How to Succeed in a Competitive, Creative Field

This newsletter was written by Steve Pavlina, sent on September 11, 2008. It’s re-published here for achival purposes, with permission.

How can you succeed in a competitive, creative field like art, music, writing, or acting? Is success just a matter of working hard and waiting for your lucky break? Or is there a way to get ahead without relying so much on luck and chance?

This was a problem I faced when I began working in the field of personal development in 2004. I had written some motivational articles before then, but I was basically starting from the bottom in terms of established credibility. I had no real credentials to speak of — no books, no products, no Ph.D, no coaching clients, and no serious contacts in the field. My income from this field was zero.

When I tried contacting some of the major players in the field, my emails went unanswered and my phone calls unreturned. Although I had a decent reputation in the indie gaming industry, it didn’t mean anything once I switched careers. In the self-help field, I was an outsider — a non-entity. Nobody knew who I was. And nobody cared.

Fast forward four years, and it’s like night and day. Now I have a strong, well-established presence in this field, due in large part to the success of I get new media inquiries every week, and I’ve been quoted in major media outlets like the New York Times, USA Today, and U.S. News and World Report. I get paid thousands of dollars to speak. My first book is being published next month by the #1 self-help publisher in the world. I get so many business offers that I have to turn most of them down. It’s pretty easy for me to connect with other people in this field now; the roadblocks are gone. I used to be an outsider, but somewhere along the way, I became an insider.

I’m not sharing this from a place of ego, pride, or vanity. This is the simple truth of how my results changed over time. What you may not realize though is that this was something I did very deliberately. It’s the result of a goal I set when I first started. You see… I realized that if I wanted to have a positive impact on people’s lives, I wasn’t going to get very far if I remained an isolated outsider.

To be completely honest, there are some aspects of this progression that are more annoying than enjoyable. Even a small degree of celebrity comes with side effects, such as an overloaded email inbox and the loss of some privacy. Obviously I don’t have the same kind of celebrity as an A-list movie star, but the current level is already enough to bring some challenges. I figure this is a necessary evil to be able to communicate effectively with large numbers of people — a means to an end but not a primary goal I’d otherwise desire. I can deal with the negative consequences because the benefits outweigh them.

Despite the drawbacks, there are some obvious advantages to holding a well-known, established position within your field. When your name opens doors and people want to work with you, it’s easy to generate new business. When your reputation provides you with long-term stability, you can focus on growth instead of survival. You can pick and choose what projects you want to work on. More importantly, you can leverage your position to do a lot of good for other people — people you’d otherwise never be able to interact with.

Now this is all well and good, but how do you reach this point in the first place?

Avoiding the Slush Pile

The way many people gain credibility in the self-help field is by getting a book published and seeing it become a bestseller. This strategy fails more often than it succeeds though. It’s nearly impossible to get a book deal with a major publisher as a first-time author. You almost always have to get an agent first, and it’s very hard to get an agent because the good agents are overwhelmed with submissions. So you face this tough chicken-egg problem. How can you get a book deal when you have no credibility? But how can you establish credibility with no book? And even if you manage to secure a book deal, how are you going to make it a bestseller? You either have to be extremely talented or extremely lucky to make this strategy work for you.

I went through this kind of challenge with my computer games business during the 1990s. I worked with an agent who helped me find publishing deals. Submitting game demos to publishers and then waiting to hear back from them was very time-consuming. There was a lot of pressure to make something happen quickly because the product’s technology had a relatively short effective lifespan. To make matters worse, some publishers used dishonorable tactics to string developers along for months, delaying their products from hitting the market because the publisher had a competing product in the works. The publisher would say, “Yes, we definitely want to publish your game.” Then they’d offer one excuse after another for the long delays in sending the deal sheet or the contract. But the truth was that they had no intention of publishing the game. They just wanted to keep it off the market long enough to sabotage it. Even if you follow up with multiple publishers at the same time, you can still waste a lot of time when one of them tries to string you along. I’ve heard that other creative fields have similar integrity problems.

The game developer is the low guy on the totem pole in this frame. As a developer you have virtually no leverage unless your team already has a major hit. You can work very hard under this model and end up with little to show for it, even if you do manage to secure a publishing deal now and then. Participating in this kind of system will drain you fast. I did this for several years and got nowhere with it. Even when I landed a publishing deal, it didn’t help me significantly build my business, and I had to start all over again with the next game. My games business only became profitable when I started selling games direct over the Internet, using licensing deals as a secondary income source.

It’s really hard to get ahead by submitting your work to the big players with no leverage, hoping they single you out from the thousands of other submissions and throw some business your way. If you try to break in to a new field the same way everyone else does, you’ll have to rely on a great deal of luck. You’re just another nobody in the slush pile. Strategically speaking, this is a dumb and ineffective approach. I had to learn this the hard way.

The problem with the slush pile frame is that you adopt a posture of weakness and neediness. Even if you manage to get a deal, your position is so weak that you’re virtually certain to end up with terrible terms. In the end you’ll just end up being owned. You can tell yourself that maybe you’ll be able to leverage this “success” to get better terms for your next project, but quite often it doesn’t work out that way.

Cultivating a Position of Strength

Instead of subscribing to the slush pile frame, consider how you might cultivate a position of strength. This won’t happen overnight of course, but perhaps it’s something you could build over time. In order to achieve a position of strength, you’ll need to find a backdoor that allows you to leverage your personal strengths in an area where everyone else is weak. This will take time and patience, but strategically it’s a much saner approach, relying more on skill than on luck. Now you’re in the driver’s seat instead of hoping to get lucky.

When I moved into the self-help field, I recognized that I couldn’t jump straight onto the speaker/author success track because I had no credibility and no platform. Some of my friends were trying to build their speaking careers by doing tons of free speaking, but their careers seemed to be advancing at a snail’s pace, if at all. I quickly ruled out this option because it seemed like another variation on the slush pile. If I tried to build my speaking career this way from the beginning, I’d just be one more voice in a crowded field. I’d also be competing against speakers with a lot more skill and experience than I had at the time. I couldn’t compete well on those terms.

I realized that if I wanted to establish myself in this field, I needed a backdoor. I had to find a way to do an end-run around the crowds of other people trying to break in. I asked myself, “What is a strength, talent, or skill I possess that others in this field don’t generally have, and how can I leverage it to the hilt? How can I change the rules of this game into something I can win?”

One key strength was my computer/Internet skills. Most people in the self-help field don’t really “get” the web. They use their websites as flashy business cards. The only reason they get any serious web traffic is because their hit books and seminars drive traffic to their websites. I quickly saw that there was a potential backdoor for me here. I couldn’t hope to compete in the bookstores or on the speaking circuit, at least not right away, but given enough time, I was sure I could carve out a strong position online. Maybe it would take a few years, but if I worked this strategy consistently, I could see that it would likely work. And obviously it did work — faster than I originally anticipated.

I didn’t need to be a computer genius to make this strategy work for me. I only needed to implement a slightly smarter Internet strategy than most of the other peak performers in the field. Perhaps the best decision I made was to take advantage of blogging technology. When I started blogging, many speakers and authors in the self-help field didn’t even know what a blog was. Or if they did know, they thought a blog was only for personal journaling. Some seemed to think it was a cutesy fad. They left the door wide open. I simply walked through it.

So basically, I cheated. 🙂 Okay, I didn’t really cheat. I just changed the rules of the game. I couldn’t win if I played by everyone else’s rules, so I approach my goal from a different angle. I redefined the game so I could win. I used a strategy that leveraged my personal strengths in an area where everyone else was weak. I avoided the slush pile entirely.

When I finally secured a book deal last year, it was almost too easy. Although my publisher requires that first-time authors submit their book proposals through literary agents, I never needed an agent because the publisher approached me directly. Unlike most first-time authors, I had direct access to a large online community, meaning that the publisher’s risk was substantially reduced. I was no longer a slush-pile beggar looking for a handout, nor was I a common fish in an ocean of many similar fish. The position I’d carved out was unusual for someone in this field, and not everyone was able to comprehend what I’d done (I had to reject offers from some book publishers who clearly didn’t understand blogging), but it eventually gave me the leverage I needed to open new doors.

Don’t play in a game where the rules make it too hard for you to win. Change the rules to take advantage of your unique strengths. Avoid the slush pile at all costs.

I should caution you that finding a backdoor doesn’t mean randomly trying lots of different angles until you hopefully stumble upon something that works. That kind of shotgun strategy may get you a few lucky breaks here and there, but it’s not very intelligent. You won’t build any serious career momentum if you keep shifting around. It’s fine to experiment when you want to explore different career options, but don’t expect to build a strong position in a given field if you derail your career-building strategy every few months.

A backdoor strategy is something you invest in consistently over a period of time. It is a highly focused building process. It may be non-traditional, perhaps even a bit wacky, but it isn’t random and haphazard. If you’ve been working hard on a creative career path for a year and have little to show for it, you aren’t using an effective backdoor strategy. After a year you should definitely see evidence that you’re building momentum. If you aren’t getting anywhere despite working hard, your strategy is probably a poor fit for your strengths.

Building Your Network

You could say that (1) talent/skill and (2) connections are the two primary keys to success in any competitive, creative field. Ideally you need a strategy that allows you to develop your skills and build a network at the same time.

If you get offers for jobs that are too advanced for your current skill level, it means your connections exceed your skills, so you should work on raising your skill level through additional study and training. But if you aren’t getting the right job offers at all, or if you’re getting offers that are beneath you, it means you need to work harder on the networking side; the right people probably don’t even know you exist.

There are lots of ways to network. Building a high-traffic website is my personal favorite because it serves as a passive networking vehicle. It’s always on. People come to you. For example, streams a continuous flow of new connections into my life. It’s challenging to build something like this, but it’s fairly easy to maintain, and of course it yields long-term dividends.

You don’t have to use a web-centric strategy like I do — my approach is geared towards my specific strengths — but you do need an overall networking strategy. Otherwise you could become highly skilled in your field and still be lacking in opportunities because the right people don’t even know you exist. You’ll sit on the sidelines as less talented people get the jobs and deals you could have gotten, if only you had the right connections. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t whine and complain about it. Take responsibility and fix it by building a stronger network.

Networking is a very important career function, but you need to approach it with the right attitude. It should be fun and enjoyable to reach out and connect with others in your field. Networking shouldn’t merely be a means to an end. If you can’t meet people in your field that you really like, you’re probably in the wrong field.

If you try to network only when you want something, then you’re networking out of desperation instead of from a genuine desire to connect with people. When I network with other people in the self-help field, I don’t do it because I want or need something from them. I look for people that seem interesting to me. Sometimes those connections lead to friendships. Sometimes they lead to business deals. Sometimes they lead nowhere.

Personally I find it creepy when someone tries to faux-network with me just because they want something from me. For example, when I know that someone wants to “get together” because they want to pitch me on their latest MLM scheme, but they have no interest in me as a person, that’s a pretty big turnoff. However, I love meeting new people who are doing interesting work, especially when it looks like we could have a really fascinating conversation and maybe become friends, even if there doesn’t seem to be much potential for doing business together.

A Walkthrough – Succeeding as an Actor

Suppose you’re starting start fresh in a whole new career where you have very little skill and no contacts. Let’s say you want to become an actor in movies or on TV, and your goal is to be earning six figures a year as an actor. How would you do it?

Well, I can’t give you a walkthrough of how you should tackle this challenge because your strategy needs to fit your particular strengths. All I can do is offer a quick walkthrough of how I’d do it… in a way that avoids the slush pile and leverages my personal strengths of course.

Some wannabe actors are trying to use YouTube to showcase their talents. That seems like a fairly lame strategy to me. I don’t know much about the entertainment industry (aside from the computer gaming arm of it), but do the people who hire actors really scour YouTube looking for talent? I doubt it. Maybe if your video is a huge hit on YouTube, it could help, but what actually rises to the top on YouTube? I don’t think it’s the examples of great acting. This might work for some people, but it seems like it would require an awful lot of luck to succeed. Personally I wouldn’t bother with this approach, but I might consider it if I had a special talent for creating popular YouTube videos.

Similarly, I wouldn’t waste too much time making my own home movies to showcase my acting talent. Anyone can do that. It’s just another variation on the slush pile approach.

If I wanted to get into acting, I’m pretty sure I could do it even though I have no real training in this area. I would study acting of course, but mainly I’d focus on building connections with others in the field. I’d set a goal to become one of the most well-connected wannabe actors out there.

My guess is that more often than not, acting jobs are filled via networking and/or auditions. Talent obviously plays a part, but building connections with the right people will likely be at least as important. If I wanted to become an actor, I’d aim to build connections and friendships with people who hire actors. But I probably can’t do that directly because such people will likely be inundated with faux-networking offers. Plus I have nothing special or unique to offer them just yet.

The basic strategy I’d use would be to build a website to serve as a long-term networking vehicle. So I’d start a website/blog for wannabe actors. I’d learn as much as I could about acting and would publish the best-quality content I could create. If I couldn’t write the content myself due to ignorance, I’d recruit others to write it for me. Maybe I’d link to YouTube videos of good acting and offer critiques and suggestions for improvement on my website.

I’d focus heavily on building traffic to my site. I’d study other acting websites, learn from them, and apply the best practices while doing a little innovation where the other sites are weak. I’d join acting groups to network with other actors. Of course I’d tell them about my acting website.

At first I’d only attract wannabes to my site. That’s fine because there are lots of them. As my web traffic grew, I’d start doing interviews with any screenwriters, B-movie stars, and other industry people I could get access to. When traffic got big enough, I’d leverage my site to interview some of the best people in the field, especially people I want to connect with. I could use my website to help promote their work, but I’d ask nothing in return. I’d just want to make them aware of my existence and — for those who are compatible with me — to make new friends.

From time-to-time I’d post videos of my own acting on the site, requesting feedback from my visitors. Of course this would help to promote me as an actor, and it would raise my profile in the field. I’d also share success stories from my visitors. Of course I’d keep building my acting skill on the side, such as by taking classes, attending workshops, and doing free acting jobs when it seemed like a good idea.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m fairly certain I’d have built a strong, high-traffic website about acting for wannabe actors. Thousands of actors would know about me and my site. I’d very likely get some small acting jobs from raising my profile this way. I’d develop my resume by taking jobs that seem to (1) advance my career and (2) build helpful connections.

I’d look for ways to provide a better service to my visitors, making my acting website one of the best in the field. For example, I might post casting calls on my site. This would be a service for my visitors that would also allow me to build connections with casting agents. I wouldn’t try to land any major acting jobs right away. I’d simply try to build a large network of people (1) that I could help, and (2) that could eventually help me.

I’d leverage my website and its traffic to cultivate connections with the right people. I’d aim to build relationships, not sell myself. Eventually so many industry people would know about my website that I’d have an unfair advantage in being considered for desirable acting jobs, assuming that my talent was a fit for those jobs. For any acting job I got, I would bring a lot more to the table than just my skill as an actor. I could use my acting website to promote the production. For a mainstream studio production, this may not make much difference, but it could seriously help an indie film. Any producer who hired me would gain free publicity on my website.

I could also advance the careers of other actors I worked with, either by featuring them on my website or by recommending them to others in my ever-growing network.

In less than 5 years, I’m quite sure I could become one of the most well-connected actors in the industry. I would probably get so many offers for work that I’d have to turn most of them down.

Now of course I’m not an actor, so I’d need to adapt this strategy to the realities of the field, but from an outsider’s perspective I would say that the two most important success factors are (1) acting talent/skill, and (2) connections with the right people. I think lots of actors focus on #1 and leave #2 to chance. I’d put more time and energy into #2 than #1, at least initially. Once I built a strong network, centered on a website I own and control, I could maintain those connections while building my skills until I was ready to start leveraging those connections to get the jobs I wanted.

Acting doesn’t appeal to me, so I’m not actually going to implement this strategy. I’m simply offering this as an example of how an outsider like me could leverage his strengths to break into a new field without going the slush pile route.

The right success strategy for your field depends on your particular strengths. Just because I happen to love the “build a high-traffic website” strategy doesn’t mean you should use the same approach. Your mix of strengths and talents will surely be different from mine, so you need a strategy that allows you to leverage those talents creatively, a strategy that keeps you away from the slush pile.

If you haven’t yet discovered your strengths, be sure to read the article Discover Your Strengths. You can also follow the “Related Articles” links on that page to find other articles on the subject.

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