For all creative industries, the world changed a while ago. The internet era has brought unprecedented opportunities to showcase your work and develop an audience, but it also means that your competition is everyone.
Unfortunately, schools and universities are still teaching people that we live in the old world. Our education systems still run on a model designed to produce employees for factories and assembly-lines.
To succeed in education is to accept authority, absorb the opinions and conclusions of others and follow a framework designed to minimise individuality. It is to follow the rules and to do as you are told. Original thought, personal exploration and the pursuit of personal passion is frowned upon.
In a world that reserves its biggest rewards for specialists, our education system tries to make everybody ‘well-rounded’.
Another word for individuals who have dabbled in a lot of things but don’t do anything particularly well is ‘generic’.
The system fails those interested in creativity and the arts even more. Schools are told to prioritise English, Maths and Science and arts subjects are viewed as a barely necessary indulgence.
The skills required to succeed as an independent artist have never been more different from those required to do well in school. Keeping your head down, offering yourself up for judgement and allowing the opinion of an external ‘authority’ to determine the value of your work is less likely to lead to success than it ever was.
Nevertheless, the assumption that this is the way to succeed is so ingrained within us that even when we understand intellectually that it’s not true, to behave in any other way seems arrogant, presumptuous and wrong.
In the pre-internet age, artists had no choice but to subscribe to that model. A small number of gatekeepers, critics and tastemakers wielded all the power and influence. Artists had little choice other than to submit work for consideration and the potential audience would only get to know of their existence if they were deemed worthy by the gatekeepers.
This was a world ruled by publishers and gallery owners and newspaper critics and A&R men at big record companies. The influence of such people is fading fast, but they still have just enough presence to make us believe deep-down that the world works like school. As long as there’s an Adele signed to a big label, and a JK Rowling signed to a big publisher, our default behaviour is to wait to be picked.
However, the diminishing influence and reach of the arts establishment means that such a strategy has literally never been less likely to yield results.
The irony is that being good at school is probably less likely to help you succeed than if you were bad at it. This is why so many modern entrepreneurs and successful people are self-taught dropouts. The fact they weren’t able or willing to rise to the top of the educational pile meant that they didn’t automatically absorb the belief that doing as you’re told and waiting to be judged is the path to achievement.
Even though it’s the opposite of anything we learned as kids, our best chance of success is to stop looking to authority to evaluate and reward our work and to start sharing it with directly with the world.
What makes that utterly terrifying is that nobody is going to tell us our work is good enough to share with the world. To put work out there is to take a step in the dark. It’s a leap of faith, a blind swing, a Hail Mary. It’s risky and it might not work.
But it’s more likely to work than the old way.
Barry Dallman is a musician, writer and eternal student of the creative process. He is fascinated by the process of personal change and the challenges creative people face in committing to truly meaningful work. He's documenting his own creative struggles in the hopes of inspiring others to pursue what really matters to them.