Creative Success vs. Personal Relationships — Who Wins?

by An Xiao on May 14, 2013

A snippet of Grant Snider's spot-on comic about ambition. (click to view the original comic).

A snippet of Grant Snider’s spot-on comic about ambition. (click to view the original comic).

SAN FRANCISCO — Many artists I know are incredibly ambitious. They want to be the best, the most effective artist they can be. And if they move to a large city with a supportive gallery and museum system, they can turn that ambition into career success.

For the recent Tumblr Art Symposium, I wrote about Tricia Wang’s theory of the Elastic Self in the context of art and creativity. “Like rubber bands,” I wrote of flexible online spaces like Tumblr, “when we step into Tumblr we can stretch and reshape ourselves into different configurations. Each new hat we try on stretches the rubber band just a little bit further, and over time it might evolve into a new configuration. This allows for remarkable opportunities to explore different potentials of self and self-expression.”

And so a recent article from Emily Esfahani Smith in The Atlantic caught my eye. Noting that “relationships are more important than ambition,” it goes on to say:

When I asked about the connection between ambition and personal relationships, [researcher John D.] Kammeyer-Mueller said that while the more ambitious appeared to be happier, that their happiness could come at the expense of personal relationships. “Do these ambitious people have worse relationships? Are they ethical and nice to the people around them? What would they do to get ahead? These are the questions the future research needs to answer.”

While you might imagine that this is simply a matter of time management, the article suggests that simply having tight relationships can hinder the drive for career success:

The conflict between career ambition and relationships lies at the heart of many of our current cultural debates, including the ones sparked by high-powered women like Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Marie Slaughter. Ambition drives people forward; relationships and community, by imposing limits, hold people back.

In other words, being unable to explore new avenues of oneself and one’s creativity can actually be hindered by maintaining strong ties. At least according to this article, being able to take a risk in one’s work also means detaching from relationships and community. That’s a pretty strong point.

Part of me has to wonder if this is a false dichotomy, at least for some careers. Many artists and designers I’ve met work in or near their homes, and it’s easier for them to slip out of the studio for a bit (no boss to check in with, after all!) to meet up with friends. But I’ve also met many career artists whose only goal is fame and, one day, some sort of fortune. That might mean putting socializing on the back burner, except when that socializing is with potential work colleagues and benefactors.

Perhaps there can be a balance of both. It gets me thinking about Grant Snider’s Nature of Ambition comic, which recently exploded on Tumblr with nearly 60,000 notes. Ambitious people, after all, are often ambitious at what they love doing. And Kammeyer-Mueller found that ambitious people are often happy about their accomplishments. If someone’s found what they love, you can’t fail them for pursuing it.

What do you think, dear reader? Can a successful art career exist alongside successful personal relationships? Or does one eventually have to give?

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  • There are no artists in NYC really worth studying because almost everyone creating the illusion of an art machine is a coward who severely needs to be put in their place.

    No art critic consistently brings the heat with searing poetry that travels straight to the heart because a) they cannot hear nor transcribe in the very first place b) they are puppets of opportunistic thinking c) people despise them behind their back making them ingratiatingly wan in word and d) they lack love’s grace to protect them in stormy weather from all harm.

    I roll incognito to eternal and blessed fame bestowed upon my merit and thus my person in this life, before this life, and because, of course, the future of man.

    I am the best artist in New York City by word of mouth or name of myths.

    • [email protected]

      Hell yeah, me too

    • Poetry is so Ra Ra Rauschenberg. We live in a rational age where art goes to auction to die and the only real art is speed.

      • Poetry is the enlightened way of moving through space in our spiritual excursions on the way to achieving godliness in body and thoughts.

        The headless chicken appears to be running fast but in no way does it conceive of where it is going having lost its mind back there in the foray of the marketplace and its whimsical gossip.

  • ngtoronto

    Kevin Ashton’s essay on why “Creative People Say No” [ ] is the best articulated piece I’ve related to as an artist. He writes:

    “No guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations.
    The math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more
    than you know. We are not taught to say “no.” We are taught not to say “no.” “No” is rude. “No” is a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of
    verbal violence. “No” is for drugs and strangers with candy.”

    Also in this excellent piece is a quote from Charles Dickens in which he rejects an invitation from a friend:
    ““‘It is only half an hour’ — ‘It is only an afternoon’ — ‘It is only an
    evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that
    it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and
    set disposal of five minutes — or that the mere consciousness of an
    engagement will sometime worry a whole day … Who ever is devoted to an
    art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his
    recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see
    you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”

    It certainly doesn’t relate to everyone, but it does resonate strongly with me.
    (Oh! And thank you so much for broadcasting the Tumblr Art Symposium, it was fantastic to take part from Toronto! The panelists, and Tricia Wang in particular, were fascinating.)

    • Thank you for sharing this. I can’t tell you how many times an engagement loomed over my head for a whole day, preventing me from doing good work. Or worse, it was right in the middle of the day, which meant I could never get into a groove, even with the extra time I had. So, I give up the day to errands and emails.

  • I think it is as simple as being able to find your muse. Or at least someone who can help to keep your creative energy high. Also, there are also other factors in our modern high speed technological world that affect personal relationships. I think our definitions of personal relationships, such as you must be with only one person for the rest of your life, need to be redefined. I’m pretty sure the best course is to assume everything is temporary and yet infinite, and so one must just go with the flow. There are going to be different people at different times of our lives who affect us and our creativity and propel it forward in different ways. One will have the most success by accepting these connections at each juncture and allowing them to drift on as things change.

  • It’s interesting that another commenter mentioned the Creative People Say No piece because I found it very reductive and unhelpful. Is some creative activity solitary? Absolutely. Do some artists work best alone? Yes. On the other hand, is some creativity collaborative and communal? Of course. Do some artsits thrive when saying yes, yes, yes to creative engagement? We know they do. Please, please, journalists, don’t mistake your way of being creative for the Way.

    But more to the point of your post, yes, I believe you can have success in art as well as in personal relationships. In fact, for me they would be inseparable. When I go out to see another artist/writer/etc’s event, that is integral to my own creative life. When I socialize with other artsits/writers/etc ditto. That goes for more intimate relationships too. I could not sustain myself creatively without the help of other people. And in return I feel the need/want to return that help.

    • ngtoronto

      Hi there–I’m sorry to hear you found it unhelpful! As I know it can seem polarizing, I did mention that I understand it doesn’t relate to everyone in appreciation of individual process. So, I absolutely appreciate where you are coming from, and it sounds like you’ve found a great balance for yourself!

      In the broader sense, though, I think it is about finding that individual balance, and learning what you choose to say “No” (or “Yes”) to–and when–in spending your time in a way that you find fulfilling and productive. And this balance, for everyone, will fall somewhere along a very broad spectrum.

      • Thanks for the response, Noah. Sounds like we’re mostly in good agreement! Have a nice one.

  • I am an artist. I have no time for artists who seek fame… It is it’s own reward. I hate scenes of any kind.. can’t think of a less creative environment. My relationships are as important to me as my art.. they can co exist and enrich each other quite happily. I’m reading ‘Just Kids’ which is about the relationship between Patti Smth and Robert Maplethorpe. Case in point. Think of Van Gogh … never sold a painting when he was alive. Artists who are famous are often trapped and limited by their own fame. Just make art because that’s what you do. If you happen to make money out of it fine.. if not .. fine too!

  • Jeff P

    Big cities swallow artists whole… much better to work in the periphery.

  • AL

    There is a notion about creativity and success which celebrates the myth of the mad genius who destroys everything around him, including himself, in the pursuit of perfection. Creating Art is not about madness or happy accidents. It is about making very deliberate choices. I believe that choosing how to spend your time, with whom and choosing carefully to maintain healthy relationships creates an environment supportive of creativity, happiness and success.

  • Relational-mystico-mumbo-jumbo sounds like self aggrandizing/justificatory nonsense to me. There is of course a lot of youthful sturm und drang that creates a volatile fuel-air mix that could be ignited at ANY MINUTE. This is what has to happen. At the same time, a large network of friends and admirers has a proven track record of nurturing success (to the winner, the spoils, the history, the glory). You aren’t going to reach critical mass by yourself. FACT. Be a loner all you want, there are tons of them. This whole plastic rubber extroverted bouncy tiger stuff really chaps my hide though. Stop it.

  • I think a successful career can exist along side personal relationships if one is able to draw the boundaries and keep a healthy perspective—actually I think they can greatly compliment each other. An artist that knows the depth and breadth of human experience (which includes other people) can greatly enrich their art through that. If you’re not swallowed by it.

  • I think it’s possible, but as you point out, there are limits. I’m not a visual artist but a writer, and I would LOVE to spend 12 to 16 hours a day on my work, but I can’t because partner and child. However, making time and space for relationships brings dimensions and perspectives to my work that I wouldn’t necessarily have locked in a studio for days on end.

  • Balance. It’s all about balance…

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