There’s a famous story about Andy Warhol catching the then homeless Jean-Michel Basquiat being a creative genius. It’s one of those Cinderella / fairy godmother success stories about creative genius that we love because it’s so dramatic. But I actually think that stories like these give us this false narrative: that we can just quietly go about our business as artists and, if there’s genius in our work, it will be discovered.
But you can’t wait for your Andy Warhol moment.
You can’t wait for someone to come along and see that hidden potential. You really have to believe it yourself. And then, you have to prove yourself again and again and again. If you do that, I really believe you can take your creative career into your own hands and make amazing things happen. Even without any major viral, lottery-winning breakthroughs.
Seth Godin calls this “picking yourself.” Don’t wait for somebody else to come along and choose you for their team. Pick yourself. And don’t wait to be caught being a creative genius, go ahead and turn yourself in. Here’s how:
1. Commit the Crime of Being a Creative Genius
First, you actually have to commit the act of creative genius. I think a really great example of this is Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting. Before this movie, both actors kept getting passed over for lead roles. But instead of waiting for that perfect audition, for that moment when they got the chance to prove themselves, they took matters into their own hands and wrote their own leading roles. And the rest is history.
Now, there’s actually another creative lesson in Good Will Hunting. I heard Matt Damon talking about this on Sam Jones’ podcast, Off Camera. Here’s what happened: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck both thought that Ben was getting the better role, the role that required more acting chops—the true “actor’s role.”
But because this was both the industry’s and audience’s first exposure to Affleck, it had a major impact on how he was perceived as an actor. Some people weren’t able to see past that role and character. Both Affleck and Damon went on to live out these stories in the public’s mind as Matt Damon, who plays the genius getting more of those roles, and Ben Affleck who plays the townie / pretty boy getting more of those roles.
The point here is that you need to create the role you really want in the minds of the people who will hire you. When you “commit the crime,” you have to be strategic about how you’re going to be perceived, what you’ll become known for, the kind of work you’re going to get as a result. And although (like Affleck) you can later do things to get out of being typecast early on, it’s so much easier to make the strategic choice out of the gate.
2. Collect the Evidence of Your Creative Genius
There’s no point in committing your act of creative genius if you leave no evidence. When you pitch clients creative work, it is so much more compelling if you have examples that connect with their business goals. So, figure out what the evidence of your creative crime looks like and set about gathering it.
If you are an editorial illustrator, ultimately your illustrations are used to sell newspapers or magazines. So consider making a magazine to show that your cover illustrations can sell magazines, even on a small scale.
If you’re a logo designer, start a company that you can brand and make look legit. That way you show the value of a designer—that you can come along and make some rinky dink small business look like it’s competitive.
Or… Let’s say that you’re a kid’s book author / illustrator. One of the ways I’ve seen people get around this for their first book is to make something really spectacular, take it to Kickstarter, rally around the merit of the book and get a batch printed. Even if that doesn’t get the attention of the publishers, you’ve got a printed book and you’ve got some numbers.
It’s also important to understand that to non-creatives, the most compelling evidence you can gather is data and numbers. Now I get it, you’re a creative person, you don’t like being valued by numbers. But there’s almost nothing as powerful as numbers to prove your worth in the business world.
To be clear: I’m not talking about going viral. This is the thing that really screws us up in terms of marketing. For some reason we think about marketing like winning the lottery. Instead, think about building your business case like earning a pay check: It’s something you do with consistent work, getting up morning after morning and adding a few dollars to the bank account.
3. Find Your Key Witnesses
Another way of proving yourself is by calling your key witnesses: They’re the people in your field who will vouch for you. In my opinion, one of the most effective things you can do to prove your creative genius is to connect with your peers.
The idea of “personal brand” is something that most of us reject because it seems icky. But here’s what I think personal brand just means: I think it’s a development that has come alongside the internet to help us know each other. Because nothing’s really changed: we still want to work with people that we feel like we know. And so you have to build relationships.
Now I know that the internet promised that you didn’t have to know people or be social, that you could just work from anywhere in the world without ever seeing other people face-to-face. Maybe that’s somewhat true. But the fact of the matter is you still have to figure out how to be known, how to build relationships and how to make friends.
Whether online or in real life, these relationships mean you have people out there willing to be your witness, and willing to testify for you and your work.
4. Testify for Yourself: Be Your Own Witness
While it’s great to have evidence and witnesses, you also need to stand up and testify for yourself. Here, I’m talking about direct marketing: being your own agent, the one pushing your own stuff. Now, direct marketing in terms of art can get pretty weird. So here’s how I approach it:
I work with so many art students who want to work in the field of animation and when I ask them where they want to end up, they’re like: Pixar. But who wouldn’t want to work with Pixar!? Even if you’re an accountant, you’d like to work with Pixar! The problem with this answer is it creates a bottleneck situation where there are millions of people vying for the same few coveted spots.
Instead, get out there and testify to your own creative genius by connecting directly with realistically possible clients. What Shane Snow—a director at Contently—says is don’t go straight to the most popular thing. Take that thing and reverse engineer three or four steps backwards. So if you want to work with Pixar, maybe there’s a smaller studio that you could work with.
To avoid going where everybody else is going, you need to do research. Everybody knows Pixar, but nobody knows that animation studio called “Bubblegum” that’s three blocks from your house. So, start somewhere more obscure, direct marketing to people you really can provide a whole lot of value to.
When it comes to building your commercial creative business: Don’t hide behind subjectivity. Yes, everybody has their tastes, everybody can get by on different types of skills. But at the end of the day, there are a lot of ways that you can prove that you’re good. If you want to make a career of creativity, you need to do the necessary work to earn a pay check.
We tell the stories of the people who go viral—these overnight successes. Those are the people we celebrate and talk about. But more often than not, commercial art fields are full of people who have slowly but surely developed their craft, gathered the evidence, key witnesses, testified to themselves and committed the crime of being creative geniuses. I’m saying if you stick at it, you work, you’re reflective and you keep tweaking things, you will get somewhere. Even without the fairy godmother.
Listen to the full original podcast this post was based on:
about the author
Andy J. Miller is a commercial artist who breathes life and weirdness into simple shapes. He specializes in brand collaborations, advertising illustration, kids market illustration, editorial illustration, gig posters, album art, hand lettering, mural design, visual development for animation and book design. Listen to his podcast, Creative Pep Talk.