Elements of Success
I was making a long drive this week, across the desert from L.A. to Phoenix, and I got to thinking about the elements that comprise success-particularly for people like us, e.g. writers, artists and entrepreneurs, who work from the heart and on their own, without any imposed external structure. What are the skill-sets we need? Over a lifetime, what challenges do we need to master?
In today’s post, I’m attaching a podcast of an interview I did with Jen Grisanti, who helms a Los Angeles-based consulting firm dedicated to helping talented writers break into the industry, shape their material, hone their pitches, and focus their careers. Her one-on-one consults with authors offer the insight of a personal studio executive. Considering Jen’s last job was as VP of Current Programs at CBS/Paramount, writers do, indeed, benefit from having their own “executive” – one who has worked with over 190 writers working in television, features and novels, and who is also the Writing Instructor for NBC’s, Writers on the Verge, and a blogger for The Huffington Post.
In addition to consulting, Jen holds monthly networking events and does a twice-monthly podcast, featuring interviews with movie-industry professionals and writers and artists of all kinds. This podcast would fall under #2 of my desert-drive list of the elements of success: Technique. I hope you enjoy it and find it useful.
But let’s go back to Number One in the elements of success. What skills do you and I need as solo gunslingers in order to call ourselves “successful” over a full career?
There’s a reason why you and I are not Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. On the other hand, it’s no coincidence that so often the greatest athletes, artists and entrepreneurs also embody the most ferocious work ethic. Talent may set the final limit to how good we can be, but it also can be stretched way beyond what most of us believe.
This is an easy one because it can be taught. We can learn it-in school, from books and mentors, in seminars and workshops and coaching sessions. We can teach ourselves in the university of hard knocks. Jen Grisanti’s interview is in this category. So are the Iowa Writers Workshop, Robert McKee’s Story Structure classes (and his book, Story) and Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages.
3) Mastery over Internal Self-Sabotage of the Work.
This is the subject of The War of Art. Recognizing what I call Resistance-the forces of self-sabotage, such as procrastination, distraction, self-invalidation, fear of failure and fear of success, etc.-and learning how to overcome them so we can do our work. We may need help here, from therapists, coaches, mentors and successful artists and entrepreneurs after whom we can model ourselves.
These first three elements are the fundamentals. Until we gain a reasonable mastery over all three, we have no chance of producing our symphony, our novel, our plumbing supply venture.
But mastering the basics only gets us to the starting gate. Next up: racing against other horses.
4) Surviving against real-world competition
Now it’s starting to get tough. Because now we have to expand beyond our natural gifts. We can’t stay in our room or our studio any more; we must enter the arena. The screenwriter has to learn how to sell his idea in a pitch meeting. The painter has to sell herself to galleries.
A different kind of mental toughness is required here-not only the capacity to beat the crap out of ourselves and make ourselves produce the work, but the ability to stand up for our stuff and take the heat. Drive a bargain. Make a deal. Go head-to-head against a rival and knock him out.
We need help. We need agents, managers, lawyers, publicists. We need professionals to represent us and our work. We need to learn to delegate, to let go of the reins. This again gets into issues of self-awareness. Are we afraid? Why? How can we overcome this? Do we experience guilt? Why?
How can we get over this?
We’re playing in the big leagues now.
5) Mastery over self-sabotage of our own success
Just as internally-generated Resistance sought to undermine our ability (above in #3) to produce the work, so its more advanced cousin now is trying to make us sabotage our own success. How many actors and musicians have killed their careers with drugs, sex, and being such an insufferable pain in the ass that nobody can stand to work with them? How many writers have drowned their work in booze, divorce and paranoia?
It gets even tougher than that because success produces its own challenges. What has brought us to this point of prominence is often our own authenticity. But now forces of the marketplace want us to produce authenticity on demand. A big, thick book could be written on this subject.
Look at Bob Dylan’s career. How many times has he re-invented himself as he moves from level to level, sideways, backwards, enduring failure and ridicule, fame and lionization? Somehow he has outlasted them all. He’s still slugging-and still himself.
6) Placing success within a philosophical and spiritual context
Thousands of artists and entrepreneurs have reached the heights-commercially, artistically, financially-but success has not brought them happiness or peace of mind. What’s missing?
We’ve taken care of our bodies and our minds, but what about our souls?
Each of us, in our own way and on our own terms, must set “success” in the greater context of meaning and significance. Is success a good? What kind of success? What does it mean on our deathbed?
If you’ve read The War of Art, you know that I have a definite point of view on this. I’ve gotten a lot of flak for it-and that’s fair. But here’s what I believe ultimately about success on the material plane:
It has to be territorial, not hierarchical. Meaning real success comes from the inside out, not the outside in. Real success is the process, not the product. It’s what we would do if there were nobody else in the world, yet it depends in the end on everyone else in the world. The essential expression of our art is that of a gift. We draw from that which is most ourselves–and then offer that essence to our fellow travelers on this planet, to help them, entertain them, show them they’re not alone … asking nothing in return (well, maybe enough to pay the rent, we hope.)
We serve the Muse. That’s our job. To locate the gift that is ours and ours alone and then to nurture it, protect it, defend it, take it through all its stages of evolution as best we can-and then give it away.
That’s what I was thinking driving across the desert, and I still think it now.
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