The natural state of the artist is one of bitterness and incredulous jealousy. How on earth can Scott Adams prosper when Dilbert looks as if it’s drawn by a near-sighted warthog? Why does Thomas Friedman have a platform at the New York Times, when I could write bland, self-aggrandizing piffle just as well, and in a punchier prose style? Michelangelo insulted Leonardo Da Vinci in public for not finishing a statue; Remy Ma dissed Nicki Minaj, and vice versa; Richard Ford literally spit on Colson Whitehead at a party in retaliation for a poor book review. Artists are incredibly competitive; if someone else is succeeding, they think, “That person is getting more credit than they deserve, and I am not getting enough.”
Of course, this isn’t true of all artists. But it is more likely to be true of those who believe that success is a meritocracy. If recognition is linked to artistic quality, you’re more likely to be angry when your own merit is not being recognized and celebrated. There’s just one problem: meritocracy is not how creative success—or really, most professional success—actually works.
For the most part, creative success has little to do with talent or hard work. Lots of people are talented and hard-working. Talented and hard-working people are nothing special, for better or worse. To be successful, you need more than just talent and hard work. You need luck. Or, even better than luck, you need connections.
And yet artists persist in the belief that their success, or lack thereof, reveals something deeper about their worth. Writing in The Guardian, an anonymous author and self-proclaimed failed novelist recently published a mournfully angry piece about their lack of success. “I … avoid literary debuts by British female writers, which all seem so safe and samey,” the writer declared. “I feel pity and scorn for people with dreams.” In a follow-up piece, novelist David Barnett responded with scorn, albeit not with pity. “Dear Anonymous, you’re not a failure. You’re a quitter.” Bennett goes on, with sententious enthusiasm, “I failed over and over again; but each time, I failed better.”
Both writers are making the same error: They assume that failure and success are signals of artistic merit. The anonymous writer thinks they’ve failed because they doesn’t write “safe, samey” fiction; they’re too daring to get a book deal. Barnett thinks the anonymous writer has failed because they haven’t tried hard enough. Both attitudes lead to self-aggrandizement, and a lack of respect—or compassion—for others’ experiences.
But success is more of a structural than individual feat. Consider Sofia Coppola. There are hardly any female directors in Hollywood; the number of women filmmakers actually dropped in recent years. Coppola, whose dad is one of the most acclaimed and successful filmmakers in the history of cinema, is one of the few exceptions. Her connections helped her overcome systemic bias. That’s not a comment on Sofia Coppola’s talent one way or the other. It’s a simple acknowledgment that privilege and connections matter a lot—even more so when you’re dealing with a system that’s inherently biased against you.
It’s also important to keep in mind that success is often a matter of being in the right place at the right time. One 2006 sociological study of music downloads found that people were much more likely to listen to a song that they were told was already popular. Economist Alan Krueger has pointed out that this means that success snowballs, regardless of talent.
Popularity is its own logic, mostly divorced from questions of quality. This means that people with money can game the system; if you spend enough on marketing, millions of people will see Batman vs. Superman, no matter how turgid and confused it is. It also means that timing, and what other art happens to be released at the same time, can have a huge effect on success. “The difference between a Sugar Man, a Dylan and a Post Break Tragedy depends a lot more on luck than is commonly acknowledged,” Krueger concluded.
If creative success is a crapshoot, how should we feel about it? On one hand, it’s depressing. The fact that you’re more likely to succeed if you’re rich, or white, or a man, is inherently unjust, and perpetuates further injustice. And it’s disheartening to realize that luck can matter more than talent. You can be brilliant; you can work from sun-up to sun-down. Yet you may be forced to watch from the sidelines as others receive the recognition that is never coming your way.
But freeing yourself from the myth of meritocracy can also be liberating. If you fail, it’s not your fault. And if you succeed, it’s not because you’re better than everybody else. Your unique genius has neither doomed you to obscurity, nor elevated you to the heights.
When we stop seeing professional success as a measure of our worth, we’re in a much better position to be kind—both to ourselves and to each other. Economist Robert H. Frank at the Atlantic has pointed out that when people believe they have succeeded through hard work rather than luck, they tend to be less open to helping others. Conversely, when people understand the role that luck has played in their achievements, they are more sympathetic to the struggles of others, and more likely to act with generosity.
Creative success is not an exercise in social Darwinism. We don’t need to go out there and tear down other artists in order to advance ourselves. Once we recognize that, we can stop alternating between self-loathing and free-ranging resentment, and start focusing criticism at real injustices—like lack of health care, old boy’s networks, white supremacy, and other systems that make art less rewarding and more unjust. Once you stop believing in meritocracy, solidarity gets a lot easier.