Illustration by Yeyei Gomez

The Behance Blog

Two Traits for Creative Success and How to Cultivate Them

Illustration by Yeyei Gomez
Two Traits for Creative Success and How to Cultivate Them
Published October 31, 2019 by Madeleine Dore

In moments of stress or a setback in our work lives, it can be difficult to muster the self-belief to back ourselves with confidence, try again, and persevere. Grit, time optimization, and who you know may be overrated qualities when it comes to career triumphs and overcoming challenging times. It’s often our everyday exchanges that can bolster the likelihood of career success. 

Take the example of two designers who share a coworking studio. Over lunch, one opens up about a recent failure in their business that was going to take some time to bounce back from. Feeling uncertain, she turned to her studio mate and asked,

“Do you think it will be okay?”
“Of course it will.”
“But, how do you know?"
“Because it’s you – and you make things happen.”
This simple exchange encapsulates the all-too-often overlooked circumstances that help us navigate the stresses that come with self-managing creative careers: having a space to share our failures, and receive encouragement and support. Often all we need to hear – either from ourselves or respected peers – is that it will work out, and we have the resources to make it happen. 

A recent study published by Dr. Kim Goodwin of Melbourne University in the Australian Journal of Career Development refers to these qualities as career optimism and self-efficacy. Dr. Goodwin further defines self-efficacy as the ability to persist in the face of setbacks. “It’s the belief we have in our own ability to execute the action needed to succeed in our goals and whether we think we can 'make it happen’,” Goodwin says. 

Career optimism is trusting things will be okay and emphasizing the positive not just in your career, but more broadly in your life. Such traits are important contributors to career success, especially when so much of a creative’s opportunities comes from our own drive. “Both traits help put stress in perspective and recognize that a setback, failure, or challenge is not personal,” explains Goodwin. 

No matter where you find yourself in your career, you can apply the following actionable ways to cultivate self-efficacy and career optimism, to bounce back from rejection, and to be confident and patient with your own potential.   


Create your own support system 

Be it at a lunch table at a coworking space, a regular writer’s meetup, or a private Slack channel or WhatsApp messaging group, having a support system can help build self-efficacy and career optimism. “Surrounding yourself with people who understand the challenges you’re experiencing creates a better picture of the reality of working in your creative field,” says Goodwin. Belonging to an informal community of supportive peers can be low-cost, but high-learning, explains Goodwin.

“Having support networks can help people understand the industry, gain skills, develop creative projects, and learn how to make a living.” Such communities flourish when people participate and share their setbacks. “You have to be in it – no one can force you to experiment or be part of a community, it’s self-driven and something you have to reach out and participate in,” adds Goodwin.

Foster positive perspectives

As ambitious creatives, we might spend a lot of time optimizing our work habits to get more done, all the while ignoring our internal thought patterns that might be sabotaging our success. Australian artist, author, and podcaster Tai Snaith recommends a practice of taking note of your limiting beliefs and how they play out in your work. For example, the belief that “I’m not good enough” could lead to feelings of inadequacy and stifle your confidence to pursue an opportunity.

Once you’ve collected your internal blurts, the next step is to convert them into a change statement or positive iteration. As an experiment for one week, dedicate time each morning to read through your list of change statements as fast as you can for two minutes. 

You begin to memorize the statements and cultivate self-belief, explains Snaith. “My thought used to be that I say things without thinking, and so my change statement was that I am discriminating in my speech. Now I’ve said it so many times I believe it, and I find in conversations I am aware of what I am choosing to say.”

Experiment to build confidence

The elusive thing about confidence is that it often only comes from experience and seizing opportunities, which might elude us when first starting out or feeling stuck. “When I fall flat I don't tend to notice opportunities, so it can become a vicious cycle,” explains Snaith. 

To be more receptive to opportunities, try creating your own experiments and tests for your creativity, which will in turn build confidence. For Snaith, going to the thrift store is a creative tool. “If I’m feeling creatively flat, I will go to a thrift store and it helps to activate the part of the brain that looks for opportunities. It’s important to allow yourself some freedom, flexibility and time to begin noticing things.” Such experiments help to open you up to noticing the right people or the right conversations, but most importantly help cultivate confidence through practice.  

For globe-trotting designer and illustrator Martina Martian, it’s important to recognize that career confidence comes in spurts, and at times we need to throw ourselves into something new to grow. “What helps me get out of a creative rut is to stop trying to replicate previous success and instead try new things and experiment with my work,” she says.

Recently, this meant saying yes to an exhibition to feature some of her sculpture work, opening up new possibilities and directions in her career. This helps to build confidence by proving to ourselves that we have a plethora of opportunities available to us and new skills to hone.

Depersonalize failure

No matter how experienced we are, many people have a tendency to internalize failure. We might credit our success to luck, and our failures to our own wrong-doing or not being good enough. But being a “successful” creative is not a linear path, explains Goodwin. “You don't just work hard, fail, fail, fail and then succeed and continue to succeed for the rest of your career. It's a rollercoaster.”

Talking about failure with friends helps normalize rejection and setbacks, making us less likely to blame ourselves for missed opportunities and instead recognize there are a number of reasons why we might not get a certain job, grant, or opportunity. Many setbacks aren’t personal, but systemic, adds Goodwin. “Share stories. Focus on instances of failure as much as success. Knowing we are not alone and understanding the structural and institutional factors that impact our success can make us more realistic, if not optimistic.”

Remember, anything worthwhile tends to take time

When we talk about the traits needed for career success, it’s important to acknowledge how striving for success contributes to feelings of inadequacy or stress.

“A lot of creatives have a really unattainable definition of success,” says Tai Snaith. “But I’ve found when you let go of the unattainable, you open yourself up to find a version of success that’s personal and fitting to you.”

This allows us to not only be creative in the work we do, but creative with our lives and the winding path that is our career, adds Martina Martian. “We are so creative with what we do, but for some reason we find it hard to be creative with what our schedules look like or what our career looks. You can define your own day, you can define your own career, and you can define what success looks like.”

Be it cultivating self-belief, building a support network, or developing optimism, in the words of designer Debbie Millman, anything worthwhile takes a long time. “Overnight success is rare,” says Millman in her 99U Conference talk. “And if we look at our lives, and our creativity, and our experiences as a journey, that we can build upon, I think it will give us an opportunity to see that we can make what we want happen. It just might not take as short a time as we would want.”

Building any career isn't easy, and success in its various forms takes time. But self-belief and hearing “you’ve got this” from a friend can make the rollercoaster all the more enjoyable. 

Our takeaways:

  • Confidence comes from experience so experiment, be open to opportunities, and try something even before you're ready. 
  • Talk openly about your mistakes and setbacks as well as successes with colleagues and creative peers.
  • Watch for your internal blurts and negative self-criticism and find ways to convert them into more constructive statements.
  • Be patient since anything worthwhile can take time.

More about Madeleine Dore

Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and the creator of Extraordinary Routines. She has contributed to Sunday Life, BBC, ArtsHub, Kill Your Darlings, The Design Files, and founded the international event series Side Project Sessions.

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