You might say there’s no such thing as luck but I know a professor at Cornell who thinks differently. Robert H. Frank is the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management and Professor of Economics at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. His latest book is Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy from Princeton University Press. What does luck have to do with your creative career? More than you know…
For more than a decade, Frank’s monthly Economic View column ran in The New York Times. He received his B.S. in mathematics from Georgia Tech, then taught math and science for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Nepal. He holds an M.A. in statistics and a Ph.D. in economics, both from the University of California at Berkeley. His papers have appeared in the American Economic Review, Econometrica, Journal of Political Economy, and other leading professional journals.
His books, which include Choosing the Right Pond, Passions Within Reason, Microeconomics and Behavior, Principles of Economics (with Ben Bernanke), Luxury Fever, What Price the Moral High Ground?, Falling Behind, The Economic Naturalist, and The Darwin Economy. He is a co-recipient of the 2004 Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. He was awarded the Johnson School’s Stephen Russell Distinguished teaching award in 2004, 2010, and 2012, and its Apple Distinguished Teaching Award in 2005.
00:05 Speaker 2: Culture Department. Where we help creatives become entrepreneurs and make a living making art. With your host, Daedalus Howell.
00:13 Daedalus Howell: My favourite quote from The Office was said by Catherine Tate, when she was playing the English interloper known as Nellie Bertram. Now here’s a trigger alert, if you’re prone to existential crises, skip ahead; otherwise, here goes: “I grew up poor. I had little formal education, no real skills, I don’t work especially hard, and most of my ideas are either unoriginal or total crap. Yet, I walked right into a job for which I was ill-prepared, ill-suited, and somebody else already had, and I got it. If you ask me, that’s the American Dream right there. Anything can happen to anyone. It’s just random.” Now it’s not all just random, because we would all be in total and utter despair. But there is a factor that people do forget, luck. You might say there’s no such thing as luck, but I know a professor at Cornell who thinks differently. Robert H. Frank is the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management and Professor of Economics at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. His latest book is “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy” from Princeton University Press. A truly great and illuminating read. Now, our chat.
01:36 DH: Creatives and artists put a lot of stock in their sense of talent and yet, many talented people fail to become successful artists. In fact, most don’t.
01:45 Robert H Frank: Yeah, there’s an amazing inventory of talent that never really rises into full view. Yeah, it’s quite extraordinary when you look into it.
01:54 DH: And those who do become recognized for their alleged talents, if luck is brought into the equation, they find that a pejorative really, being lucky. What is that about the human species where we resist accepting luck as part of the equation?
02:10 RF: You know I think… Recall the speech President Obama gave in 2012, it became known as his, “You Didn’t Build That,” speech. [chuckle] All he was trying to do, and Elizabeth Warren gave a very similar speech that year too… What they were trying to do, both of them, was just to remind people who had succeeded that you don’t succeed in a vacuum. The message is not that you didn’t work hard, it’s not that you weren’t smart or talented. The people who succeed are almost always smart, talented, hard-working. You don’t succeed often. There are examples we can think of where people have succeeded despite lacking those qualities. But most of the big success stories really are hard-working, talented people. What is less easy to keep in view is that, without a supporting cast, you don’t succeed. If you’ll ask a successful person, “Well, try to imagine if you’d grown up in a gang-infested neighborhood, your parents didn’t have jobs, if you even had parents, the schools you went to were bad. Would you have been as successful?” Most people will readily concede, “No, probably not.” So, there’s a lot of luck in the circumstances into which you’re born, the country where you live. If you were in the South Sudan growing up, you’re very unlikely to have succeeded in any way resembling success that we know here.
03:38 RF: So the message of those speeches, I think, was just that if you succeeded, remember you didn’t do it all yourself and accept that the social contract calls for you to pay forward for the next group coming along. That’s a fair request and I think most people when they reflect on, it will agree that it is. It’s just that people don’t hear that when they hear a speech like that. They think the President, or Senator Elizabeth Warren, they think those people were saying, “You don’t deserve your success, you didn’t work hard, you were just lucky.” No, that’s not just luck. Good fortune is part of the story. And if you’ll just ask people, “Can you think of examples when you were fortunate along the way?” It’s interesting psychologically, that doesn’t seem to trigger anything remotely like the same reaction. People don’t get angry when they hear that question, they don’t get defensive about it. They think about examples of times when they might’ve been lucky. Each one they can recall, they’re eager to recount to you. Their eyes light up telling these stories, they seem to get happier when they’re talking to you about it. And so, embracing luck’s role in your life, that’s not such a bad thing to do. It makes you happier.
05:01 RF: Think about a dinner invitation one from somebody who said, “I did it all myself, I got no help from anybody.” Another who said, “Yeah, I worked hard but I was also lucky along the way.” Who’s likely to be a more interesting person to have dinner with? I’m picking person number two.
05:18 DH: Right, of course. And I think a lot of that has to do with the idea that luck can be serendipity, and serendipity can be divine providence or something. Right? [chuckle]
05:28 RF: Right. Yeah, and different cultures have different attitudes toward what many of us think of as chance events. It was destined to be, or it was karma. There are lots of ways to parse that but for me, it’s always been easier just to think that lots of stuff happens. Every once in a while, there’ll be a confluence of very unlikely things that happen. Sometimes that can work against you. If you’re lucky, it works in your favor.
06:00 DH: I think, as you suggest, embracing the reality of luck in one’s life is very healthy, and acknowledging that and being able to pay it forward. I think you actually cite examples where that’s also beneficial in terms of amassing luck, in a manner of speaking. But I think part of the fear is that we can’t control the random factor of luck. And…
06:22 RF: No, that’s the nature of luck. It’s just the things that are out there happening that you have no control over. Now, some people say, “I’m lucky.” They personally feel lucky. And it is known that people who feel that way often are more likely to spot opportunities when they come along, so feeling lucky may not be a bad thing. There’s a trait of personality that makes you open to opportunities, so maybe opportunities come along and some people don’t notice them and others do, so they’re lucky. Because they feel lucky.
06:58 DH: Theoretically, we could cultivate that outlook and participate more in the sphere of luck, I would imagine. Is that possible?
07:07 RF: I wouldn’t hold myself out as an authority on that. My wife thinks she’s lucky finding parking places.
07:17 RF: And she is. I’ll drive by one, ’cause I think I’m unlucky at finding a parking space. [chuckle]
07:24 DH: So what I’m asking I think ultimately is, can luck be made? Is there a way to cultivate luck?
07:29 RF: Yeah. The best advice for young people going forward, is just to imagine that luck plays no role whatsoever in what’s gonna happen to you. You’re the captain of your fate and if something good’s gonna happen, it’s up to you to make it happen. That’s exactly the right attitude to go out into the world with. But if you succeed, I think it’s also important for you to look back on whatever success you may have enjoyed and just recognize, “Look, things could have turned out so very differently if not for this, that, or the other break that I enjoyed. I wouldn’t have been as successful as I am.” So I think that posture is the right combination from what we know from the evidence.
08:14 DH: But that’s also a retroactive posture. You can only…
08:17 RF: Yes. Yes, you ignore the role of luck going forward. It’s all up to you, you’re the captain of your fate. But if you wanna build a successful society, it’s important to embrace what seems like a contradictory truth, which is that no career unfolds completely independently of chance events. Every career path has hundreds of chance events in it, and those cumulatively have a huge effect on the final outcome. So, people who end up broke, many of ’em worked hard, many of ’em were talented, they had a medical emergency that it wasn’t covered. All sorts of things can happen.
08:58 DH: Sometimes it would seem luck, the way it’s distributed, so to speak, is unfair, and in the arts world, of course, it’s totally arbitrary…
09:08 DH: And the most talented person, or at least the person who perceives himself to be most talented, often isn’t chosen, as it were. How do you mitigate those kinds of feelings? How do you charge ahead like you’re suggesting?
09:19 RF: Well, life is unfair, I think that’s something to recognize. We form societies partly to ensure against the unwelcome contingency that life serves up. If you get sick, if your kid gets cancer, you shouldn’t have to hold a bake sale to try to get care for your kid. That’s something that we as a society ought to step in and try to make up for. But, basically, the notion that life’s fair, it’s good to abandon that. You should try to be as fair as you can, obviously, but to think that every outcome will be just, that’s not the way the world works.
10:02 DH: Could one conceivably promote a more lucky circumstance in one’s life by putting oneself out there more often?
10:11 RF: Sure.
10:12 DH: The more at bats, right, theoretically, the more possibility for achievement and the serendipity that comes with being seating next to the person at the dinner table.
10:22 RF: Exactly. Entrepreneurs, if you’ll ask entrepreneurs to describe themselves, what will they say? The first label you’ll hear them mention, almost every case, is risk taker. I was a risk taker. So okay, they succeeded, some of them, but most entrepreneurs fail, most new businesses fail. And oftentimes, people risk their life savings trying to get the business going. It just doesn’t catch fire and they lose everything. So you could say, “Yes, they’re risk takers with a vengeance,” of course. If they succeed, they’re probably also talented and hard-working, but if you then look up the definition of risk, taking a risk means there’s a possibility something bad’s gonna happen. So if you describe yourself as a risk taker, and if you took risks and succeeded, then you were lucky by definition.
11:19 RF: You’ve got to own either the fact that you didn’t take risks, that the only way you could not have been lucky if you’d took risk and succeeded is if everything went right, but then there was no risk.
11:32 DH: Right, right. [chuckle]
11:33 RF: So own your luck. People aren’t gonna dislike you if you admit that you were lucky; on the contrary, they’ll think, “Wow, here’s a person that might be better to deal with.” And if you look at the modern economy, the way you succeed most often now is to be a member of a high-functioning team. Okay, everyone wants to be on a team like that, they don’t need you. If you’re a jerk, they don’t want you on your team. It’s not enough to be talented and hard working, they want somebody who’s gonna put the team’s interest ahead of their own when there’s a chance to defect and feather your own nest. And so, your character counts too. Do they want somebody who’s too ambitious? We’re skeptical of people like that.
12:16 DH: So I wonder when it comes to creatives and artists, should they team up? Should they work together? It seems like such a solo pursuit oftentimes.
12:25 RF: Yeah. My two sons are musicians and so, I see first-hand what the challenge is. It’s really difficult to make a go of it and there’s a great set of experiments. Duncan Watson is a former graduate student who did Music Lab, so 48 indie bands on a website, each one with a song. You can download it if you want, any song is yours for free on the condition that you give it a rating. Se people would do that, they would rate the songs. And some musicians are better than others as viewed by people generally. So some of the 48 songs got high marks from everybody who listened to them, others got pretty low marks from everybody who listened. But most of them are somewhere in the middle. Some people like them, others weren’t so crazy about them.
13:14 RF: What they did then was, when they had their objective quality rankings, they looked at one particular band across eight separate websites. The band was 52 Metro and the song was Lockdown. It’s a song I didn’t particularly like, but it was right in the middle of the objective rankings, 26th. In one of the eight websites, it became number one. In another one, it became number 40. And the different performance in those two websites had to do simply with the fact that if the first people who downloaded the song happened to like it, then it went off on a positive trajectory and did well in the end. If the first people who happened to hear it didn’t like it, it went downhill from there. So pure dumb luck for the outcomes of many artistic endeavors.
14:07 DH: Yeah. Wow, which is both harrowing, but it gives us a means to understand why some things work and some things don’t.
14:18 RF: Hone your craft. There were some songs that succeeded on all the websites, so if you get good enough, your chances are obviously better.
14:27 DH: And getting good enough, I would imagine, means doing it a lot to get there.
14:31 RF: Thousands of hours. People argue, is it 2,000 hours, or 10,000, or 20,000? Nobody’s got the answer to that question, but everybody says it’s very hard to become an expert at something, but that’s really what it takes to succeed now. If you’re not an expert at something, there are a lot of people who’ll outdo you.
14:52 DH: And I think being an expert out loud, meaning being an expert that can be seen in the process of becoming an expert probably helps gen up a little bit of that awareness that could translate into a kind of luck.
15:02 RF: Yes.
15:04 DH: I’m looking for the easy answers, Robert. Where’s the wormhole to success?
15:09 RF: Well, the hopeful element of the book’s argument is that if you acknowledge that you’ve been lucky in your success, then you become much more generous towards others. The willingness to pay forward, to support the Pell Grants, and the other opportunities for the next group to succeed becomes much, much greater. And the nice thing about it is that if those who have succeeded, they’re prosperous by definition, if they were a little bit more generous in paying forward, if they all paid a little bit more in tax to help support the next generation coming along, they wouldn’t have to give up anything important. The people who want nice things, the successful people, what are the things they want? There are things that are considered special, but special is really just a completely relative concept. It’s for things that are nicer than other things.
16:07 RF: It’s the things that are in short supply, and the way you get those things is to bid against other people like you who also want them, the high bidders end up getting them. If I pay more tax and you pay more tax, and we use the revenue to pave the roads better and support the next generation a little bit more fully, then you and I have less money, that’s true, and we think that’s gonna hurt, that’s the natural impulse. But when you and I and others like us have less money, the bidding contests that determine who gets the apartment with a view of Central Park, who gets the choice slip at the marina, who gets the painting of the emerging famous artist, those are all settled by relative purchasing power. And relative purchasing power doesn’t change when people at the top of the income ladder pay a little more in tax.
16:53 DH: So how do we get them to do that? [chuckle]
16:56 RF: I think the tactic that seems to work… We know from Senator Elizabeth Warren’s speech and President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech. If you tell rich people, “Look, you’ve been lucky. Be thankful.” They get angry when they hear that. They think you’re saying, “You didn’t deserve to succeed. It was all external events that made you.” That’s not the message of those speeches, it’s just, “Remember too, that you had some good breaks along the way.” If you’ll instead of telling people that they were lucky, try this: Ask a successful friend whether she can recall any examples of lucky breaks that she enjoyed along the way.
17:39 DH: Right.
17:39 RF: You’ll see right away there’s not a whiff of anger in response to hearing that question. There’s no defensiveness. You see the wheels turning behind their eyes. They’re just trying to think of examples. When they think of one, their eyes light up, they wanna tell you about it, and then they’ll think of another one and quickly tell you about that. These conversations make them happy, they make them more generous toward other people, they cause other people to like them more. There’s even evidence that they lead to improved health, the experience of gratitude makes people healthier in the weeks following a manipulation that makes them feel grateful. And so, there’s really a kind of snake oil magic to be had here. Just reflect on your good fortune, think of examples of your success. You’ll become happier if you do that, you’ll become more generous if you do that and everybody in the next round will do better if you do that.
18:36 DH: Yeah, I can see that. And there’s a lot of attention being paid to gratitude right now. And I think binding it to luck is a great idea, that’s really kind of profound in its way.
18:47 RF: Yeah. I thought the best thing I could hope to do with my life is to encourage more people to have that conversation. Ask a successful friend, “Have you enjoyed any lucky breaks along your path to the top?” I can’t think of anything more useful to do than that.
19:07 DH: Check out Robert H. Franks latest books “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy” on facebook.com/successandluckbook. And there’s a great excerpt at The Atlantic. I’ll put a link on the show page. So, the takeaways. Own your luck. No career is unaffected by chance events and acknowledge your luck and then pay it forward.
19:31 Clint Eastwood: You got to ask yourself one question, “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do you, punk?
19:38 DH: Thanks again for listening. If you dig Culture Department, please review it on iTunes where you can also subscribe to it. Ditto on Stitcher and wherever quality podcasts live. Music by Shannon Ferguson of Fergusound and special thanks to Karen Hess for editorial help.
19:55 S2: Visit culturedept.com to sign up for your free e-book, “The Teacup Whale: How To Find Your Creative Niche.” For more tips on Making a Living, Making Art, follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn. Culture Department is a project of FMRL, the Future Media Research Lab, at fmrl.com.
20:17 S1: To learn more about Daedalus Howell, visit dhowell.com.
In her recent essay on Elle.com, author Alana Massey describes, as the headline reads, What Happened When I Finally Made Money. It’s fascinating and frank, and it’s where we start our conversation about what happens when you start to make it and your friends and colleagues haven’t yet. We explore notions of professional envy, fear of no longer belonging, and owning your success (and, yes, there’s an upside too!).
Massey’s work has appeared in NPR, NYMag, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Matter, The New Republic, Pacific Standard, The LA Review of Books, BuzzFeed, VICE, Deadspin, The Washington Post, The New Inquiry, The Hairpin, Jezebel and more. Her collection of essays, All the Lives I Want, is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing.
00:05 Speaker 2: Culture Department. Where we help creatives become entrepreneurs and make a living making art. With your host Daedalus Howell.
00:17 Daedalus Howell: In the opening scene of Puccini’s La Boheme, a painter and a writer are bitching about their cold apartment. Then they get an idea. In a moment that’s kinda hilarious and bespeaks camaraderie, they decide to burn the latter’s manuscript, you know, for heat. I personally would have gone for the chair, but that’s just me, besides all my work is in the cloud, and if I tried to burn down a Google server somewhere, I’d have way bigger problems. But what if the painter scored a fat commission, or the writer a book deal? Would they still be roommates or friends? How does one’s success or lack of it, affect others in one’s tribe. Are you even still in the same tribe if you’ve made money and the rest of the cast of your own private La Boheme hasn’t?
00:58 DH: I recently read an essay on Elle.com in which author Alana Massey describes, as the headline reads, “What Happened When I Finally Made Money.” It’s fascinating, and frank, and there’s a link in the show notes. Massey covers identity and culture in technology and relationships in and on NPR, NY Mag, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Matter, The New Republic, Pacific Standard, The LA Review of Books, BuzzFeed, Vice, Dead Spin, The Washington Post, The Hair Pin, Jezebel, and more. Her collection of essays, “All the Lives I want,” is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing, but right now, she’s on the culture department.
01:33 DH: The shame and achievement, the shame in making it. Why does this happen? Why do people feel that making money off their artistic creations, and in your case a book, is a shameful thing?
01:46 Alana Massey: I think it comes from this camaraderie that is built around the struggle, if you will around finding artistic achievement that does actually pay off. Because you feel like you’re not in the club anymore if you’re not able to commiserate about the low rates, and the being ignored, and the rejection, and all of the attendant financial insecurities that come with all of that sort of rejection, because I think there’s also a sort of story we tell ourselves that if you’re art is being consistently rejected, it can sometimes mean that it’s because it’s so good. And I think there’s some merit to that, but that as a blanket reaction to that kind of experience of rejection and failure, is not always a fool proof reaction. It makes you better as an artist.
02:48 DH: But it seems like there’s also a romantic ideal regarding being broke and starving. I mean, entire musicals have been written about it, La Boheme, Rent, all that stuff. It romanticizes that phenomena, but I don’t know if that’s healthy for artists in the end, I think they often starve to death, or they get into drugs, or something happens to them where that romanticized notion has really just lead them down a terrible path.
03:10 AM: Yeah, I think more often than not, it makes them quit art, because there’s only so much, essentially poverty you can endure if you are able to translate another skill into a position that is going to actually pay you, pay you well, pay you on time, recognize the skills you do have. And I think a lot of the romanticizing is a nostalgia for a time that we don’t actually know about. We watch movies and hear origin stories of artists living this way, but it’s usually in the past tense, in a way that they can put a glossy lens on it, and filter it through this idyllic way. And they’re artists and so they can frequently depict that in a way that is sort of appealing but the actual lived reality of it is both emotionally and financially devastating, and romanticizing that is a slap in the face to those who are currently experiencing it.
04:17 DH: You’ve been working a long time and you’ve written everywhere, and your new book coming out is really an achievement, and you’ve really worked toward it. Do you feel like you’ve been kicked out of the tribe of your other starving artist friends?
04:30 AM: I don’t know that I’ve been kicked out of the tribe, I do think that it would be personally irresponsible to pretend that I’m still in a position of being an outsider, of being not necessarily understood by a literary establishment, ’cause I also sold my second book last week.
04:50 DH: Oh, congratulations. That’s great.
04:51 AM: So, it’s one of those situations where I’m like, “Okay, this wasn’t, knock on wood, it wasn’t a fluke. I have now these two deals under my belt.” Which means I have something coming in art-wise. And I also, last year, secured a few writing contracts that were more lucrative. I think a lot of freelance writers in the non-fiction space get into this sort of… There’s a particular economy within digital media that really pays insufficiently, and then getting out of that can be really difficult. And I did that in the same year that I sold the first book and so, it was just really… There is this embarrassment of riches, and it’s not one of those situations where I’m like, “Oh, I suddenly have investment banking money.” But the security of a really decent pay check and the time to not have to worry about it, to not have to grind at it. Means that I’m not out of the tribe in terms of my friends don’t want to speak to me anymore, but I think that the level of… The conversations have to be different because I’m not gonna pretend that I’m in the same situation when I’m not and I’m also not gonna just find all new friends who all have financial security.
06:16 DH: I mean, have you had to deal with issues of like professional jealousy from colleagues?
06:20 AM: I think so, in the sense that it’s one of those things where you are… I’m always cautious to be like, “Oh, they’re just jealous of me.” That’s always a very good way to accidentally dismiss all of your issues as other people’s problems. But I do think there is some amount of professional jealousy and some friends have expressed like, “Oh, I am really jealous, but I also know you worked hard for this and that your book didn’t materialize out of nowhere.” Because people sometimes treat it, people who I’m not close with, as if I sort of found it on the sidewalk.
06:57 DH: Right? [laughter]
06:58 AM: I just sort of like, “Oh look, I just found 150 articles in the course of two years.” It’s like, “No, I wrote all of those. I pitched them. I got them rejected frequently.” And there’s people who have expressed like, “Oh, I wish that I was in that position but I… ” For the most part it’s usually it speaks from silence where people who used to talk to you a lot more talk to you a lot less. It is one of those things that you could fill that void with all sorts of projections of like, “Oh, they’re jealous. Oh, they’re trying not to waste my time. Oh, they’re trying to do this.” And I don’t know what it is, but I think that could potentially be part of it. And then there’s also the Twitter economy of like, “Are they talking about me? Is that about me?” Because people do frequently talk about professional jealousy or professional issues as writers and I’m always like, “You know what? There’s a lot more people in the world than me and hopefully that’s just not about me if it’s something negative, and if it is, I haven’t done that person harm directly.” Usually. Usually, I say that as if I would ever harm anyone.
08:11 AM: I’m like “No, we don’t have anything substantive to disagree on or have beef over.” So, I usually just try to err on the side of, “It’s not them being jealous.” Even if there is that potential element among my colleagues.
08:29 DH: And it strikes me as I… You’re so candid in the way you write and the way you share about these actualities in your life. I would imagine you’d probably just confront them if it got really toxic, right? I mean…
08:40 AM: Not really, actually. I have had actual confirmation that there are people who… One in particular, was very angry that I was given a column in New York Magazine, in The Cut. And it was confirmed to me that they thought I didn’t deserve it and it was written about in a way that didn’t call me by name and didn’t mention the magazine, but it was really hurtful and I was like, “You know, if this hurt someone and they think I don’t deserve it then, okay.” What benefit is there to having conflict with that person when I could just not have conflict with that person? I don’t wanna fuel further resentment by bringing it out because it’s like, “Oh, not only do you not have a column in New York magazine, but you’re also… “
09:34 AM: I’m calling you out for being petty and I’m in a position of more, at present, of more professional achievements. It just seems mean if that person’s hurting and feels the need to… This, again sounds so like, “Oh, I’m so high and mighty about it.” But I just really don’t find confrontations over these sorts of things to be that productive or worthwhile because they are so personal. And it’s like one of those things where I have… There’s a Mad Men scene where there’s an underling who tells Dom Drape, “You know, I feel bad for you because you have no feelings or whatever.” And sort of confronts in the elevator about like, “I feel bad for you.” And Dom Draper just sort of looks at him and is like, “I don’t think about you at all.”
10:16 AM: And it’s just this really cutting moment and sometimes you kind of just wanna be Dom Draper where it’s like, “Oh, you’re thinking of me? That’s funny. I wasn’t even thinking of you.” Even though it hurts to my core that people don’t like me as a generally insecure person and particularly as a creative professional. When people think like, “Oh, they didn’t achieve this.” Or, “Their work must be bad if it’s making money.” Which is again, this common narrative we have about work that pays well in creative fields, but you can’t let it get to you cause then you’ll stop working on it.
10:51 DH: Yeah, no that’s a really great observation, I kind of learned something there, I must say. But in terms of working creatively and being remunerated for it, do you think there’s a see change happening? At least, do you think people are perceiving that phenomena differently? With people like you being very vocal about the relative idiocy of pining for the romantic days of being broke, I’m hoping at least that there’s a new perception that creative work should be paid for and we should be proud the fact that we are.
11:19 AM: Absolutely. And I do think that there is a lot more conversation happening about this, in the field of writing especially. I’m not sure how… And I’ve seen some of it peripherally in music and the visual arts, that people are talking about both the arbitrariness of some successes and the strangeness of certain sort of absences of money in certain creative fields and like who is getting paid, who’s not getting paid and all of this gender, racial, class dimensions of all of these moving pieces about who’s getting paid and who’s not. And I think there’s also a conversation happening about how money is not necessarily corruptive. Unless you’re going full Communism, we’re gonna have to make money. It would be great if we could do it in creative fields and more people talking about that, I think just general transparency about it is really important, and then also my next plug… My next book is about, it’s called Worth Less and it’s about women and money so it’s about a bunch of different professions in which women find themselves being paid less and undervalued.
12:34 AM: But the way we have a conversation about wanting money, about how wanting money and admitting you want nice things in addition to maybe just basic things is cast as morally disfigured for being like, “I like having nice dinners and I want a bigger apartment.” Even things like, “Oh, I wanna make money because I wanna have children one day.” People are like, “Oh, but your art.” I’m like, “Oh, but my life.”
13:01 AM: Because when art and work are the same thing, one of them really does have to put food on a table. And all of those conversations are important and I just wish we were having more frank ones about dollar amounts. And even I’m afraid to have those, because I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know.” I have them privately, but I’m much more skittish about being public about them because I feel like when you actually put a number on it, people really lose it. When City On Fire sold for $2 million or whatever the figure was, it was one of those things where people were like, “Oh my… ” It just put a… So much higher stakes on it, and people could really visualize that, and I think that that’s what people are really scared of, is knowing what the actual figures are, and that’s what people are scared of talking about. And I hope that that’s the next phase.
13:45 DH: Yeah, in that particular case, it drew critical ire before it was even out, it’s crazy.
13:49 AM: Exactly, and that’s what sort of scares me. I’m like, “I hope I never get a $2 million book deal because no one will like my book before they’ve even read it.”
13:57 DH: And that’s precisely the kind of thinking that you’re saying that we should not have, we should not do, we should get around that.
14:03 AM: Yeah, because it feels sort of… It seems… I will never be able to… I haven’t read City on Fire, but I feel like I would never be able to approach it without that number sort of hanging over it, and being like, “It’s good, but is it $2 million good?” And the machinations of the literary and publishing world, I don’t understand when… Because it’s more than just like, “Did it make back? Did it earn money? Did it give prestige that was worth money?” All of these things that have to be quantified, I don’t know those things as someone outside of that profession, within the internal profession of publishing. I have no idea, but it’s still… We assert our own expertise over… Like, “Oh, it was definitely worth it or not.” And we don’t know. We don’t know if Amy Schumer’s book was worth $8 million, most people don’t know how to make that equation happen. Same thing with on a daily basis, digital media articles where you’re like, “Oh, this person was paid two dollars per word, this person was paid $150 an article.” What was the advertising revenue for that particular piece? These things are so amorphous and difficult to quantify, but we still assert an understanding of their value, in a way that I don’t think we’re equipped to, but the best we can do is compare notes with other people in the field and say, “Well, if they were able to give you that much, they should be able to give me this much if we weigh certain other factors.”
15:38 DH: That’s interesting, it’s sort of all boat’s rise in that equation.
15:40 AM: I would hope so.
15:42 DH: There’s a lot of advice about how to become successful but not a lot advice about what to do when you are successful. Now that you’ve arrived at this new tier in your career, which bodes really well, how have you dealt with the ramifications of your success?
15:57 AM: There’s a strange balance between the feeling of, “I deserve this, I earned this.” And a blanket irresponsibility and dismissal of people who don’t have it, because I feel like if I say, “Oh, I deserve this, I earned this.” Full stop, it wouldn’t be acknowledging the arbitrariness of there are people who are more talented who are working harder who don’t have it. And because I feel like saying, “I deserve it.” Is sort of implicitly saying, “And they don’t because the obviously didn’t get it.” Doesn’t acknowledge the injustice of the way some of these things are distributed, but I don’t think that… I have been surprised that I don’t feel like any of my creativity’s been compromised because my whole writing career has been like, “Oh, what can I write this week? What can I write now? What can I produce?” Rather than create in a way that has been beneficial because it means I’ve created a high volume of material and some of it I’m really proud of and some of it I’m like, “Oh, I was just doing my job.” And so I’ve never felt compromised by the money.
17:11 AM: I’ve been afraid, like, “Oh, am I not writing this perfect experimental story that I really wanna write?” But at the end of the day, when it’s your job, there’s so many things you can create and I think the most creative people don’t have that one dream project, and all others are cast aside until that project is realized. I think if you’re a creative person, you’re gonna create a lot of different things and do what it takes to facilitate the opportunities that you want to have to make what you actually wanna make. Which is a long way of saying, “I don’t feel bad about throw away articles I’ve put out there. I don’t feel bad about having killed my darlings when I think things could have been more high level or more true to my creative self.” When they wouldn’t have been as digestible and readable and engaged with. So, I have stopped apologizing for that sort of massive output.
18:16 DH: Yeah, obviously, everything you do has contributed ultimately to your craft and your success. So, why would there be a problem with it? I think it’s great.
18:25 AM: Thank you.
18:26 DH: Do you feel empowered now to do, pursue more creative stuff?
18:30 AM: Having been able to produce at the volume I did and to have had some of the more experimental or more daring or more weird things, having shown that they can be successful within this existing body of work, that’s less so, has given me the opportunity to be like, “Oh, you know what I wanna write next? I wanna write this… ” Like right now, I’m writing a story about how Beavis from Beavis and Butt-Head is like a feminist icon, which is a fun, silly, creative challenge. But, I was watching the show and the movie, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is weird.” And I’m writing that right now and I feel like if I had just come up to an editor and been like, “Hi. You don’t know me, but I have this idea.”
19:14 AM: It wouldn’t have gone as well and that both having the money to sustain me from other things and the cache in the media and literary world to be like, “Okay, we’ll let her do this weird thing.” Has made me wanna do more things. I also wanna… I went to divinity school on a weird lark and I really wanna be writing more about not religion necessarily, but weird theological oriented creation and ontology and epistemology and all these weird things that I never would have been able to write about if people didn’t trust me to create something interesting that sounds weird or unrelatable. And so, that’s what I’m doing when I’m not writing, when I’m not doing the books I’m thinking of weird essays that would not necessarily look at home and the other body of work if people only know me from the magazine stuff that I do every week.
20:18 DH: I love how you see your work as a continuum rather than these distinct categories of output, but we know you have two books coming out now. Where can we find you and get into your work?
20:28 AM: I can be seen on Twitter every single day, my handle is Alana Massey, A-L-A-N-A M-A-S-S-E-Y. And my work is on my website at alanakm.com.
20:41 DH: Excellent. Well, keep us posted and congrats on everything. It’s really exciting, what a great time for you.
20:46 AM: Thank you so much. And thank you for having me.
20:52 DH: So, the takeaways. Resist romanticizing the struggle. Success doesn’t ruin your work. And the worst case scenario is not that you fail or succeed, but that you stopped doing the work. Also, burn the chair, not the art.
21:08 DH: Thanks again for listening. If you dig Culture Department, please review it on iTunes where you can also subscribe to it. Ditto on Stitcher and wherever quality podcasts live. Music by Shannon Ferguson of FerguSouth. And special thanks to Karen Hess for editorial help.
21:25 S2: Visit culturedept.com to sign up for your free ebook, The Tea Cup Whale: How to Find Your Creative Niche. For more tips on making a living making art, follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn. Culture Department is a project of FMRL, the Future Media Research Lab at fmrl.com.
21:47 S1: To learn more about Daedalus Howell, visit dhowell.com.
Veteran art writer Daniel Grant has the answers to the questions you haven’t even asked yet. They’re in the fifth edition of The Business of Being an Artist, an in-depth guide to developing and building a career as a professional in the arts. Grant and I recently had a phone conversation in which he urges artists to manage their expectations and learn how to communicate, market and network – but not necessarily in that order.
Grant is a contributing editor of American Artist magazine. He is the author of six books including The Artist’s Guide: Making It in New York City, How to Grow as an Artist, and The Fine Artist’s Career Guide (all published by Allworth Press). His articles and essays have appeared in such publications as ARTnews, Art in America, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New Criterion, Art & Auction, and Art & Antiques, among others. He has taught courses and lectured on career issues for visual artists at numerous colleges and public arts agencies in the United States. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
I failed the Voight-Kampff test. Albeit, it was an online version of the “empathy exam” meant to separate the men from the machines as seen in Blade Runner, so it’s likely I’m the victim of some order of digital chicanery. Even though the test couldn’t monitor my “blush response” and “eye movement” as in the film, the effect was chilling.
I scoured my birth certificate for an “incept date” rather than a birthday. After a hard look in the mirror (while cinematically splashing water on my face), I assured myself I wasn’t a replicant given the raft of imperfections that somehow synergize into my craggy face. Replicants, as a character observes, are “so perfect.” I’m not. The fictional Tyrell Corporation, which produces the organic androids under the confident motto “More human than human,” would have stamped me “reject” and shipped me to a replicant outlet mall.
If I were a replicant, however, I’d hope to be a replicant of the ilk portrayed by Sean Young – impeccably coiffed and inclined to zip off into unused footage of The Shining sooner than Edward James Olmos can say “To bad she won’t live.” The alternative, of course, is enfant terrible Roy Batty, who reversed Oedipus’ self-inflicted punishment by 180 degrees and gouged out the eyes of his spiritual father Tyrell – killing him – while, ironically, demanding more life.
Tyrell knew he had it coming. If he had read even a shred of science fiction, he would have known the genre’s first tenet regarding man-made-men: “Play God and be smited by thine own creation.” The King James argot is my own nod to the Old Testament-esque symmetry of the notion (you know, where men were made of mud and women of spareribs). However, it was a teenager in 19th century London that first explored, then exploited the idea. First published in 1818 in London, Mary Wollencroft Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was borne from a horror story-writing contest meant to wile away a vacation ruined by poor weather.
The contenders were the author’s then fiancé Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and his doctor. The then 19-year-old handily won with her thrilling tale of a tomb-robbing scientist, who creates a life only to lose his to it in a karmic comeuppance. The groundwork, however, was well-trod by a handful of cultural forebears, notably the clay-made Golem of Yiddish folklore (before Tolkien poached its name) and Pygmalion’s formerly marble Galatea. Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi’s morality tale starring animatronic kindling, would continue the tradition in 1881, but with different strings attached.
Putting the I in A.I.
Despite the admonitions of science fiction, artificial intelligence researchers can’t seem to help themselves from working closer and closer to sentience or at least “singularity,” the much prophesied phenomenon in which a superhuman intelligence emerges through technology that is able to improve itself beyond our ability to comprehend it.
A few embers of this Promethean flame might have ignited the minds of researchers at IBM, who, having had their supercomputer Deep Blue trounced by reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1996, revved up their machine such that was capable of evaluating 200 million positions per second by the following year. When re-matched, it wasn’t the computer’s brute-force calculating ability that Kasparov found intriguing in his opponent, but rather a specific, single move that occurred relatively early in the match.
During the second of six games, at move 36, Deep Blue defied expectation and forsook a choice that seemed obvious to the gallery of expert spectators for what proved to be a more nuanced position several plays later. The move, according to Kasparov, suggested a conceptual approach, one that he had not anticipated from a machine. At that point, Kasparov considered the game over.
Move 36 sounds like something from the “Kama Sutra for Dummies.” I thought it was a great title for a satire about the death dance of man and machine with titular echoes of Catch 22. Eduardo Kac, a conceptual artist noted for his appropriation of biotechnologies, busted the move first, however, in a work surely more concept than art. A press release for a 2004 Exploratorium exhibit of Kac’s Move 36 announced that “On the chessboard square exactly where Deep Blue made its fateful move sits a genetically modified plant with a synthetic gene whose DNA has been ingeniously translated to represent Descartes’ famous statement, “I think, therefore I am,” using a common computer code. How this was accomplished is the stuff that android dreams are made of (and why this was accomplished raises troubling questions about arts funding).
“The self never belonged as fully to itself as Descartes’ cogito implied or as fully as we want it to,” wrote critic Scott Bukatman of cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek’s suggestion that Blade Runner causes us to confront our own “replicant-status.” I know I confront my own replicant-status every time some spam arrives in my inbox and suggests I upgrade my anatomy. Bukatman’s treatise, a volume in the British Film Institute series, furthers a Cartesian reading of Blade Runner, when he credits Phillip K. Dick, author of the film’s source material, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, for naming his replicant-exterminating protagonist Deckard, a homophone of Descartes (if you pronounce the latter with a mouthful of silicon chips). Perhaps “I think therefore I am, manmade,” might be an apt revision for both Kac’s plant and Deckard, who is revealed to be a replicant himself in the Final Cut. Yeah, but who would win a chess match?
Shall We Play a Game?
Interestingly, some aficionados claim the moves that homicidal Roy Batty plays to checkmate Tyrell are from a famous game played in 1851 by the German chess master Adolf Anderssen. It is known to chess enthusiasts as “The Immortal Game,” an apropos citation for a character in search of “more life, fucker” (director Ridley Scott says this is just a coincidence). It is worth noting that replicants can play chess with aplomb but fail a Voight-Kampff questionnaire that posits hypothetical situations which require a modicum of empathy to answer. Empathy, thus far, remains a distinctly human trait, one that at least some fictional androids have endeavored to comprehend. Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Winona Ryder’s compassionately programmed android in Alien: Resurrection attempted this by asking a lot of questions or sharing half-baked observations (“At least there’s part of you that’s human. I’m just… fuck,” laments Ryder). They could just as easily speed-read a library like Steve Guttenburg’s bumbling robot Johnny Five did in Short Circuit (though this led to the robot’s existential crisis after reading Pinocchio and Frankenstein back-to-back).
Just the Facts, Ma’am
In 1983, a year following the original release of Blade Runner, researchers underwritten with $9.8 million grant from the Orwellian-sounding Defense Department’s Information Awareness Office, were working on a pragmatic model of artificial intelligence dubbed CYC. A founding member of the project, Douglas Lenat, later formed an Austin-based firm Cycorp to oversee CYC, an enormous artificial intelligence project predicated, in part, on teaching a computer common sense. As he wrote in a chapter of MIT’s anthology Hal’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality, “A review of the development and implementation of the CYC program shows us how, through applications such as natural language understanding, checking and integrating information in spreadsheets and databases, and finding relevant information in image libraries and on the World Wide Web. If you have the necessary common-sense knowledge, you can make the necessary inferences quickly and easily; if you lack it, you can’t solve the problems. Ever.”
By 2003, the database swelled to nearly 2 million commonsense notions. Now, the public is invited to help supply CYC’s knowledge-base and improve its ?thinking? though a web-based trivia game called the “FACTory.”
“Once you have a truly massive amount of information integrated as knowledge, then the human-software system will be superhuman, in the same sense that mankind with writing is superhuman compared to mankind before writing,” Lenat is quoted on the company’s website Cyc.com.
In an earlier incarnation of CYC’s information acquisition protocol, the computer was taught to ask questions to fill gaps in its knowledge-base. In the mid-80s, Cyc apparently asked “Am I human?”
“Yes, questions,” Roy Batty purrs to Hannibal Chew, the eye-maker. “Will I dream?” asks supercomputer HAL in 2001: A Space Odessy. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? asks Philip K. Dick or as RACTER a computer program credited with writing the novel The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed, published in 1984: “More than iron, more than lead, more than gold I need electricity. I need it more than I need lamb or pork or lettuce or cucumber. I need it for my dreams.”
Critics, of course, disputed RACTER’s achievement as an assemblage of boilerplate and gibberish. Ay, there’s the rub (or as semantic satirist Richard Lederer presciently put it “Tube heat or not tube heat, data congestion”), just how artificial is artificial intelligence?
Director Vikram Jayanti?s documentary Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine adroitly recounts the fateful match between Deep Blue and the world’s then foremost chess champ. That the documentary suggests the machine may have benefited from at least one of Kasparov’s former competitors during the much-ballyhooed 1997 match is immaterial in terms of how the computer?s victory burnished long-held superstitions about technology’s eventual conquest of humankind.
Kasparov’s chess showdown was a 20th century ec
ho of railroad “hammer man” John Henry’s folk story with the brawn replaced with brains – the implication being technology might someday conquer both our bodies and our minds (even though legend says Henry’s hammer beat the steam-driven machine intended to replace him, he met his maker shortly after).
Perhaps this digital-deity would be an all-seeing, all-knowing and merciful entity, a pure intellect that moves fluidly through the transom that divides high-technology and tremulous whispers of magic. However, if it modeled itself on anything reminiscent of much of humanity’s application of technology – a record more checkered than Deep Blue’s chessboard ? I’ll be hiding with my fellow replicants, shrouded in the darkness of a movie theater as Roy Batty looms from the screen and asks “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?”
In 1994, journalist and entrepreneur Justin Hall launched Links.net, a.k.a. Justin’s Links from the Underground. But he shared far more than mere links – he pioneered personal storytelling on the then-nascent web such that The New York Times Magazine referred to him as “the founding father of personal blogging.” In the decades since, Hall has continued to soul-search, both online and off, and candidly explores the ethical dilemmas of being a creative person when personal boundaries seem as ethereal as a borrowed wifi connection.
Hall recently published the documentary overshare: the links.net story and hosts The Justin Hall Show: Transformative Communications for Collaborative Individualists.
Artist Ann Rea “abandoned art for over a decade, only to develop chronic anxiety, a fixation with the future, and depression…” she writes at AnnRea.com. In this straight-up, pull-no-punches conversation, Rea reminds that time is fleeting and if you’re serious about being an artist it’s time to seize your moment, irrespective of fear of failure – or success. Rea is the founder of Artists Who THRIVE, which helps artists secure creative freedom through business savvy. She also launched MAKING Art Making MONEY, an 8-week interactive online business course for artists.
00:15 Daedalus Howell: I hate the H word. I know you’re thinking, “What’s the H word?” The H word, hobby. Hobby, hobby, hobby. Not because it’s the hallmark of amateurs, but because of that little girl. You know the one in the blue bonnet? Holly Hobbie, the character created by the illustrator of the same name that was on every shirt of every girl in grade school in the ’70s and ’80s. You remember, that little girl in the big blue bonnet, whose face you could never see, because the bonnet was like a hood and that hood made her look like a pint-sized grim reaper. The bonnet obscured who knows what? A skull head? She creeped me out. Still does. And because of that, I hate the word hobby. Which brings me to artist Ann Rea.
00:58 DH: She doesn’t hate the word hobby, but what she says about the concept of hobbies will make you get off your ass. You’ll see. “But who is this artist Ann Rea?” you ask. Well, as she writes in AnnRea.com, and that’s R-E-A for Rea, she abandoned her art for over a decade, only to develop chronic anxiety, a fixation with the future, and depression, a preoccupation with the past. And when she began painting again, she did so with soulful and truthful purpose. So we pick up on the conversation where Ann talks about returning to art after a decade of depression and other personal challenges.
01:32 DH: So you began working again and I think as before art was a refuge, it was your salvation, and then it became your life. Can you talk about the process of committing to creating again and how that became… Well, became your whole life?
01:49 Ann Rea: When I returned to art the second time, it was again to heal. It was again for my own personal expression. I had no intention of selling my art. I had no intention of even showing my art to anyone. I started to take… I took a painting class, not really because… And I studied painting, but it was really just for the discipline. I had a place to go and I had a schedule, and that got me into the habit of painting. And then eventually I decided, “Oh, I think I’ll… It would be nice to sell some of this,” and then I started to sell it. Sell paintings…
02:32 DH: Now, were you working through, like a traditional gallery model?
02:34 AR: Well, first I started in a cafe, that had a program for artists. It was a very nice cafe. And then I… Not too long after that, I was working actually at a battered women’s shelter, as a development director, and I had my paintings in my office and I had an… I was interviewing an investment manager about a trust for the organization. He was an avid art collector and a huge fan of Wayne Thiebaud. If you don’t know who he is, he’s really an icon. You’d find him in the art history books, in every major art collection.
03:16 DH: Okay.
03:17 AR: And he said, “You know, your palette kind of is reminiscent. Did you study with Thiebaud?” And I said, “No, I didn’t,” and he said, “Well, maybe you should talk to him,” and I thought, “Yeah, maybe I should.” So I wrote him a letter and actually put some slides in the letter. That’s when you still had slides.
03:38 DH: Right, right.
03:40 AR: And I asked him to call me if he’d be willing to critique my work and he called me, and he began… He taught at UC Davis for free for many years and… ‘Cause no one could possibly afford him. And yeah, he critiqued my work and encouraged me and gave me a glowing letter of recommendation, which doesn’t really get you anywhere in business, but it made me feel good.
04:07 AR: And then I studied with his friend and colleague, Gregory Kondos, and I went to the South of France and painted with him. So my answer to your question…
04:15 DH: Yeah.
04:15 AR: That’s how it started. That started the momentum. But then there was this moment when he said, “You should really pursue this,” and I said, “Great. How am I gonna do this?” Now when I asked him that he… His paintings were starting to sell for over $1 million on a secondary art market. He had a retrospective touring the nation at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was kind of like the pinnacle of one’s artistic achievements.
04:43 DH: Right. So he’s made it and it’s…
04:45 AR: He’s made it and…
04:45 DH: It’s easy for him to say, “Just go do it.”
04:47 AR: Yeah, and he also has licensing deals. He has designed the license plate for the State of California. His son has a gallery in San Francisco, called the Paul Thiebaud Gallery.
05:04 DH: Yeah.
05:04 AR: Things are going well. And I said, “Well, how will I do this?” In other words, how will I make a living? And he said, “Oh, I don’t know. I’m not a businessman.” And I had a huge ephiph… Like, “What?” And I thought, “Okay, this is how bad it is. This disconnect between making money and making art is so freaking warped that someone who has reached this level of financial success and who clearly is a businessman is denying he’s a businessman like… What is going on here?” I just saw it for the big fat lie that it was. And all I could… I didn’t say this out loud, but all I could think to myself is, “Well, the IRS sure as shit thinks you’re a businessman.”
05:50 DH: That’s great. So, I mean, do you think that he denied being a businessman because it didn’t fit within his personal brand as an artist? Do you think…
05:57 AR: I don’t know where this nonsense started. I really don’t but if you look back in history… And you don’t even have to look that far back in history. You can just look at Ray Charles, right? Ray Charles was one savvy businessman. I love rappers because they don’t have this weird lie that they carry on. They’re very much into building their brands, and…
06:30 DH: In fact, it’s almost like the complete opposite relationship with success and…
06:34 AR: Yeah. They couldn’t get the music establishment to represent them. So there was like, “Well, screw you. Then, I’ll do it myself.” And now…
06:45 DH: But there’s no shame in their success.
06:48 AR: Why should there be shame? Which is so bizarre. Does any other profession experience shame [chuckle] as a result of success? I don’t know what it is but I just was really… I just wanted to flip it. Like, this is silly. This is just so silly. I was a straight A student in art history, my art history classes, and I think this phenomena of money is dirty, I can’t mix with art. Sort of happened when art became really abstracted and hard to interpret… The collectors to interpret. They needed the gatekeepers and the critics to interpret it.
07:35 DH: Right.
07:36 AR: And that created this arm’s length distance between the collector and the artist and that also serves the art establishment because then they can keep their cut. I think it’s an unconscious thing that happened. I don’t know and in fact, really, I don’t care. What matters is, is that, there’s nothing… Let’s be real. Let’s be honest. There’s nothing more inspiring for an artist, and I mean artists in the global sense of the word… There’s nothing more inspiring than getting paid for what you do, for what you love. Nothing.
08:13 DH: It’s affirming and it allows you to continue doing what you love.
08:16 AR: Yeah. Exactly.
08:17 DH: And you have a whole life. [chuckle]
08:18 AR: Exactly. So, why you should… Why is there… So, this built-in assumption that you should be shameful or you should be overly humble, I don’t know what that’s about but I’m not buying it.
08:32 DH: So, it sounds like you are able to overcome that hurdle but how would you advice other artists who are still in that space to get over that crap and…
08:40 AR: Well, just see it for the lie that it is. I mean, come on. What’s going on here? Honestly, you can’t desire success and deny success at the same time and that’s what’s going on.
08:51 DH: One issue is that the gatekeeper phenomena gives people a sense that they’ve arrived somehow, that they’ve made it, that they can’t affirm their own sense of success without having that other part in between them and their collector or…
09:05 AR: Right. They’re seeking permission. They’re seeking sanction from another but all the permission that you need, all the approval that you need is someone wants to buy your art. Actually, a friend of mine is a representative and he represents visual artists, musicians. He represents a lot of the… A pretty full gamut of artists and he said, “Most artists don’t get it. They don’t need representation. They just need… And all the validation that they need is that someone wants to pay them for their art. That’s all the validation you need.”
09:33 DH: I love that. And you’ve got a couple of sites online that speak to this from different angles. One, of course, is artistswhothrive.com and then, makingartmakingmoney.com.
09:43 AR: Right.
09:43 DH: Kind of walk us through both those concepts.
09:45 AR: Yeah. So, Artists Who Thrive is my blog and I started it because I got really pissed off when people would… It’s successful and then we’d go to pretty lavish events in Napa Valley and Sonoma and I would be dressed appropriately. And as soon as I was introduced as the artist or an artist, what would happen is, too often, people would just assume that I had a sugar daddy or that I was a trust fund kid or just so many… Or I was starving. It was just so many assumptions that came along with it and I just thought, “Screw you.”
10:21 AR: And I just got sick of like arts… Those terms, artsy-fartsy and starving artist. I think it’s worse than lawyer jokes and I just wanted to set the record straight. There are artists who actually do thrive and here’s how I did it. So, it’s sort of a personal thing and then as I received some press, artists started coming to me asking for help and I just thought, “Well, I’ll just spell it out in… Best I can.” I don’t consider myself a writer but I’ll just do what I can and I’ll have typos and I’m just not gonna care. I’m just gonna do it.
11:04 AR: Then, I was interviewed by my friend, Jonathan Fields, on the Good Life Project, and there was a number of us interviewed and we had a dinner. We had this amazing dinner after the filming. And Scott Dinsmore, who’s now passed away, was sitting next to me at this dinner and he had created ‘Live Your Legend’ and Leo had created Zen Daily Habits, like all these… And Jesse had created the Samovar Tea Houses and I just thought, “What am I doing? I need to take what I’ve learned and put it into a set of courses.” And so, that’s when I decided, “I’m gonna get to work on the MAKING Art Making MONEY Semester.”
11:46 AR: So, the makingartmakingmoney.com is actually just information about the MAKING Art Making MONEY Semester but I do include some thriving artists’ profiles and I ask artists or people who advice artists what their three fattest failures were, and then what they learned from those failures. Because, we all know it’s hard, the only difference is some of us keep going and we learn from the failures. So those are the two sites and then I’m actually repositioning my own fine art brand this year, so stay tuned, [chuckle] ’cause those brands will be featured on remembersanfransisco.com and remembernapa.com.
12:29 DH: That’s great. I mean do you consider yourself both an entrepreneur, an artist now or is…
12:34 AR: Yes. Absolutely. Yeah.
12:36 DH: If you could give one piece of advice to artists out there who have yet to kind of break through this idea that it’s okay to be successful and pursue success outwardly. Artists who believe that being an artist means they can’t touch anything having to do with marketing, business, money, anything remotely related to branding themselves, because they wanna be a pure artist. Now…
12:58 AR: That’s perfectly fine. Then your art is your hobby and that is [chuckle] perfectly fine, it really is. I was in that mode where I had no intention of selling my art or even showing it. That’s called a hobby. It’s just a hobby. And there’s nothing wrong with having a hobby, it can be very fulfilling. That’s what I have to say about that. It’s just, that’s what it is, but get real. If you can’t… If you have a conflict, if your actual desire is to sell your art, yet you won’t help yourself to do that, then you obviously have a conflict that you have to deal with. And all I can say is this, none of us are getting out of here alive. If what you really wanna do is make art and sell art, then the clock’s ticking. And the opportunity or the runway for you to do that is shortening.
13:54 AR: So get over it, get past it, go to a personal development workshop. Do whatever the heck you need to do to move past it, because we are not getting out of here alive. And I spent over a decade, hopped up on prescription medication from my psychiatrist to deal with depression and anxiety and all those years were wasted, just because I was trying to do what I thought I should do, or I thought… And that I was trying to do what I believed I was only capable of doing. Well, you gotta challenge that. If you’re not happy, you have to take full responsibility for your success and your happiness. No one’s gonna do it for you. The gatekeepers are sure as shit not gonna do it for you. They could care less about you. They don’t care. They’ll care about you, when you are a marketable commodity, and not before.
14:56 DH: That is very galvanizing, and I think totally spot on. And I think a lot of people need to hear that. It’s amazing how artists oftentimes box themselves in with their own fears and anxieties and perceptions of self that are completely irrelevant in the greater scheme of things.
15:10 AR: Right. And we all have them, so don’t feel bad if you are fearful, I’m fearful, but I just… And you just have to develop coping mechanisms and skills to move past your fear. Fear is not gonna go away, but you can actually… I love my friend Jonathan’s, the subtitle in his last book, it’s called ‘Uncertainty’ and his subtitle is ‘Turning Fear into Fuel’. So you can allow fear to paralyse you and limit your life, really limit your life. Or you can turn it around and make it into fuel. But I wanna say something.
15:52 DH: Yeah.
15:54 AR: I didn’t believe that the quality of my life could ever change because when you’re really in the doldrums, when you’re really paralysed, there’s just this spell on you that makes you think that this is gonna be your state of being forever. Don’t believe it. It’s actually… Just remember, it’s actually part of the whole illusion, it’s not forever, it’s not necessarily forever. But I really did suffer from that, I thought, “I’ll never be able to make my art and make money from it. I will never be free of depression. I will never be free… ” And that’s what it felt like. It’s not true, it’s just not true.
16:40 DH: Well, congratulations on all of your success and I love how open you are and how you’re able to share this, not only your story but your insights that I think are really invaluable to people out there still struggling with these issues. So, the takeaways. Reach out to those who inspire you. There’s no shame in success. If you don’t take it seriously, it’s a hobby and you know how I feel about the word hobby. I encourage you to find Ann at annrea.com. That’s Ann R-E-A.com. She’s the Founder of Artists Who Thrive, which helps artists secure greater freedom through business savvy.
17:17 DH: And she also launched MAKING Art Making MONEY, an eight-week interactive online business course for artists. Thanks again for listening. If you dig Culture Dept., please review it on iTunes where you can also subscribe to it. Ditto on Stitcher and wherever quality podcasts live. Music by Shannon Ferguson of Fergusound and special thanks to Karen Hess for editorial help.
17:41 S2: Visit culture, D-E-P-T.com to sign up for your free ebook, ‘The Tea Cup Whale: How to Find Your Creative Niche’. For more tips on Making a Living, Making Art, follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn. Culture Dept. Is a project of FMRL, the Future Media Research Lab at fmrl.com.
18:01 S1: To learn more about Daedalus Howell, visit dhowell.com.