by David Carus
If someone is not an artist they might think success as an artist works like this: you’re born with talent and it secretly waits to pop its head one day when, quite through accident, you find yourself performing or creating art and there’s a talent scout watching who rushes to meet you backstage, whips out a million dollar contract and sweeps you away to Hollywood and you wake up to your picture on the front page of every major newspaper in the world. That’s pretty much the idea of overnight success, right? Wrong. It’s time to reveal the actual secret to overnight success by looking at a couple of artists that actually had the world’s attention, seemingly overnight.
Man can fly, but that wasn’t always the case. At the start of the 20th century there were plenty of ambitious minds tackling the problem of flight, but the general public thought man would be limited to traveling by land or sea and laughed at the funny looking contraptions they saw being tested on the tops of hills. The Wright Brothers came along and changed the whole game. What did they do differently than everybody else? They not only took the road less traveled, they ditched roads all together. Like Doc Brown said in “Back to the Future II,” “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” Their story is truly inspiring.
Wilbur and Orville Wright’s father gave them a toy helicopter when they were younger. It was made from paper, bamboo, cork and a rubber band and the boys played with it until it broke but they figured out how to build their own, sparking an early interest in aviation. Wilbur Wright was an athletic guy with plans to go to Yale University when a hockey stick knocked out his front teeth, causing him to withdraw from people. Instead of college, he stayed indoors caring for his terminally ill mother, and considered himself lacking in ambition. However, while at home caring for his mother, he began studying aviation. Orville Wright had dropped out of high school to open up a printing business, using a printing press designed and built with Wilbur’s help. When bicycles became a national craze, the brothers decided to open up a bicycle shop, designing and building their own bicycles.
Up until this time there had been many attempts to build a flying machine but no one in the world had solved all of the pieces to the puzzle. The Wright Brothers decided to tackle the problem and used money from their bicycle business to fund their experiments. They used some of what they’d learned building bicycles and applied it to flying. While everyone else was focused on stability, the Wright Brothers knew the real problem was steering. They understood an airplane in the sky wouldn’t handle like a boat in the water. Their grasp of bicycle design helped them find a steering solution. And another breakthrough came when they abandoned using the aeronautical data of one of their biggest inspirations, the German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal. Realizing his data was incorrect, the Wright brothers decided to start from scratch to discover the correct formulas behind wing design. After more than a decade of experiments, filled with failures, injuries and plenty of self-doubt, on December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers flew the world’s first, truly working airplane. Were there swarms of reporters watching the historical moment? No, there was only one other person there, a guy Wilbur found to take photographs of the flights and the film wasn’t even developed until the brothers returned home to Ohio. The world eventually found out but it was an overnight success that had taken well over a decade to create; longer if you count the toy helicopter.
The airplane was the result of years of study, experimentation, hard work and thinking outside the box. For a couple of guys without college degrees or even high school diplomas, all they needed was to keep pushing through the barriers, ignore the limitations and focus on their dream, so fragile that the whole world didn’t think it possible. The next time you’re watching a famous artist or creator on TV and thinking of yourself as a failure for not being there yet, remember the story of two brothers who spent years of getting it wrong until they finally got it right. Imagine them pushing their flying machine made of canvas and wood into the wind until it was conquered, seeing their masterpiece soaring above the world. Overnight success is great, but not as great as the everyday success of chasing your dreams. The pleasure is in the doing, not the having, so get out there and do whatever you gotta do because that’s the secret to flying.
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I recently decided to ask the following question to all of my artist friends: “What's the one thing that stops you the most from being a successful artist?” I got back more than a hundred responses and I was actually surprised to discover that one answer was overwhelmingly at the top: lack of confidence. It was so popular that it more than doubled the number two answer. I was surprised for two reasons, one, I consider myself confident when it comes to being an artist and two, I consider artists extremely talented and skilled individuals, which should make them automatically confident, right? Well I quickly realized having confidence is something lots of people struggle with and artists more than anybody, and here’s why:
Simply, artists have to communicate their ideas but other people not so much. Artists put themselves out there (with their heart and soul embodied in their work) and when you do that it’s like waving a big sign that says, “Hey everybody! Look at me! I’ve created something new!” We live in a world where too many people are comfortable and don’t want the boat rocked and here you come with your art, rocking it! Anytime they see an artist you’re reminding them of what they should be doing: creating! So what happens next? “Oh, that’s nice.” “I had a friend that tried doing that.” “Is that what you do for a living?” “What’s your real job?” “Well, that’s nice.” “Good luck with it.” There’s this inescapable tenseness that travels from them to you leaving the thought, “I should keep practicing because maybe I’m not good enough yet.” Let me tell you something. YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH.
Why? Because no matter how bad you might think your art is, at least you’re making it. All of the people you’re worried about pleasing probably aren’t artists and if they are they’re probably not making much art. Here you come with your finished piece of art. There they are without one. Luckily, they don’t have to matter much because there are plenty of people that support artists. If that wasn’t true then you wouldn’t be able to watch a movie, listen to an album or read a book. There are millions if not billions of people on this planet right now that support artists and the art they make. You just have to weed out the ones that don’t by standing strong, flourishing and prospering in the face of opposition. You just have to keep lifting up, extending out and presenting your art to people. No matter what. Don’t let one hater prevent all that will love it later.
Finally, Rome wasn’t built in a day. You don’t have to be Bob Dylan the moment you pick up a guitar. So you’re not Hemingway yet and they haven’t put a Nobel Prize around your neck, who cares? Know that you’re always going to make the best art you can, so why beat yourself up over it? The real reason any of those haters or critics can set you on fire is because you’ve got some small pile of firewood laid out somewhere inside you. Guess what? You don’t have to be society’s idea of what a successful artist is, you just have to be YOUR idea of what a successful artist is. As long as you can do that you won’t have any problem walking up to somebody and showing them what you made. Be confident knowing you’re doing something most people can’t and every time you do it you’re getting even better at it. Build confidence like you’d build a house, one brick at a time. And there’s no reason you can’t be a skyscraper.
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Please read this to the end my friend. I should have listened to you long ago. Remember when I first mentioned how much I loved art and you saw that sparkle in my eye but tried to set me straight? You were smart enough to know that life as an artist is only met with struggle and starvation and you wanted to protect me from all of that. You said I should get an office job, something safe and secure and then work on my art on the side. Oh, I should have listened to you! I was such a fool!
I spent years of my life making art. I put my heart and soul into everything I created just to be met with rejection after rejection. At first it wasn't so bad because I could say I was new to being an artist and I needed more experience at it before I was good and before people could value what I was doing. But then more years passed and I knew I was getting better but people still rejected my work. I showed it to friends like you. You smiled and nodded and told me it was good but I could always tell you were being nice and didn't really mean it. You never bought my art and in the beginning that was okay because we were friends anyway and I didn't care about the money so I'd offer to give it to you for free but I could tell you didn't really want it. I started to realize that I must not be good enough so I foolishly took more lessons, studied and worked even harder! I was such a fool! I spent thousands of hours getting better, not to mention thousands of dollars, in the hopes that I could somehow make it and prove you wrong. I really believed in what I was doing and I knew that being an artist was in my blood and I couldn't imagine life without it so I actually continued on, ha!
One day my hard work paid off and someone not only loved what I was doing but they paid me money for it! It wasn't a lot of money but it was something. Remember that day? You told me it was great but that the money I made compared to how much time it took to create my art still didn't make it profitable. You pointed out I'd have to make lots more art and that I needed way more fans than I'd probably be able to find. You told me most people didn't care about art. You said people were too busy working and trying to survive themselves and how could they possibly hand over their hard earned dollars for something they didn't really need. You pointed out that my art wasn't food, it wasn't clothing and it wasn't shelter. I had to admit that you had a point and it really put me in quite a state. I spent weeks thinking about what you told me and it really started sinking in: the idea that I'd just wasted most of my life pursuing a crazy dream that was never going to happen. I started to think about going back to college. I researched which jobs paid the most. I grabbed all of my art supplies and materials, every book I had and every scrap of anything that could possibly remind me of my life as an artist and I put them in large boxes and was ready to take a trip to the thrift shop. I sat there upset, angry and frustrated. I thought about how you tried to help me so many years ago when I first had this foolish notion of being an artist. I remembered that look you gave me and continued to give me. I decided to make a wish.
I wished for a time machine to take me back in time so I could have a conversation with myself back when I was younger; back when I first thought of being an artist. You know what I would tell the old me? I'd say this:
"Don't listen to anyone doubting you and what you want to do. Don't call someone a friend who doesn't support your goals in life and who doesn't want you to succeed as an artist. No matter how much it all seems to make good, solid "sense," never let anyone convince you that what you are doing is not important. You see, artists run this planet. Without people coming up with new ideas and creating new things, the world would never grow or get better. Without artists the world would be a boring, stagnant place that no one would want to live in. You are one of the most able and gifted people on this Earth right now. It's up to you to not only make art but to make as much of it as you possibly can. The world needs you.
It's hard for some people to have as much courage as you do. They wish they could do what you can do and what you will do. It's up to you to help bring about a world where they feel they can also face all of the obstacles standing in the way of artists. The biggest ones don't come like bulldozers or Godzilla stomping towards your house. They knock at your door very politely and smile every time they sit in your living room. They put one hand on your shoulder while the other one moves ever so covertly. No matter what they do, how they appear or when they come, you must know this: they are cowards.
Just keep doing your thing and do it with all your might. Oh, and one day, years from now you will write something that you can send to any of these "friends." You'll start by telling them you're giving up being an artist. You'll be using the words they most want to hear from you. Then, once you have them believing this you will do a complete 180 flip and send them falling down into apathy about trying to harm you. Why will you write this? Because 1) you don't need those kinds of "friends" and 2) it's fun to create isn't it? (Not to mention some of your artist friends may enjoy reading it too, or you for that matter if you ever need some motivation. You don't want the bad guys to win now do you? Good, now stop reading this and get back to making art. You've got worlds to build.)"
It happens to us all. You put yourself out there by showing the world something you made, something you believe in and just when you are at your highest, happiest, proudest moment, someone says something or maybe they don't say something, but the communication is clear: you suck, you're not that special, you're not that talented, it wasn't a very good idea, and so on. At this moment we flare up inside and then get that feeling of wanting to hide, to escape, to get the hell away and make the suffering end or quite possibly get mad and verbally attack back. However, I would challenge you to take another look at what is really happening. You should know something: You should be feeling on top of the world. Huh? Let me explain.
Not everyone puts themselves out there. In fact most people sit idly by wishing they had something they could put out and had the courage to actually show people. They don't but you do. Congratulations, you are indeed special. Yes, that's right, your mom wasn't lying to you and deep down you always knew too so take a moment and give yourself a proper acknowledgement. Okay, good. So you've got a few guys putting themselves out there so that must mean everyone else hates you, right? Wrong. Like I said, most people wish they had something to put out, something to believe in and go after passionately so they're not actually bad people, they're just trying to find something to believe in and be passionate about. That's where you come in with your idea, your painting, your novel, your song. So who is the guy hating on you? There's not many of them and it's probably your best friend. Huh? Let me explain.
You see, there are heroes in the world. That's guys like you and me. Artists, creators, doers, the guys that make stuff happen and help people. And you see, there's also bad guys. Sure, these are your Adolf Hitlers, rapists, murderers, serial killers, etc., but they are not always so obvious to spot. Why? Because they are COWARDS. What would a coward do if he didn't like someone and wanted them to sink? Would he come right out and tell you he hated you? No, that wouldn't be very smart. What would he do then? He'd cuddle up to you, get as close as he could and slowly stick the knife in as he smiled the most genuine smile he could muster, pretending loyalty but always looking for ways to make it hurt more. You've seen the movie lots of times right? Isn't it always the guy the hero never suspected? Of course we see it because we're the audience, but he usually doesn't.
A funny thing happened to me once. I'm big into comic books and love the hell out of them. I like to follow writers and artists that I like. I like their fan page, I might follow them on Twitter (I'm @David Carus by the way) and I like to keep up with the guys that are creating universes filled with heroes. I started a friendship with one writer that was kind of a big deal. He was a New York Times Bestseller, he wrote comics that I enjoyed and was working in the industry, a real professional. One day he posted something that was pretty scary, that went totally against stuff I knew to be true and I commented on his post. He came at me like a vengeful, hateful, slobbering, slimy bastard that wanted to shrink me down to nothing, and he did this in the name of helping me. He wanted me to know how wrong I was and when I didn't take the bait the real guy came out. Now remember, this is a guy I had admired up until this point and it was shocking to see him act like a hateful monster. He called me names, he belittled my core beliefs and I was supposed to be left feeling like an idiotic piece of crap. But I didn't. I quickly unfriended him, laughed it off and turned my attention elsewhere. But, it's not always so easy. You know what I mean, right? That feeling was still there. That feeling of being slimed. I didn't like it and something had to be done. So what did I do? I immortalized him in song. Huh? Let me explain.
I make music and it's hip hop music and the one thing you don't want to do is piss off a rapper. You see, rapping has one interesting element to it: the diss song. When someone upsets a rapper he just writes about him in his next song. Heck, even Taylor Swift has used this method, taking her bad ex-boyfriends' actions and turning them into million dollar hits. So what did I do? I wrote a song about him. I'd been working on this idea for a song called Copy Machine because I thought it was a cool metaphor for how people just like to spew out stuff they heard somewhere else without really coming up with anything original themselves. The best example of this is when people watch the talking heads on the news and then stand at the water cooler at work the next day giving the exact same opinions they got from their TV. But this happens a lot. So I decided I would take this critic, this hateful individual, this guy that had tried to make me small and I decided to make him big. I put him in a song that will survive longer than him. He'll forever be known as the Copy Machine guy. And the kicker? I never mention his name. He's not going to get one new fan from me. But I got and continue to get new fans because of him.
The next time you get someone being critical, ignoring you, telling you that what you have to say isn't important, look a little closer and really listen to what that person is saying. All of those things are not directed at you, they're really directed at themselves. Deep down they know what they're doing is wrong and if they can't be right they don't want anyone to be. You just have to know they are Copy Machines spewing out the hate of people that were their Copy Machines at some point. Then, you just smile because you must know this: they thought you were important enough to target because you are. You're the most important kind of people we got on this planet: an artist. And you know what? Artists Run This Planet. The Copy Machines don't but wish they did. Get happy, take it as a win and make art because ultimately that's what will help everyone, including these guys. Even they want to see you win, deep, deep down. Don't ever let them make you small because you're not. You're a giant and you leave big footprints. Just know that sometimes people will fall into them and get hurt. When they do, and climb out trying to murder you from every angle, just keep your head up in those clouds and make a beanstalk. When someone climbs it, that's your real friend.
Hope you enjoyed this blog. Make sure to join my mailing list if you haven't already and if you get a chance, check out the music video for Copy Machine below. It was a lot of fun and if you watch closely, that's me in the mask :-)
I'm David Carus. From overcoming one of the most dangerous cities in the country and graduating from one of the most prestigious colleges in America to leading an educational movement as a teacher and running for Congress at the age of 25, I decided the best hope our world has is through art.