There’s a thing in the social sciences called the Matthew effect of accumulated advantage. The Matthew effect is sometimes summarized by the adage “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” In the creative arts, you might say “the famous get ultra-famous and the overlooked become invisible.”
Fame comes as a byproduct of success. A filmmaker like Peter Jackson experimented with many genres from comedy to horror. But once he found massive success with Lord Of The Rings it led to fame. And once you get labeled a famous creative genius in our culture, your opportunities are essentially unlimited.
So how do you get that massive success? Writing in the journal NATURE, social scientists recently evaluated creativity across the careers of top-performing artistic, scientific, and cultural figures.
What the scientists discovered as a common feature of these careers is “hot streaks.” A hot streak is when a creative person makes some original, novel, surprising artworks that are spectacularly well-received. The art gets attention, it gets awards, a lot of money changes hands. For the artist, a major career impact, more money, more opportunity.
Hot streaks are not about luck. They are a result of two things. First, a large volume of work needs to be produced to develop a personal sense of craft. Second, a lot of experimentation has to take place to arrive at a unique personal aesthetic that “works.” Both factors are required to discover a hot streak.
If you are a fine arts painter, you can’t decide to do one painting and call it a hot streak. You also can’t continue to produce hundreds of stylistically identical images year after year and hope for a hot streak to come. Because hot streaks arise from experimentation, development, risk-taking, and exploration. You won’t find a hot streak by following a venerable established recipe.
This can be a problem because 97% of traditional fine arts training in skill-building is about learning tools, following recipes, knowing historical styles, and seeing patterns. There is very little guidance into experimentation, risk-taking, or how to think about failure in most educational art settings. Students crave a formula for a successful result. They don’t want a messy failure. And yet a messy failure may be the only way forward to a personal style that does not look exactly like every other artist’s skillfully rendered bowl of fruit.
A great example of experimentation is Picasso. Picasso started with traditional skills, and his precise pencil torsos from 1892 look like ordinary academic studio work. By 1897 he was drifting from staid realism to symbolism. In 1901 he entered a three-year “blue period” doing works in shades of blue and green. His two-year “rose period” followed to 1906. Then came a period of African art and primitivism. In the next decades, he explored analytic cubism, synthetic cubism, and surrealism. Was all the work great art? No. But the volume of experimentation created “hot streaks” of highly original work that led to fame and success.
Maybe you are not a dynamic creative genius like Picasso driven to constantly explore new approaches. But if your work is unsatisfying, the solution is not to keep repeating a failed recipe in hopes that one day the burnt cake will eventually taste good.
This tendency for artists to continue making work that nobody likes can be attributed to the “ego effect.” The ego effect suggests that you’re prone to making the same mistakes over and over again when you protect your beliefs instead of learning from your mistakes and changing your beliefs in response to conflicting evidence. I’ve seen this in art when a painter makes a painting nobody likes (not even the maker) and yet they continue to generate more similarly unlikable art because it is the style they have invested the most time practicing.
Difficulty in making a creative course change is sometimes called “target fixation.” Target fixation occurs when an individual becomes so focused on one thing that they exclude other factors to their potential detriment. For example, a painter becomes so fixated on being able to paint a vase of flowers in the admirable style of Henri Fantin-Latour (1836 – 1904) that they fail to see the bigger picture. Learning to perfectly emulate that retro-classical style may be irrelevant today.
Changing any behavior or habit requires both acknowledging there is a flaw in the current pattern and a willingness to commit to consistent, incremental, change. A bad habit, or consistently repeated error, can only be corrected by replacing the habit or pattern with a better one. And how do you know if your new pattern is better? This can only be discovered by personal experimentation and an open mind.
Do we need more bowl-of-fruit paintings? No. Please stop now. Reconsider your assumptions, and begin your personal experiments towards massive success.