I hopped on a Skype call with a guy named Ash to answer questions about content creation. Ash wanted to talk about writing and defining success. During the call, he asked a simple question: “With the content you create, how do you define success? Do you look at analytics, reviews, shares, or other data?”
The answer was (and is) no. I don’t look at any of that stuff. I don’t care about external validation metrics. I’ve been writing and creating for years, and I define success not by numbers and graphs, but by getting an idea, thought, or opinion out into the world and hoping it brings people value. That’s it.
Success is defined before distribution, not after it. Hitting publish is a success and then it’s on to creating the next thing.
Ash responded, “That’s very interesting. It’s kind of like your writing is your art.”
I’d never really thought of it that way. I’d never thought of the words I write as being anything artistic, or of myself as being an artist. But then I thought about what the word “art” means to me:
Art is any vehicle that helps us express our thoughts and opinions.
I’m not concerned about my writing “doing well.” In fact, some people might argue that only one of the nearly 400 articles I’ve written (thank you, WordPress post counter) has actually been successful by traditional metrics. That article is the weird morning ritual one, and it’s been viewed over 1,000,000 times across multiple media outlets. And while that’s great and all, if I let that article be the measuring stick of my writing success, I’d be fighting a never-ending battle. It’s so rare that an article will spread like that one did, so trying to recreate that with each article would put me in a creation-straight-jacket.
You can grab someone’s attention for a more important topic through art
I recently heard about Cherie Northon, an environmental scientist and self-described “non-artist” (like me) who has dedicated her career to showing people how seemingly small things like littering can have long-term effects on the planet. Cherie knows all kinds of stats—like the fact that 80% of the ocean’s plastic garbage comes from the land—but she also knows that many of us have turned a deaf ear to tired messages like, “Don’t litter.” So how could she get people to care and, more importantly, take action?
She turned to art—or, more specifically, to partnering with artists who could communicate what we all already know in a new way. She’s used her credentials to bring legitimacy to art pieces made of ocean garbage, and the artists have used their credentials to ensure the message to use a trash can actually get heard.
Did Cherie have to become a traditional artist to get her message out there? Nope. She had to redefine art as a way of getting her message out, and then find a way to act without getting caught up in how it would be received. She’s written that “few will probably ever see” a piece that means a lot to her—an albatross mosaic made of plastic found on the beach—but she doesn’t let it stop her. You shouldn’t, either. Find your art, and take action.
If you have a message you want to get out into the world, maybe the worst thing to do is get stuck on how it will be received.
I know insanely talented people who get so wound up about putting their work out into the world. Every part of the process is painful for them because they don’t create enough to get over their self-doubts, fears, and imperfections.
When I first started writing, I had to overcome a lot of my own self-doubts, fears, and imperfections with a simple idea: That article I just wrote is done, it exists in the world, your time with it is done, it’s time to move on to the next one.
Defining Success Is Easy When You Just Create More “Art”
You will always have another thing to design. Another video to create. Another article to write. Remove the pressure of thinking you’re creating the last _______ on Earth, and just get your message out.
The more I create, the more I’m able to create without over analyzing and putting pressure on myself.
If there’s one important thing I’ve learned in the past decade as a creative entrepreneur, it’s that the more I create, the more I’m able to create without over analyzing and putting pressure on myself.
I can now write article after article and not worry for a single second about how each one will do. That’s not my definition of success. If an article makes its way from my writing app to my email list and website, it has succeeded. Done deal. End of story. On to the next article.
So I have two questions for you when it comes to your art and how you define success:
1. What is your art? Remember: you don’t have to be an artist to create art, and your art might be something you don’t even realize. In the end, it’s just the vehicle you use to get your thoughts and opinions out into the world.
2. How can you define success for your art that has nothing to do with forces outside of your control? Can you detach from the metrics and find success with your art from another angle?
Everything that happens after you put your art out into the world is back-end analytics.
Look at analytics if you want to, but don’t get caught up in them as your metric for success. They will only feed your anxieties the next time you sit down to create, and you don’t want your self-worth tied up in algorithms. Remember instead that success comes with completion, so you can get onto the next thing.
Thanks to these email subscribers for sharing their art and how they define success for it:
Melinda O. – I guess you could say that my art is simply living by my principles, demonstrating to others that there is a different way to define success, and that they can choose their own measuring stick. I cannot say that I do the greatest job of it some days, but art is about inspiration after all. I aspire to inspire others.
Brendan H. – Three years ago, I would have said this was blog posts. Two years ago, I would have said this was social media. For the last year or so, I would have said this was my podcast. And now, after the birth of my second son, I’m starting to see things a bit differently. The way that I get my message out there is people, not a media. My kids. My readers/listeners/friends/fans. I think that the greatest art IS the emotions and change in makes it others, not necessarily the paint on a canvas. I think that one of the biggest changes that this has caused is that I’m doing more ‘art’ for people and less for the ‘medium.’
Ryan H. – My art is having dynamic, constructive conversations with leaders who have sustained excellence over an extended period of time. I won’t lie… I do check the metrics. I view how many people download and listen to each episode. HOWEVER, it’s far more important and impactful to my life when I get an e-mail from a listener of my show telling me specifically how I’ve impacted their life. Maybe my show helped after they got laid off… Maybe it helped them become a better writer, speaker, creator or art, etc… I absolutely love receiving that feedback and it is the juice that drives me to continually improve as a leader, speaker, podcast host.
Diandra A. – My art is bowling. I learned most of the life’s lessons I know through the sport of bowling. I am now in a position to open up the eyes of others and show them they are doing more than competing in a sport. They are learning some of life’s most valuable lessons. We should all follow fundamentals, but the art in your game makes you unique. I define success based on how much a student’s average goes up. Or, if a young bowler chooses to bowl in college because of my guidance. I define success based on the path that my student’s choose.
Forestine B. – My art is creating specialized greeting cards for people suffering a loss or celebrating a life. I measure success when people spread the word and others come to me and ask me to create a memory card and they trust me to use my own creativity.
Ben N. – My art is often weekly articles to my newsletter subscribers – the Monday Memo – about getting inspired, mastering time management, and building creative habits that stick. Although I can get caught up in my recommends on Medium or email opens, I always try to remember that even one follower is enough. That one person has given me something more valuable than a like or click – they’ve given me their attention and time which is the most valuable resource we have.
Jocelyn M. – I AM an artist, but my art is about showing people that they are valuable and beautiful human beings. Success for me is moving my work forward every day. It can be a small step (getting out the next negative, sketching the next idea), or big ones (preparing my materials, printing the work, writing). But I have to do it every day.
Stephanie G. – My art is making videos, photos, and installations about being black, relationships, and hip hop! I find success in just creating and sharing. I want to do that over and over and over again. For a long time I didn’t make a damn thing and then once I got moving I couldn’t stop and people began to notice and that’s awesome!
Roshni D. – My art is the graphic memoir that I’m currently making. I’ve never written a book in my life, let alone a graphic memoir, but this thing just won’t leave me alone, so I’ve got to write it. How I define success for my art is, how true the portrayal of my feelings is. I am aiming for passion, not perfection. It may be a commercial flop, but I’ll love it anyway, cuz this book is my baby, the expression of my life thus far.
Kelly M. – My art is making buttons (the pinback kind). For me, success is when I see an 80 year old man wearing a button that says “shit works out” (with an image of a poop emoji lifting a barbell), because it made him laugh.
Lou S. – I think I’m still working this out. I love doodling. I can’t stop myself from visualizing ideas. I’m also good at asking the right questions and getting to the heart of things. In the past, I thought writing was going to be my art but now I’m not so sure. I’ve always been focused on wanting to help people, even if its just one person. But just like being focused on numbers/metrics it feels like a lot of pressure every time I sit down. I’ll be honest and say I haven’t really been doodling the last few months. I felt that it wasn’t really helping me or others and that I was just adding to the noise. I still use the skills in my part time job but I don’t do it just for myself. I’m going to reframe this for myself and consider it a success when I get a post / blog out into the world.
Sara G. – I did high school in an art school and in my teens, I thought I would be an artist – I did mostly contemporary jewelry and thought that was my art. It wasn’t. Today I’m a designer. I thought design was limiting, but I realized I don’t need to stay attached to a specific field – design skills can apply to so many aspects of our lives. So, I believe designing is my art as it is the vehicle I use to get my message out there. Success for me is when I create something that helps someone. For example, when I do a branding project and my client loves it – and I feel even more successful when I see the new visual identity I designed is helping that client’s business grow.
Michelle T. – My hair is art. The costumes I put on my dog is art. The way I “bling” my phone is art. The stickers and fuzzy steering wheel on my car are also art. And my music as a percussionist is my art. My LIFE is art! It took me many years to stop worrying about what people thought and just to try things. Now I’ve tried so many things that I would have never had the guts to try! I define success when I can touch the lives of others. When someone says that I helped them in some way by something I have written or have brought them joy while they were listening to (or watching) me play. There is no better success to me than moving someone by doing something that I simply love to do anyway.
Brad M. – My art is split into two things: The first is my writing, my blog posts that I write every week. The second is my interactions with people either through my speech coaching or through my study abroad peer advisor job. I actually really enjoy the second type, because unlike my writing it is much harder to get hung up on getting it perfect. Each interaction is by nature limited in the amount of time you can spend on it and once it is done there is no chance to get back and edit it. It encourages you to let go and focus on the next interaction. For my writing I label an article a success by whether a single person found it useful (even if that person is me!). It’s a humble metric but I like it that way. For my interactions, that is much tougher. So far I think I label it a success if the person walks away from our session happier and more confident (either in their public speaking ability or in their ability to go study abroad). I think that is the real goal of my interactions. I want to make people smile and more aware and confident in their own abilities.
Jason K. – I am an “artist” artist. I draw and paint. But I also I create things — not just art objects — but observations, and connections and experiences that give people hope and the freedom to live joyfully. 2) This year, I have started a “Tinker Project” which was born out of my desire to spend more time in the studio. The last few years, during my annual review process, I alway felt disappointed that I didn’t spent more time making art. (Other business pursuits always seems to take priority.) This year, I said enough is enough, and committed to making 100 new pieces of art, which has required my to set aside one day a week as a Studio Day. So far, so good. I haven’t missed a Studio Day, and through March, I’ve made 28 new pieces. Not only does that put me ahead of the pace I need, it’s only one short from the total number of pieces I created last year. Although I suspect good things will come from this project and the art I create, those things are not my primary indicator of success. If I end 2016 with 100 new pieces of art, I will have succeeded in knowing that I finally made my art the priority it needs to be.
Eyram S. – For me, my art is combining Engineering, Art and Memory into a new way for engineers to express their talents, frustrations and creativity – without having to stress out about companies and exams. I think we are really hitting a point where this needs to hit home – we are human beings, not robots. I’m realizing that shipping and tracking how I feel (and my reader feels) about the article as the main metric. My metric is engagement. If I get a lot of replies to my email, I’m doing something right. If I hit my 1,000 True Fans (as everyone always recommends but never does as a metric), I’ll be the happiest 1st gen African-NYCer alive.
Eric R. – Over the last couple of years though, I’ve found that how we approach life can be art. How we are in our relationships. How we show up in the world. Being a parent (sculpting the life of another human). I am realizing that for me, the measurement of success is showing up. Pushing through doubts and fears and doing it anyway. Recognizing that you can look at things from many perspectives and if you stay true to your values and who you are, the metrics don’t matter.
Pedro C. – I’m a painter. I love art and I draw and or paint because I have to. If a piece becomes a favorite it’s not up to me. It’s up to the audience. I’m very interested in marketing and providing value to my audience. I sometimes think art is my Trojan horse.