Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Balancing Act Called Success

Photo by Brent Moore.
In my last post, I wrote about failure.  Now it seems only right that I take some time to address the concept of success.  I was about to call success the opposite of failure, but I don't think it is.  I would rather think of failure as nothing more than success in progress, a WIP for lack of a better term.

So, then, what is success?  How do we define it, especially with regard to creative works?  Is success always an accomplishment of great meaning and popularity, or is it simply the absence of failure?  Or as author Samuel Beckett suggests, is it the process of "fail[ing] better"?

And who or what determines the success of a creative work?  In sports it's easy.  They have games and tournaments, and you win if you score the most points.  In art, there are competitions, but the whole "win or lose" concept doesn't really work.  In my own experience, I've had paintings that have been accepted in one art show, only to get rejected in another.  In such cases, a creative work gets judged by a jury.  It's a process that works well for thinning entries, but it is subjective, which means that one jury's decision will be different from anothers.  And, honestly, that doesn't seem a good way to judge a person's success.

Pschychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi argues that creativity results from the interaction of three elements, namely "a culture that contains symbollic rules, the person who brings novelty into the symbollic domain, and a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovation" (Creativity, p. 6).  I would like to borrow those three components and rename them simply Culture, Creator, and Audience.  Just as each element contributes to creativity, it also helps us determine the success of a creative work.  The catch here is that each element, in its own way, wants to take all the credit.  For example, an artist (creator) will think he has been particularly creative on his own, but culture will be quick to point out that the artist's work would never have been accepted had not the attitudes and values of the population changed so drastically over the past 50 years.  And the audience (some proclaiming to be experts) will say, we found him first and he is only successful because we value his work.  They will go on bickering in such a way. 

I think the key to becoming successful in creative endeavors is to balance these three elements, to make them work together.  It's when the artist becomes caught up in the "bickering" that his success becomes shaky and fragile.  To illustrate, I'm going to present what I call my "Lucas Theory."  Yes, it might be a bit corny, but it makes a point.  It's basically this . . . the first three Star Wars movies (episodes 4 - 6 ) were good because George Lucas came up with some pretty cool ideas that fit within the culture and were received well by the audience of the time.  He had things pretty well balanced.  But sometime before making Episodes 1 - 3, he became "off-balance."  He focused more on himself as creator and less on the culture and the audience.  In fact, while defending Jar-Jar Binks in an interview, Lucas said, "I can't make a movie for fans."  But of what value is a creative work if it is not made with an audience in mind? 

So, I suggest that the success of a creative work can only be measured when we take into account the ability of its creator, its acceptance within a culture, and its appeal to an audience.  When we give too much weight to any one of the elements we spin off course.  We get a false measurement which results in a false perception of our work.  Balance is vital to a true and enduring success.

Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

Jaleta Clegg said...

Interesting thought, Kevin. It's hard to keep everything in perspective when you're in the thick of creating and marketing fiction. I'm constantly wondering, "Will they like it? Will they buy it? Am I a failure?" I like your positive spin on the whole situation. Thanks for sharing!