Creative Success vs. Personal Relationships — Who Wins?

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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