The Career Journey of Growth-Minded Artists (ep. 186)

I want to help you reframe your daily decisions, actions, and results (or lack thereof)—to embrace the volatility of an artist life. To understand that there will be highs and lows, and that just comes along with the territory.

Why The Ladder of Success is Problematic

One of the most-used business metaphors is the ladder of success. When you picture a ladder of success, it’s assumed that you start at the bottom and work your way to the top in a predictable, progressive fashion.

You’re always going up head first—getting closer to the ultimate success goal at the top with each step.

What is left out of this visual are the detours, backslides, and missteps that occur on the way to the top.

It would be wonderful if you were always assured that your next step would be the right one to move you up the ladder. The irony is that while waiting for that assurance, you are delaying success.

Even a circuitous path with mistakes and failures will get you to the top faster than waiting for the right circumstances. As we like to say in our Art Biz Success classes and community, one step at a time and every step counts.

Every. Step.

Counts.

Listen

Mistakes and failures are your teachers, and you need them. They are red blinking lights that say, “This isn’t working for me. Go back and try again.” Or, more likely, “Do something differently.”

If you’re not failing at some points, you aren’t growing or progressing. You’ve got to become okay with making the wrong moves from time to time.

And yet … You never picture yourself on a ladder of success going backward, butt first, down the ladder—or falling off of it completely. That doesn’t conform to the narrative, but that’s exactly what happens.

You know this, but it has to be said … There is no such thing as a straight path to the top.

On the way to the top, you’re getting plenty of exercise running in circles. Perhaps falling behind—or what feels like falling behind because you’re so darn anxious for good things to happen. In reality, you’re picking up skills, learning life lessons, and becoming more agile.

If it’s too easy, you’re either doing something wrong or haven’t set the bar high enough.

So that’s my first beef with the ladder of success metaphor: It’s not a 1-way, nonstop trip to the top.

What Happens At The Top

There is another reason that the ladder of success is problematic.

Continue picturing the ladder. There you are at the bottom with your goal at the top.

What happens when you get to the top? Is it all over? Are you done with everything?

I have never heard of a single artist who thinks they’ve attained the highest level possible in their career.

I think that’s why I have a problem with the word “success”, even though I lead an artist coaching business and community under the Art Biz Success umbrella. Check out episode 165, How to Feel Like a Successful Artist, where I talked about why it’s so important to define success for yourself.

Regardless of the definition of success you settle on, growth-minded artists keep moving the target for success. They’re never quite satisfied with the status quo.

You will keep going for as long as you breathe.

You’re creative, after all. You want to learn more, improve your art, and flourish from accepting new challenges.

You want your art to be seen by more people, to be acquired by ever-prestigious collectors and institutions, and to leave a legacy.

Artists don’t reach the top and retire. They keep going!

So, if it’s not a ladder, what does your growth as an artist and artist businessperson look like?

You (The Sphere) in the Art Biz Circle

How about a circle? This is a concept I first introduced in 2014 and have recently refined.

Rather than climbing up a ladder, I envision you, the artist, in the middle of a circle.

For fun, let’s say it’s a circular room. The room is divided like a pie chart with equal slices for the 3 primary areas that comprise an artist’s life and business: Inspiration + Research, Studio Practice, and Marketing + Business.

There are no walls between the sections, but you can see the difference because the carpet is a different color in each slice of pie.

Yes, carpet. (Go ahead, choose your favorite colors for this carpet lining your imaginary circular room. At what other time in your life will you be confidently committed to a magenta pile?)

Oh yeah, add some padded walls to your colorful, circular room. The plush surfaces aren’t an indication of your mental state. They’re to soften the blow because you’re bouncing from one area of your business and back again—from the studio, to your office, to the library, back to the computer, gotta get back to the studio …

You’re a life-size ping pong ball—a sphere within the circle—propelled by tremendous energy that comes from experimentation, luck, and promising results.

You are on a roll in the studio and engrossed in your latest area of research. Or you’re on a high from exhibition sales or enrollments for your workshop.

Then something happens and you lose momentum.

You come to a halt when you encounter rejection, criticism, health problems, and unforeseen personal woes. It’s easy for you, as said ping pong ball, to stop because, remember, the floor is carpeted—not a natural conduit for maintaining a high level of energy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The 3 Primary Areas of Your Artist Life

Again, the 3 primary areas of your artist life are Inspiration + Research, Studio Practice, and Marketing + Business.

Inspiration + Research

Studio Practice

Marketing + Business

We could break down these large categories if we wanted.

Inspiration could be separate from Research, but where does one begin and the other end? Together, they are an arguably essential aspect to every serious artist’s studio practice, but they aren’t forgotten when you enter your den of making.

Inspiration + Research are mandatory to the continual push-pull process of creating. I’ve removed them from the Studio Practice area because I want to make sure all of my artist-clients and -students give enough of their time to I+R.

I+R is the fuel for whatever you make in the studio. It’s where you might return when things aren’t coming together as planned. It’s where you go when you are ready to begin a new work or series.

Let’s keep it simple and stick to these 3 areas and see what that looks like on a practical level.

Dividing Up Your Limited Time

Your imaginary padded and carpeted circular room has equal-sized pie slices because each of these areas of your artist life needs equal attention.

But that doesn’t mean that they are perfectly balanced. Ever.

It is rare that you would have a day or a week where you divided your time equally among your research, practice, and business. Don’t even try.

You move back and forth within the circle as your focus changes, depending on your goals and obligations. (Thus the need for something soft to land on.)

You might stay gleefully in studio mode for a week or two as you prepare for a show. Everything else gets minimal attention. (1)

It would be just as easy to find yourself frequently consumed by planning, learning, writing, marketing, and networking. (2)

1.

2.

3.

And don’t forget the times when, say, following a big show or event, you are depleted and need a vacation. Or you need to take a class or immerse yourself in a new subject to fill your well for new work. (3) You stay out of the studio, but publish your newsletter or post a couple of things to Instagram. Yay you!

Then You Do It All Over Again

Here’s thing. You are repeating the same tasks over and over. Regardless of where you are in your artist life.

This is why the learning modules in my Essentials for Artist Success classes were made so that they can be reused. You grow as an artist, but the tasks remain the same.

You need to rewrite your artist statement because your work has evolved. Or update your networking plan because your career growth demands that you connect with new people who can help you reach another goal. Or find new venues because you have outgrown the ones who are currently showing and selling your art.

The steps are the same, but the details are more customized and refined—reflecting the new artist you have become. 

You don’t need to spend time figuring out how to grow and refine your art business.

I have systematized everything in my Essentials for Artist Success classes and I’d love to support you as you bounce around in the circle.

Your Journey

To review … You don’t finish a marketing task and declare you’re done with it. You know you must return to it in the future. Ditto for inspiration and studio. You’re repeating many of the same things to build your business, month after month and year after year.

With this consistency and repetition, you become more sophisticated. You learn what does and doesn’t work, you adapt, and you add new tools, strategies, and technology. You expand.

So rather than looking like a ladder, your business growth looks like an expanding sphere (again, the sphere is you) within the circle.

You bounce around—backtracking, retracing steps, and searching for new paths that are more aligned with your current professional level and life circumstances.

The sphere gathers mass and gets larger. You’re growing as a result of all you have learned and accomplished within areas of your art business. And because you have new responsibilities.

You are moving forward and upward because you’re taking consistent action. Yes, there are still mistakes and failures, but the net, because of that consistency, is positive growth.

Each artist finds their personal trajectory. You will find your own way.

Again, I hope this helps you think about your art business in new ways—perhaps giving yourself a little grace with every misstep or inconsistency. Keep taking action.

This post was first published on March 26, 2014 and updated on April 11, 2018. It has been greatly expanded with the addition of a podcast episode. Original comments are intact.

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41 thoughts on “The Career Journey of Growth-Minded Artists (ep. 186)”

  1. Tania Jany Brown

    Dear Alyson, I like your analogy for the artist’s journey – the circle. The imagination connection I made was with the playground game of hopscotch (that ought to hint at my vintage). How many of us have struggled and benefitted from leaping well beyond the next ‘space’? It’s taken me years to acknowledge to myself that all experiences – even the ones outside the circle of artistic professional development – expand insight and understanding.

  2. Hi Alyson, this expanding circle metaphor is exactly the right visual at the right time for me. I’m exploring new directions in my work and am firmly in the “seek inspiration” segment. And Tania, I love the hop-scotch image of making the process more playful!. The more we can enjoy working in the various spaces, the more it will expand and grow. I’ve been in a slump as a result of this frigid winter so thanks for a very motivating post!

  3. Victoria Pendragon

    I have issues with the word, ‘success’

    In the US, it is so often used in a gestalt that includes fame and money. Fame and money, for me, have nothing to do with success.

    I’m a success if I am ‘in the circle/s’ the ones you have been inspired to show us. I’m a success if I’m crazy happy with my life, my work, the effort I’m able to put out to market myself. (Yes, I like putting effort into things… it feels good!)And I am crazy happy with all those things so I wake up a success every day and it is flat out awesome. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    1. Victoria: Many other times I have written that YOU define what success means to you – and don’t let anyone else do it for you. It’s an entire chapter in my book.

  4. I love the circles. I especially love the way you used the pie graph, showing the actual making of art as just a piece of the business. When I’ve fallen off track, it has always been because I was focusing on a single sliver, rather than the whole. I know that this is just common sense, but as someone who tends to hyper-focus, I appreciate reminders to see the big picture, rather than developing tunnel vision.

  5. Alyson, I love the idea of circles. It is a very organic approach to growth and is similar to the concept of spirals – ever evolving – which is how I view my art calling.

  6. Christine Sauer

    Thanks Alyson! This is a great visual for the trajectory of your art business/career. I’ve also heard the hills and valleys metaphor but the circle and spiral makes more sense. I’m going to add this chart to my art business journal as a reminder.

  7. Christine Sauer

    I also like how the circle pie chart also relates to the circle of influence that has been referenced in several marketing trainings I have participated in over the last couple of years in addition to this blog.

  8. My two cents on the circle is what you told us years ago. 50% of your time is marketing and 50% is doing your art. So my brain has to see half of the circle creating, and all the other things in the other half. The hardest thing I do everyday is go to my studio, so if I don’t see it in the circle, it becomes this left brain consuming thing that makes me feel like a failure. I remember feeling so relieved after you told us that half our time should be the business part of our working and half painting. I had been thinking something was wrong with me because the business stuff was eating into my painting time and I was feeling guilty. Now I have the opposite problem, making excuses that I need to do the marketing before painting. Lol!

  9. I have this on my studio wall:
    Success: To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded. Ralph Waldo Emerson.
    As my Mom said frequently…she’s just doing her own thing!
    Along the way I have learned a lot from your tips and webinars; I thank you! And congratulations on your success!

  10. Just love the circle analogy. In addition to everything you’ve said, it seems that the circle reflects the inclusion of others in our journey, whereas the ladder only has room for one. Thanks for this rich imagery.

    1. Gail – LOVE this inspirational thought. I ordered Thank You cards with my painting on the front and every week I send out one – so many people who are helping me!

  11. I’ve never liked the idea of the career ladder – it sounds like such a constant struggle! Your idea of an expanding circle is much more positive, Alyson, and it leaves room for growth, no matter where you are. It’s so true that an artist’s career is never finished – that’s one of the things I like about it.
    I’d like to share a little about my own career path, which hasn’t been exactly a neat upward and outward movement, to say the least. Perhaps there are others who’ve had to forge their own path repeatedly. I’ve moved so many times, sometimes across great distances, whether permanent or temporary, that I’ve had to start more or less from scratch quite a few times. Not so much with the art as with the business part of it: marketing, making connections, finding venues etc. After my last move I thought: I never want to do this again, it’s so exhausting! But on the up side, I’ve had the opportunity to live and paint in a lot of different places, to be exposed to different cultures and communities, and to make friends and connections in all those places. That has been so enriching, both personally and artistically, that I wouldn’t trade it for a more predictable career. Still, when I read something about “emerging artists”, I have to laugh: I’ve been making and selling art for nearly thirty years, and I still haven’t emerged…

    1. Thank you Mineke, for making me feel better!!! “Forging paths,” dealing with changes, packing and unpacking!!!! BUT, BUT, still the artist in me ALWAYS. At least at this time in my life, I don’t have to make a living from my art! BUT, materials cost and it’s nice to pass on paintings and be rewarded monetarily along with the accolades!
      My husband passed away 1 1/2 years ago and he was definitely a helpful partner in my art endeavors. Now, I’ve moved to Florida permanently? as it was our southern abode for 1/2 the year, as we were “snow birds” from New England. The terrain is so different and I miss the mountains, etc. BUT of course there’s much new beauty to discover and explore.
      Have only done a bit of painting what with unpacking and finding homes for STUFF! Haven’t gotten to my very outdated website. I’m already a long time member of a nearby gallery where I’ve shown annually. I have found a couple of other smaller galleries I may approach with Allison’s wise and tackful nudging!!!

      Thank you for listening and providing an ear that should understand. Let’s just recognize that it’s not so bad, this emerging thing. It will continue and it’s a good thing. I see your word above… “enriching”. What a perfect word for the life of an artist! Aren’t we lucky!

      Mineke, your letter was amazing (Sounds like you ought to write a book!)
      Gratefully, Kathryn Broland Website: kathrynbroland.com

    2. Thank you, Kathryn, I’m so glad it resonated with you. You’re certainly right that we are lucky. I took a look at your website: your work is really beautiful. I noticed that water is a big theme of yours, so I imagine you should find plenty to inspire you in Florida. Best of luck to you in art and life!

  12. Good stuff. Reminds me of PacMan gobbling up everything in it’s path. But I do recall that I. The game we get to choose our path even if we get gobbled up sometimes. Here’s to occasional reinvention!

  13. Some stories move like an arrow through the trees, others spread outwards like morning glories. The linear ladder and arrow feel much more pre-defined by others rather than intuitive, unpredictable, and surprising.

  14. Alyson, you metaphor is in sync with my life…every facet of my growth has introduced a new dynamic way for me to express myself. (Journalism/Typography/Graphic Design all very creative. The advent of computer technology expanding upon basics and altering my world.) Today, I feel blessed to be in control of my creative endeavors and being in charge of what direction I select for growth. Your program and illustration makes me feel more confident about who and what I am as an artist. Thank you for your energy and constructive development of programs to enhance the lives of creative beings!

    Sincerely,
    cree scudder

  15. Thanks so much for this article, Alyson! The idea of an irregular, incremental path forward helps a lot with my constant sense of never doing enough and never achieving enough. And also with my tendency to compare myself to with others. I KNOW that my art is constantly improving and I am excited about new directions for my work, but I frequently measure my success on how much I’m selling, which is discouraging.

    The % of time on each activity is also helpful. I find if I paint for three hours a day in the morning I do my best work and it’s the most enjoyable. Then, when that is finished, I have a sense of accomplishment that gives me energy for the marketing and business in the afternoon. I’m learning to value and nurture my enthusiasm and energy!

  16. I love that inspiration and studio are DIFFERENT — I don’t think I’ve encountered that in a model before. Because for an artist (at least for me!) sometimes being outside of my studio is the best place to be…

  17. I love this analogy/model/visual! I always feel like I’m spinning my wheels, and going crazy half the time, but now I’m sure it’s just that my circles are growing and I know that I’m slowly making it up that ‘hill’. Thank you!! I feel much better now!

  18. I need to look at this article again and wade thru the comments but, in brief, this is what I want to know more about…I am an artist who struggles with a number of mental health issues and I’ll never produce the quantity of artwork that I would like (I start LOTS of things which never see the light of day and feel sad about this.) But I am so lacking in “executive functioning skills” that my art goes into boxes or in drawers and little is ever seen, not to mention exhibited or made available for sale! I’m sitting on a trove of finished work, though most is not quite “there.” As in unframed or in some way just not quite ready to show.

    Making art is the single thing I want to do and nearly the only thing I feel capable of (which is not, probably, entirely true.) Help!

  19. Pingback: It’s all been done before – Art Supply House & Custom Framing

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