Rethinking Success as an Artist

 Rethinking Success as an Artist. Christine Nishiyama, Might Could Studios

There are many different ways to define success in a creative career, and they’re often not as straightforward as a typical career. Here are a few definitions I’ve heard from others and said to myself over the years:

  • I’ll be successful when… my art can provide me a full salary
  • I’ll be successful when… I can focus on my art as my full time job
  • I’ll be successful when… my work gets published/sold

But here’s the thing about creative careers: there are no guarantees. You can pour your heart and soul into your art and never get recognized for it, much less paid for it.

However, there’s something we can do about all this stress: we can change our definition of success as artists. This idea of redefining success has had a huge impact on my artistic life. It’s led to a lot less stress in my life, and allows me to feel more confident in myself as an artist.


 Rethinking Success as an Artist. Christine Nishiyama, Might Could Studios

My Unsuccessful Path as an Artist

To give you a very quick synopsis, my basic career timeline has gone like this, over a period of about 6 years:

  • Held multiple internships while attending college for design
  • After graduating, I worked as the lead graphic designer in a studio for a while
  • Then I went out on my own to be a freelance graphic designer
  • Decided I actually wanted to be an illustrator
  • Decided I actually wanted to write and illustrate children’s books
  • Decided my definition of success was getting my book published

So I had my definition of success, and I set about achieving it! Fiction picture books seemed like where all the illustrators I admired went, so that’s what I focused on. I wrote and illustrated one picture book, and thought it was the best thing that I had ever made. I sent it out to agents and publishers, naively expecting to have so much interest that I would have to choose WHICH publisher would win my book.

And then… crickets.

No one even responded. It wasn’t even good enough to get a “no thank you, not for us” email. So of course, I spiraled out into an emotional wreck. But this book was amazing, why could no one else see that? Was it actually terrible? Was I a terrible writer? A terrible illustrator? Should I just quit now and go back to graphic design?

To be quite honest, this wallowing self-pity party went on far too long. I was struggling internally to find my place as an artist and the emotional and financial stress began to affect my personal life and relationships. I fought with my boyfriend a lot. My bank account dropped down to about $100. I was making art, but it didn’t feel like my art. I was keeping everything I made to myself and wasn’t sharing any of it with anyone. And I cried a lot. I felt like I was a failure. That I had no purpose in life, and that I was a completely unsuccessful illustrator because I hadn’t fulfilled my sole definition of success: Getting my book published.

Remember that thing about creative careers? There are NO guarantees. Most careers are made by the amount of time and effort you put into them. Work hard and do a good job, and you’ll most likely be relatively successful. But a creative career does not follow the same rules.

You can work harder than anyone else, pour your heart and soul into your books, and never be published. And then at the same time, some random 20 year old from Oklahoma can pop out a novel and bam she’s on the bestseller lists with her debut book.

You really have no control over whether you will be successful as a creative person or not. It’s a weird mix of discipline and luck, and it doesn’t always make sense. But, there is a solution to all this: We can change our definition of success.


 Rethinking Success as an Artist. Christine Nishiyama, Might Could Studios

Rethinking the Meaning of Success

Let’s revisit those old definitions of success that I was saying to myself:

  1. I’ll be successful when… my art can provide me a full salary
  2. I’ll be successful when… I can focus on my art as my full time job
  3. I’ll be successful when…  I get my work published/sold

First of all, you don’t have to quit your day job to follow your dream, and I don’t recommend being financially dependent on your “passion” in the beginning stages of that passion. Maybe you’ll be lucky and sell your screenplay, but most likely “following your passion” will be a lifelong affair that may or may not ever amount to much financially.

Trust me, I went through that stage, and it’s not pretty. Something changes when you go from making art because you enjoy it to making art because you it’s how you pay for groceries. It goes from a hobby to a job, and making that transition too early can be fatal.

When you’re beginning your journey as an artist, your artwork needs room to breathe so you have the freedom to explore and find out who you are. I went too fast into a “I need this passion to provide for me!” mindset, and jumped straight into fiction picture books, thinking that devoting myself full-time to my art from the get-go was the fastest route for me to get my book published.

I was so narrowly focused on getting published, that I wasn’t exploring and experimenting as I should have been to find out where I belonged. When I received zero responses from publishers, I could have very easily called myself a failure and given up on all artmaking just because I hadn’t achieved my narrow definition of success. And I nearly did.

But here’s what I did instead.

I stopped sending out my work to publishers. I started picking up freelance graphic design jobs and teaching on Skillshare, and I began making and saving money to build my bank account back up.

Simultaneously, I put my beloved book in a drawer and forgot about it. I found comics, and read every graphic novel I could get my hands on. I found nonfiction children’s books and pored over them at the bookstore, studying their every nuance. I began writing and illustrating new stories and exploring and experimenting with subjects, types of stories, and different ways to tell those stories.

At the same time, I mentally changed my idea of success. I realized how lucky I was to have the opportunity to even explore all of this at all. I was able to read, and write, and draw almost every day, while providing for myself through graphic design freelance jobs and teaching.

And what was so wrong with that? I wasn’t any less of an artist because I made my income through graphic design and not picture books. And I wasn’t any less of an artist because I was unpublished. I was an artist because I was making art.

And so my definition of success changed from “I will be successful as an artist when I am published” to “I will be successful as an artist when I can create art consistently.”

And that’s exactly what I was doing. I was churning out more work than I ever had before, even though I had to balance it with freelancing and teaching, and therefore actually had less hours to make art. The time constraint actually made me value the time more and be more proactive.

A mental wall in my head had fallen, and I began creating art because I wanted to create art, not because I wanted to live financially off of it, or be perceived as a REAL artist. And the art was better. It was better than ever before, and I was finding out who I was, finding my style, and my voice and getting more and more confident in every way.

I was defining my success by things I could control (my dedication), instead of things I will never be able to control (being published). I was making tons of art and I was sharing that art with no expectations. I started posting my stories, illustrations and comics online, instead of keeping them hidden in my desk.

And slowly, things began to happen.

My stories began feeling more like me, and improving with each and every one. I began getting big editorial illustration jobs. My work started getting recognized and talked about.

And finally, after starting it 3 years earlier, I revisited that old, original book and realized how horrible it really was. With my new skills, new confidence, and better grasp of who I was as an artist, I rewrote the entire book, changing it completely from a picture book to a middle grade graphic novel, from mostly fiction to mostly nonfiction, and from a poorly drawn, confused book, to a refined, true to my style book. Then with new skills, new inspiration, and new motivation, I moved on and started creating my next book.

I still have the dream to be published, and I still work very hard to achieve that dream. In fact, I’m working on self-publishing one of my books right now. But the difference is that I now have the long view in mind instead of the short view. My self worth as an artist and as a person no longer hinges on getting published.

My definition of success now is to be able to spend my whole life drawing and writing. If I can do that, then I will be a successful artist. And by that definition, I’m already successful. I’m able to write and draw and read every day, and I couldn’t say that 5 years ago. I’m able to create art and explore and experiment with my art WHILE being financially independent and secure.

I no longer think all my income has to come directly from my art. I no longer think I have to be published to be a true writer. Or when the Caldecott medal to be a true children’s book illustrator. My success comes from my devotion and dedication, not from external recognition by publishers or awards.

 Rethinking Success as an Artist. Christine Nishiyama, Might Could Studios

But What If We Never Achieve Our Dreams?

What if I don’t ever get published? What if I self-publish my book and no one wants it? Won’t I have wasted my whole life, writing and illustrating stories that no one ever read or cared about?  In Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, she tells this wonderful story:

“I have a friend, an aspiring musician, whose sister said to her one day, quite reasonably, ‘What happens if you never get anything out of this? What happens if you pursue your passion forever, but success never comes? How will you feel then, having wasted your entire life for nothing?’ My friend, with equal reason, replied, ‘If you can’t see what I’m already getting out of this, then I’ll never be able to explain it to you.’”

When something is really your passion, and it really brings you so much joy and satisfaction, and enhances your life the way real passions do, then you’d do it no matter what, and you’d do whatever you had to to do to be able to keep doing it.

So yes, I believe in myself and in the dream that one day my books will be printed, bound, shipped out, read, and loved by others.

But in the end, if I live to be an old lady who spent the bulk of her life making lots of stuff that no one ever bought, living a life full of making things that meant something to me, making things that brought me joy, making things that constantly taught me about myself and the world, making things that fed my curiosity and helped me grow, and making things that allowed me to live in that transcendent flow state of mind for as much as possible, while STILL providing for myself?

I’d say that would be a pretty successful life.

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