The Success Trap

14 April 2021

I have nothing to do with this. I can’t talk from experience except for all the small, invisible, highly valuable personal victories we all share. Call it finding a product in discount or getting a promotion. Getting good grades or finding a fulfilling spouse. If something good came your way, it’s likely success. Or at least you can call it that.

But there is a trap that many artists, in particular, struggle with. Many artists have talked about the ‘prison of success’ and how it affects their creativity. But what are they talking about? More success must lead to more freedom, right?

The more successful and recognized you are by the public, the less change the public wants. The world puts a stamp on you and neatly places you in a box. You live in this box now. Trying stuff out and experimenting is not forbidden per se but only if it aligns with what they, the audience, like.

Now, this is not a fault of the public or anyone of that matter. It is just a defence mechanism towards what we love. It’s like someone is destroying something you love and it doesn’t even matter if that someone is its creator. You protect it, making yourself resistant to change. This situation leads to an ever-growing space or distance between the artist and the audience. The artist needs variety to feed creativity and the audience wants the good stuff, something the artist simply can’t guaranty.

The first time I heard this — and realize what it meant — was in an interview with Vangelis, the famous composer with countless memorable compositions under his belt. In one instance Vangelis was talking about the music industry and how people perceive you once you get any kind of success or recognition. The interviewer went on to argue that with fame and success you must have artistic freedom to do whatever you want. You can work with anyone you like and perform at any venue. Vangelis smiled and said: imagine changing the taste of coca-cola. The interviewer laughed because he got it. You become a prisoner to what the audience wants since they would much rather listen to hits made 10 years ago on repeat than dig to all the cutting edge stuff, still in experimental mode, totally unknown to the public music.

Another example I heard was from Scott Adams. Scott is best known for his Dilbert comic strip among other stuff. He again, in the same way, described how once Dilbert took off, it was really hard for him to come up with any new stuff. Another cartoon would always be compared to Dilbert, and thus end up as just another cartoon.

While success often sounds and seems elusive, many people can’t handle it. Many people don’t even want it. It is a result of what they do and prefer to be left alone so they can do just that.