Want to get to the very top of your industry and field? Outside of doing the work (which accounts for 99.99% of your success anyway – don’t worry about the muse) you’ll find it important to network with folks who are in a position to help you along.
These folks (or institutions) may be a bit ahead of you but isn’t a necessary requirement – but it can help a lot. A recent study that deconstructed over half-a-million artistic careers showed that:
… for artists, professional success seems often to depend on an early endorsement by the right set of galleries.
The algorithm showed, to nobody’s surprise, that the art world’s biggest nodes are a group of European and North American powerhouses that include the Museum of Modern Art, the Gagosian Gallery and the Guggenheim in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. These places had the highest prestige ratings, and most of the world’s most successful art had, at some point, ended up being exhibited in one or more of them.
Just below the top tier, and less well-known outside the art world, were a set of institutions that also acted as important paths to artistic success—being those that most frequently feed works into the top tier.
The financial consequence of all this is that elite artists’ work sells 4.7 times more often at auctions than that of those at the bottom end, with maximum prices 5.2 times higher. Which could, of course, be evidence of a meritocratic system working perfectly. After all, for a young artist to beat the competition for wall space in a top gallery suggests he or she is producing work of great quality. Cynics might be forgiven, however, for wondering whether talent is the only factor involved in getting those crucial early shows.
Okay, got it, makes sense.
A lot of this resonates with me, especially the commentary on geography. I made a decision a few years ago to move out here to Silicon Valley based on that fact instead of heading anywhere else, especially as a builder, entrepreneur, and software engineer; this is the center of the universe for software-centric company-building – where else would I really want to go?
But, what I needed was a bit of “lift” to help me get plugged-in, to help me get started and so I began a systematic approach to networking to intentionally expand my relationship lattice, if you will, so I could get some of those relational (and institutional) endorsements.
This is just how the world works – you do your part of building and of creating something that people want and need and then you also do the work of networking with folks that can help you drive exposure to the project that you’ve invested your heart-and-soul into.
And… if you have a problem with this dynamic then there’s something fundamentally wrong with your thinking, mind you. It’s not about whether your work can stand on its own two legs or that you may accept (or reject) pure meritocracy, but rather the fact that you believe that you don’t need anyone’s help; that’s arrogant and prideful and everyone is ultimately poorer for it.
Getting help (and accepting that help) is a natural part of being in the world, living and working and contributing to the larger fabric of humanity. And especially with online technology and communities, you don’t have to live in absolute isolation… life’s better this way.
So get help, build community, find a small tribe, and gain entry and access to a much better life.