistine Chapel wrote to his father. He said, “I’m tired and penniless and I’m a servant of other people’s work.” He would write about this in poems as well. Obviously, he was being hyperbolic. Michelangelo got paid over a 1 million dollars to paint the Sistine Chapel. He wasn’t penniless at all. I mean it would be one thing if he were an outlier. It’s another thing that before Michelangelo … I mean this is fact. Before him, artists were not quite broke but they were like blue collar working Joes, lower middle class people.
They were more like artisans. They kept shops and they would bring their work to the market and they would sell it and occasionally get maybe a well-off patron. There were a handful of people that did better than average but that was the job. You weren’t a high member of society. After Michelangelo, he set a new precedent and there were generations of wealthy artists who followed him. He made it possible for artists to become aristocrats. Somewhere along the line kind of in this romantic period of art history in the mid-1800s we forgot that and there’s was this whole myth of the starving artist that was born.
It was this really romantic idea that was propagated by this bohemian culture in the late 1800s early 1900s and is carried on until today. I think that is not serving us well and it’s not helping our creative work because the evidence speaks to the contrary. There are plenty of artists and creatives who are making a full-time living off of their art. The challenge is you have to be willing to treat it like a business. Michelangelo did that better than anybody.
Chase: So I love this idea, the myth here is you can’t get paid for your art. You can’t make money off of art. I love anytime we can look through history and go look at the world. That’s wrong. People have been getting paid for their art for forever. For instance, Michelangelo was one of the wealthiest artist of the entire Renaissance time even though according to popular belief he didn’t have much money at all. I’d like to make the jump to right now today and go … because I also suffer with this like “You will never understand me darling. It’s art. My fans, they won’t understand it. They won’t …”
This if it’s pure, it won’t be popular and I do see. We have to admit that there is a very clear trend line on the more popular something is, the less quality there tends to be in it. I don’t know. You just look at network television or something to look at these things though I bet Netflix numbers are probably … I don’t know. I don’t know what Netflix numbers are like. I hope they’re not getting to be much larger than insert name of some network show here. Corbett, you watch a lot of network TV.
Corbett: All the time. ABC, CBS.
Chase: ABC, CBS.
Chase: CW. There is a straight line for the more popular some … like for instance we’re all publishers. We know that if we write something that’s lighter, fluffier and click baitier it tends to get more shares than something that’s dense and like an important issue of our day. Not all the time. Not all time. I’m just saying we see this trend as well. A lot of times I think maybe this is an interesting question here Jeff. You said there like the challenge to this so the myth of the starving artist isn’t serving anybody.
No artist really needs to starve anymore, but the challenge is you do have to think about the work that you create like a businessperson would. I don’t know. What do you see the challenge … like there’s a lot of things in that. That’s what we teach in fizzle or you teach about the writing stuff particularly. So what are the … if you had to say like one of the most popular common challenges of thinking about your art like a business, what would you say it is?
Jeff: I agree there’s a bit of that artistic sensibility in me that says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa we can’t go full on commercial artist here. I think like that’s a personal decision, but I do look at somebody like Michelangelo and I go like what you’re talking about Chase where like the more popular you are, the more you get paid, the worse your artist or the more watered down it is, is not necessarily true. There may be a correlation where like the broader audience you’re trying to reach … the less interesting the work is but it’s not necessarily true.
You talk about like network TV doesn’t get as good a ratings and doesn’t even get as wide of an audience as you know say AMC or Game of Thrones or something. You got these independent shows who are very clearly focused on the art and they’re gaining this huge attention. Game of Thrones recently they were like doubling. Every episode they were doubling the amount of live viewers who are watching. This is an HBO show. I had to pay … I don’t subscribe to HBO. I had to pay to watch that season for seven weeks. So I don’t think it’s necessary true.
You look at somebody like Michelangelo. Top of his artistic game and also made the most amount of money and nobody could argue. He did not sell out. He in many ways undermines what we understand an artistic genius to look like. Didn’t starve, didn’t work alone in spite of the myth. The last 34 years of his life he had hundreds of employees working for him. He was an entrepreneur. He was a CEO basically. All these things that we think make a creative genius today he was not. I get that … you may go, “Well he was an outlier.”
Then you even look at the data today and anybody who’s like really interested in this side of things, I don’t want to bore anybody, but if you just google the letters SNAAP, snap with two A’s. There’s a study that University of Indiana does every single year where they survey nearly 100,000 arts graduate students and they basically ask them “What are you doing since you got your degree? How happy are you? How much money are you making? Did your art degree contribute to what you’re doing today?” It’s staggering. Basically 80 plus percent are very satisfied. They’re making at least a middle class income, 55,000 and up right out of college.
Many of them have been self-employed. They’re working for themselves and like three quarters of them are using their art and creativity in their job in some way. That’s not a perfect indication of whether or not you consider yourself an artist and make a living doing it, but it’s a pretty good sign that if you’re a creative person you can find a way to make a good living and use your creativity at your job every single day. I think that’s interesting.
The point here is if you’re a creator and you’re going, “I can’t make any money off this. I’m going to have to go get a job working for something else or I’m going to have to be like one of those Internet marketers that I hate.” It’s just not true and there’s lots of data to support that. I don’t think that answers your question. What was your question?
Chase: No, I love that. This is good. I’m looking at the SNAAP snap shot. Yeah, that’s really interesting. You got to click around and I’ll put a link to it in the show notes. This will be episode 237 so that’ll be fizzleshow.co/237 but I’m hearing what you’re saying. I’m curious though when we need to think about like shifting the way we look at. So Michelangelo you’re saying was actually an entrepreneur. I’m curious, what’s one of the big red flags or one of the big challenges or mountain peaks that every artist has to climb to learn how to think about their art or their creativity like a business? What do you see? What do you find out there?
Jeff: I think the number one thing that I see that keeps a creative person from succeeding is the wrong kind of stubbornness. So in the book I have these 12 different rules. I’m talking about some of them. One of the rules is to harness your stubbornness, but there’s a right kind of stubbornness and a wrong kind of stubbornness. Jeff Bezos of Amazon said that we are stubborn on vision but flexible on details. Every great entrepreneur I know is very good at recognizing opportunities. They have some broad vision of what they want their company, their life, their creation to look like, but the way that they get there whether they go into this kind of work or that work or that this product sells or that service sells, they’re typically pretty flexible on that. If they’re not, they’re really going to hurt themselves.
“Be stubborn on vision but flexible on details.”
On one hand, you don’t want to be chasing every single opportunity because the people are like, “What are you about?” So I think the trick here as artist and I think we’re all artist in the sense that if we have a creative gift to share with the world, that’s our art. If we’re being stubborn about the details, this is where I see people really sabotage themselves. They go, “Hey Chase, Corbett love your show. Appreciated it. I draw illustrations and if I can’t make money off of my illustrated prints of elephants flying in clouds then I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Anytime somebody is so stubborn about the details of how they’re going to succeed, that typically is a pretty good sign that they’re setting themselves up for failure. That’s a challenge. I’m not saying that meet … I don’t want to say “If you’re creative, you can find a way to make money off of your creativity.” I think that’s true but the caveat to that is you’ve got to be flexible on some of the details that get you there. I do think you can be very stubborn. Like when I got the $100 check I said, “What if I can do this for a living? Can I make enough money to support myself and my family?”
A year later, my wife and I decided to have a family. She got pregnant. I made $30,000 at the time. I said, “I’m going to find a way for us to live off of just my income. I’m going to replace your income.” For a while she was the breadwinner. Now we were making about the same amount of money. I said, “I’m going to use this blog thing that I’ve been doing. I’m going to find a way to make enough money that I can support us doing it so that you can stay home and be a mom for a little while.” She wanted to do and we couldn’t afford for her to do it. We can’t afford to pay for insurance or any of that stuff.
I was stubborn enough on the vision of making that thing come true but flexible enough on the details that I found opportunities that I cobbled together to make that happen. I think that’s what it takes. In the book I interviewed hundreds of thriving contemporary creatives, people who are doing this. Illustrators, musicians, graphic designers, people who even have day jobs were they found ways to bring their creativity to their work and flourish. Lots of creative entrepreneurs and writers and so on, this was something that every successful person I talk to they were thriving in their art, they had this. They were stubborn on the vision but flexible on the details.
Chase: Man, I love that. That’s a really good point. I love that tip. That’s something I wasn’t expecting to hear that. I think that’s a killer one. The number one sort of issue being … I like that Jeff Bezos quote. Being stubborn on the vision but flexible on the details on how we get there. I like that. Corbett, you and I we can be pretty stubborn about what needs to happen.
Corbett: Yeah, sometimes we’re stubborn on the details too.
Chase: Sometimes we’re too stubborn on the detail. Part I find there’s a discipline. It seems to me that there’s a discipline to staying flexible on the details. What to me that question of that is like, what matters about this? What matters about this? Is it what matters about this that we write a blog post or is what matters about this that we write a blog post that last for a long time or was it matters about this that we write a blog post that gets us a lot of subscribers? So having different goals or what matters about it to me determines the details of the thing. What details are important and what aren’t? What’s the headline? I don’t know. I just need to do this. Now I’m talking about Big Daddy Warbucks over here.
Corbett: Uh-hmm (affirmative).
Chase: I don’t care what it is. No, I’m not. Okay. So we’re going to get … that’s our first myth. This idea of that you cannot get paid from art. We’re going to get into the second and the third myths in just a second. First, a word from our sponsor today. This show is brought to you by ConvertKit. ConvertKit is email marketing made easy. Not just the email, not just the marketing but there’s this automation part to it that is so killer.
We just did a new seven day email series on how you can create badass email lead magnets. That’s basically what the seven day course it guides you through like every step of the way to do it. ConvertKit makes that super simple. Let’s get back to the interview.
If you’re just joining us, I’m with Jeff Goins and Corbett Barr. We’re discussing Jeff’s new book Real Artists Don’t Starve. I’m doing that PBS thing, NPR just like … what if we had to do those in podcasting a bit more? I think it would keep us more honest. The first myth that we had to talk about here was you can’t make money off of art. Jeff just … he sized that thing up where you hear the bell ring. It started. They both came for their opponents. The myth on one side, Jeff from the other. Jeff just obliterated it with this example of Michelangelo. Killer. All right.
Corbett: Can I pay contrarian for a little while?
Chase: I was wondering when you’re going to do that. Here comes Corbett Barr.
Corbett: Before we jump into the next one.
Chase: Watch this folks. Someone is jumping into the rings.
Corbett: Stories about 400 year dead dudes are cool, but in my mind, I think we need to lay out some definitions here.
Corbett: To me we use the word artist very liberally in a sense. I think a lot of people think of an artist as an actor or a musician or a painter or a novelist. I guess what I’m hearing from you Jeff like when you say that real artist don’t starve, I think what you’re suggesting is the answer to that is to compromise so that maybe you won’t be an actor or maybe you won’t be a painter or maybe you won’t play music, but that you can on a living somehow in that field by being flexible on the details while still having a vision that you’re going to be earning a living in that field. Is that what I’m getting?
Jeff: I appreciate you asking that. No. No, I think that’s not … like if I go, “Hey I want to be a wri- I want to write novels.” Somebody comes along. I come along and say, “Okay, you can’t write novels but you can write copy for this ad agency and you should be happy doing that.” That does not work. That’s not your dream. When I talk about flexibility, I’m saying … for example I just interviewed this hit songwriter and we were talking about how he built his career. He’s been playing music for 15 years professionally. Lives here in Nashville. He said all of the big breaks, all of the big windfalls that allowed him, any of the opportunities that allowed him to continue doing what he’s doing today were not things that he expected.
It was writing a song, putting it out on his own independently produced record, getting some airplay on the radio and then Blake Shelton hearing that song and going, “I want to sing that song.” Then Blake Shelton putting that on his record and selling a million copies of it. What has made my friend successful is first of all the stubbornness to say, “I’m going to play music for a living.” That’s a vision but the way that I do that may be I play some shows, I sell albums, I write songs for other people, but at the end of the day I am making a living off of my art. In the book, most of the people I talk to they’re fine artists, they’re cartoonists, they’re musicians, they’re creatives in the pure sense of the word and there are some people who realize, “Oh I don’t want to do that for a living. I just want use this in my job or vocation elsewhere.”
Yeah, I think you can have a very specific vision like “I want to paint for a living and achieve that.” I do think we get in trouble when we say, “This novel, this project, this film that I did, this is the thing that’s going to allow me to make it. If people don’t get this like we’re in trouble.” That’s just an unhealthy way to interact with your creative work period versus saying “This is one piece of the body of work that I’m creating that is moving me towards this vision.”
Chase: Did it satisfy Corbett Barr?
Corbett: Yeah, continue.
Chase: Continue. I like it. I appreciate that.
Jeff: I do appreciate that. I am saying like if you want to make a living off of your art, you can do that. You don’t have to compromise your job title to do that. You just have to be open as is the case with anything.
Chase: Seeing that’s how it’s going to happen.
Jeff: There seems like there’s compromise in everything when you pursue … I mean I think when you talk to George Clooney and you ask him about compromise, he’d be like, “The whole game is compromised, the whole thing.”
Chase: I do. Yeah. I think as a music maker, as an entrepreneur it seems like it’s constantly … simply by nature of the fact that when I make my art very few of us make our art as a little … some of us do but very few of us make our art as a capsule of here’s what it is, deal with it and just shove it out. This is a thing where it’s like, “Okay, then you don’t need to be success. You can enjoy making your art.” Keep scrapbooking, keep making your art journal, keep doing the wine and painting and keep doing like all of the things. To me that is beautiful. That’s amazing. That’s what life is, but if you want to find commercial success from these kinds of activities and this creativity, that’s where … it’s like, “Okay, what does the world want that you can give it?” It’s such a challenging thing.
Jeff: As an entrepreneur, I don’t look at what I’m doing as compromise but it’s my job not to chase my passion, hope people will pay me for it. It’s my job to understand what the needs and demands of the market are right now and then how I can take the things that I enjoy doing, that I’m good at doing and bring those to the table with an understanding that that there’s going to be some intersection between what the market needs and what I’m able to provide and Corbett attempt to answer question about the 400-year-old dead guy. I want argue that this is not a new thing. This is not like this is the best that we can do in the economy that we’re in today.
I argue that this what artist, successful artist who’ve made a living off of their art have always done. So if you want to write and you don’t want to get paid to do it, that’s great. That’s called journaling if you want a scrapbook. I think that’s totally fine. I would never say because you’re creative and you have a hobby you need to make money doing that because it’s a whole different ball game, but I know so many creatives who are frustrated, because they’re good and their talent is killer and they’re not willing to discipline themselves in the business side of things. They just think … they’re mad. They’re mad at the world that they’re not successful. I think that this is the greatest opportunity to share your creative work with the world and actually get paid to do it as long as you’re willing to understand what the rules are and acquire some of those disciplines.
Myth #2: You have to be inspired to create.
Chase: I love that. That’s a really good segue into the myth number two which is you have to be inspired to create. I love this kind of clarification even of if we think about people who we know who are creative and actually really, really talented but super frustrated because they’re not finding a way to get paid to do that thing. You mentioned just then them not being disciplined or having the discipline to make the necessary sort of shifts and design modes necessary or turns necessary to earn some actual money from this thing. So tell me about this myth number two, you have to be inspired to create. You’re saying this is a myth.
Jeff: So there’s a historian by the name of Will Durant and he says nothing is new except arrangement. So this is the idea to quote Austin Kleon, you have to steal like an artist. There’s the quote that’s often attributed to Picasso. Good artist copy, great artist steal. It’s just the idea that so many creatives that I talk to they think that in order for them to make a living or even to produce interesting work, they’ve got have an original idea. This is not the way creative work happens. I remember years ago working at the nonprofit, driving around like … I was driving around downtown Nashville.
We were going to a conference that week and I had a couple of coworkers sitting in the backseat. They’re having a conversation. They were talking about some … like some kick starter or something that had made over a million dollars. It was this big thing and it launched this company and it was like a young lady in her dorm room or something. The young woman said the other she said, “That’s all we need is one great idea and we’ll be able to make it big.” I think this is obviously a bad idea. I think it’s a misunderstanding of the way not only entrepreneurship works but the way creative work works is that it’s not an original idea.
First of all, to quote Will Durant. There are no new original ideas. We’re all remixing old ideas and rearranging them into something new. That is the novelty is the rearrangement, the remix. This is kind of the way it’s always happened. We’re always building on the work that has become us and then innovating it and turning it into something else. So Jim Henson arguably did more for puppeteering and brought that into the mainstream more than anybody else. If you think about the Muppets, Sesame Street and so many … Yoda, so The Dark Crystal, my personal favorite. So many things that are being done in the movies and on television today were inspired by the way that he used puppets that were more than just like literally socks on TV.
When Jim Henson was receiving like a lifetime achievement award for all he had done for the world of puppeteering, he credited a gentleman named Burr Tillstrom. He was one of the first guys to bring puppets on a TV. He said Burr Tillstrom did more for bringing puppets onto television than I ever did. He basically said everything that I did I was copying him. You can Google this guy, Burr Tillstrom and find some of his early puppets. Jim Henson grew up watching this guy, getting inspired by him and bought … like literally just stealing his techniques and then building on them and doing new and interesting things. What he was doing was he was cobbling together all of these interests.
In fact, Jim Henson is a great picture of this sort of dichotomy between art and money. He really struggled with this. He was an artist and he really struggled with the commercial side of things. That’s why Sesame Street did not have sponsors and every episode was brought to you by the letter A or B or C because he didn’t want … It was a nonprofit educational kid show and he didn’t want to be poisoning kid’s minds with go buy this stuff. That’s not what it was about. He was very successful as a college student. He and his partner Jane who eventually became his wife they were doing commercial spots where they were selling coffee.
Chase: I saw those. Oh my God! I saw those. I’ve seen those. They were on YouTube.
Jeff: they’re 10 second commercials. They’re wild. They’re called Wilkins Coffee.
Chase: They’re amazing. There’s so much violence in them.
Jeff: Yeah, so it is. It’s called Wilkins coffee. There’s a guy named Wilkins, a guy named Wontkins. Wilkins likes coffee. Wontkins doesn’t like coffee. They’re 10 second spots. They’re like sock puppets that kind of look like Kermit the frog. One puppets says, “Hey do you want some coffee?” Wilkins says, “Wontkins, do you want some coffee?” Wontkins says, “No!” Then Wilkins will shoot him in the face with a can and then say drink Wilkins coffee and that’s the whole commercial. So Jim Henson was getting paid $750,000 a year to do commercials like this while he was a junior in college. He really struggled with this.
So he left one summer for about six weeks. He went to Europe and just kind of backpacked through Europe and left the business to his business partner and trusted friend and said, “I got to go and figure this out.” What he really wanted to do was be a painter. This is what he thought. He wanted to be a real artist. He goes to Europe and he goes and sees all these puppet shows. What he sees changes the course of his life. He sees puppet shows where there are kids in the audience and adults and they’re both being entertained. He realizes, “Oh I don’t have to just do commercials. I don’t have to just do this very commercial thing that I don’t like. I can entertain people with my art and it’s not just for kids. It’s not just for adults.”
The idea of doing … like having puppet shows for adults and kids alike where they both get something out of it was new in America but it wasn’t new in the world. Jim just went and found someplace where it hadn’t been done, not intentionally. He sees this thing and he goes, “I’m going to steal that.” So he built this very successful, very creative career around just borrowing for these different influences, cobbling them together and sharing them and saying, “See, this is what I made.” We call that originally, “Wow that’s such a pioneering thing.” It’s not in a sense that he created something out of nothing. He just borrowed from a bunch of different influences, cobbled this together and said, “Here’s the thing that I made.” We go, “Wow, that’s so original.”
Chase: Man, I love that. I love that story of Jim Henson and the sense that like it’s not about having some original idea that nobody’s ever had. It’s about cobbling together interests that you currently have that maybe nobody’s put together before. I love that Jim Henson … that’s such a cool story.
Myth #3: You have to get lucky to succeed
So with our final minutes here, let’s go to this final myth. Myth number three for this show, there’s more in the book. Again, the book is called Real Artists Don’t Starve. The third myth here is you’ve got to get lucky to succeed. What’s this one about? I definitely sense that like if I’m doing creative work, I’m just doing my own thing.
I’m thinking about Corbett’s Jessalyn. Corbett’s wife is a fine artist. She makes these amazing huge, [inaudible 00:39:49] gorgeous stuff. If that gets into the right galleries because she’s in the fine art world, if it gets into the right galleries, there’s this cascading effect that can start to happen that we’ve seen happen with other artists. If it gets the right cachet, if it gets the right … and in successes like that, it’s hard not to look back and just go like, “We got lucky, right? I’m imagining.” So they just … simply because it’s like there’s no way you can force a gallerist to take this on or you can force pieces of work or genres of work or somebody’s work itself to have the kind of … I don’t know. I think of my favorite conceptual ground like John Baldessari. I don’t know why I ever found him just accidentally through a YouTube search and his work was just like … it just blew my mind.
Corbett: I think what you’re referring to is the big break idea which you hear sometimes from some actors that I just happen onto this thing and next thing I knew I was in this movie. My life was forever changed. You also hear from other people I think maybe this is what Jeff is about to get to so I apologize if I steal your thunder but other people look back at their careers and they say I never had a big break. It was just the accumulation of a lot of years of hard work and grinding it out and making opportunities for myself. I was just listening to a podcast today with Brian Clark from Copyblogger and Seth Godin. It’s on Brian’s show Unemployable which is really good. Seth was just talking about how he’s been a writer now for a long time. He’s been building an email list since 1992. Like, who has that in their back pocket?
Seth was just saying he has never had a really viral hit. He knows a lot of people who have had individual blog posts or books [crosstalk 00:41:37] that are far more popular than any single piece that he’s produced but he’s just produced so much and so consistently that it’s led to the success that he’s had.
Chase: Oh that’s fascinating. So Jeff what’s this myth, this idea that you have to get lucky to succeed? You’re saying this is not true. What is true instead?
Jeff: Well Corbett stole my thunder so we should probably just end the show.
Corbett: Let’s just rundown.
Jeff: Yeah, it is. There’s an old story. Obviously luck happens. Luck happens. Jim Collins talks about this in Great by Choice and I think he does a really good job of trying to explain what luck is which is hard to quantify. If you’re familiar with Collins work, it’s very data driven and it’s about replicable success. In Great by Choice he’s talking about enduringly great companies who like for 30 years straight performed at least 20% above the market average. One thing he talks about is luck like, were these guys just lucky? He says luck has to be … like he defines it as something good that is happening kind of against the odds. It’s a fortunate accident, serendipity.
He contrasts these two different groups of companies. Those that underperformed and those that consistently overperformed and goes through the history of the companies, good things that happened, bad things that happened. Somebody is like shorting one of their stocks or a hostile takeover, all these different things or the company blew up. Things that were unexpectedly bad and not just typical day in day out stuff. Basically, the luck factor, the luck quotient, whatever he calls it he says the lucky companies and the unlucky are the successful companies and the unsuccessful companies had about the same amount of luck.
They had about the same out of lucky he thinks they have them. They did have fortunate accidents, good things that happen to them that were unexpected. In fact, the unsuccessful companies that had like a little bit more luck. So he says there’s a difference between getting lucky once and then getting your return on your luck, getting a return on your luck. So that’s his explanation for this.
There’s an old story where I heard this from Steven Pressfield and he said in Hollywood Walter Matthau, the actor was at this party and this young actor comes in and runs into Walter Matthau. Matthau says, “How’s it going kid?” The kid says, “Oh, it’s really hard. I’m really struggling. I moved here a few months ago and I’m just waiting for my big break.” Matthau laughs and he goes, “Kid, it’s not the one break. It’s the 50.” That sort of taught … that goes back to that Seth Godin story that you told Corbett. It is the idea that good luck may come but it’s also going to go. The people that are successful are the ones that keep showing up again and again and again and are prepared for when the luck comes.
So I think fortunate things have happened to me. My career was accelerated when I emailed a guy named Michael Hyatt who is the CEO of a major publisher at the time. Eventually became a very successful blogger. He said yes like that was a lucky thing. I asked him to coffee and he said, “Yeah, I’d love to get together.” We met for about an hour. I could’ve like … that could’ve been the end of it. Instead when he walked away, I had this habit that had been ingrained into me from a former employer which is anytime I met with an elder, it was my responsibility to write a quick thank you note and a quick like notes on what I taken away from the conversation.
So for seven years I met with my boss every week and he required me to send him an email with the notes and what I taken away. So it was just habit. When I met Michael Hyatt at this Starbucks on the corner of downtown Franklin and when he walked away, opened up my laptop and said, “Hey, thanks for meeting with me. Here’s what I learned.” This began a relationship where I emailed him basically weekly letting him know what I had learned from him, how I was applying it and he continued to stay interested in promoting my work and doing all these things.
I could’ve just say, “Hey I met Michael Hyatt once and that was really cool.” That wouldn’t have been using that lucky moment and building upon it. So I think breaks come and go for many of us. They look different and it’s hard to not get jealous of somebody’s luck, but successes is this ongoing residual effort drip by drip as Seth Godin likes to say. In the book, I call this basically the rule of apprenticeship. That we are all apprentices and we need to be bold in how we pursue these breaks but also how we use them.
One of the people stories that I tell is a woman named Tia Link who was a lawyer and was a pretty good lawyer but realizes it wasn’t what she wanted to do. She wanted to be an actress. She didn’t get some big break. She didn’t bump into Woody Allen some day in New York City. She just started moonlighting, taking whatever gigs that she could get, shadowing under people who were better than her, showing up every single day and it took her two years and eventually she became a full time actress. It wasn’t some big break. It wasn’t this explosive success, but she’s doing what she loves for a living as a full time actress by thinking like an apprentice.
I think this isn’t a lost art in today’s culture where we’re chasing viral, we’re chasing the big breaks and the truth is so often when these things happen, they’re here today gone tomorrow. Like how many winners of American Idol number one, the number one people can you name that are still performing music today?
Chase: Taylor …
Jeff: It’s not …
Chase: Taylor Swift? Wait, what is the guy’s name? It was like Gene. What’s the big soul dude? I’m soul guy. What’s his name?
Jeff: The truth is people that are like second and third place …
Chase: Jeff, keep going. Keep going.
Jeff: People that are like second and third place are much more successful because they don’t get locked in to their kind of bad record deal that they have tour with American Idol for a year and all this stuff. The point is just because you get a big break doesn’t mean that you’re going to use it or it’s going to lead to consistent success. Tia Link is a great example. That Colby Caillat, a popstar, she was rejected by American Idol twice. Instead of going, “Well, I don’t have what it takes.” That just made her want it more and it made her practice harder and years later in an interview, somebody said, “Oh I can’t believe American Idol rejected you twice.” She said, “No, they were right to reject me. I wasn’t that good and being rejected made me want to get better.”
“Being rejected made me want to get better.” ~ Colbie Caillat
This is the attitude of an apprentice. You go back to the days of Michelangelo. This was the norm. Apprenticeship was a 10 year process. Typically you spent seven years, seven of those 10 years, 70% of your education was spent in the studio of a master doing whatever he or she wanted you to do. It was grunt work. You understood that not everybody got to be in that studio that was a special place to be and you were going to do everything you could to keep earning your spot there but eventually one day at year three, four, five, six, the master turns around and hands the pallet to you. They turn the work over to you.
Eventually, if you’re good enough, you go on and continue the process as a master yourself. I think this is a lost art today, but it’s still a very important principle. There are mentors and influencers and successful people whose example we can follow if we’re just willing to do the work, show up consistently day in and day out and not assume that in a day or a month or even a year that we’re going to reach mastery but just keep thinking like an apprentice. Keep showing up. Keep doing the work and eventually the breaks come and go. The question is what you do with them.
Chase: Oh I love that. I think that’s great. I love that Colby Caillat bit. Being rejected made me want to get better and that’s exactly the apprentice idea. Being rejected made me want to get better. That’s like the hardest thing. That’s the hardest thing. People are starting up their blogs and their podcasts and their Shopify stores and their whatever, their email often incentives and their courses and their homemade artisanal jams companies or cocktail cherries companies. Love jam. They’re starting these up and then it’s like being rejected made me want to get better. Being rejected made me want to get better. Being rejected … like at every step of rejection, you send the email and nobody responds. You send the email, nobody buys. Only this many people buy, not that many, whatever. All these things like being rejected made me want to get better. You know there’s something there.
Corbett: Yeah, and I think that a lot of us in business at least maybe not in art so much but we take rejection as a personal thing. Like they’re rejecting us when we really need to distance ourselves and say they’re rejecting our idea or this thing that we put forth.
Chase: Or we think they’re right. There’s something of us in everything that we do. Colby Caillat was like, “No, there’s something good in me.” She kept going. She wanted to get better and she just was like … she was grit I guess is the word but like convicted that there’s something good. It’s not good yet. She could take that. She can take that feedback. There’s something that I’ve always felt like that about my creative. There’s something in me that I know I’m going to be good at something. I haven’t figured it out yet but I’m going to be good at it.
It’s that process of how committed are we to this apprenticeship mindset I think is a really big point and a good one to end it on. So Jeff, thanks so much for joining us on The Fizzle Show. Dude, this is awesome to get these pieces, these little wisdom nuggets from you into our podcast. Folks, if you haven’t yet purchased the book it’s called Real Artists Don’t Starve. I’ve got it over here on my shelf. Jeff, man, thanks for being on the show.
Jeff: Guys, thanks for having me. Thanks for the work that you’re doing. Thanks for the example that you set for me. It’s inspired me and I hope this inspires others.
“For those of you who want commercial AND creative success…”
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