Stuff chief executive Sinead Boucher recently told me she only landed one of the defining roles of her early career because her competition, a fellow intern, suffered an outbreak of hives and couldn’t take the role.
This serendipity, she reflected, has manifested at various junctures, highlighting that good fortune often plays an important role in career progression. “Anyone who doesn’t think that’s the case is probably delusional about their own amazingness,” she joked.
This applies at a macro level across almost any career, but it’s equally relevant when viewed in the context of a single piece of ground-breaking work.
The celebrated designer Christoph Niemann wrote in Sunday Sketching that artists can hone their craft to the stage where they can produce good work reliably, but that great work demanded a sprinkle of good luck.
“For great work you also need a lot of skill and craft, but you need something else that you can’t control,” he wrote.
“Once you accept this, your life actually becomes a lot easier. If you are a client, please remember: All you can ask from an artist is very good work. Great work is not really plan-able.”
Understanding that the best moments of a career are tied together by serendipity helps to moderate the ego. It’s the reminder that we aren’t all-powerful creative deities shooting creative lightning bolts from our fingertips, but that we are rather at the mercy of creative gods waiting to be blessed with a smidgen of luck from above as we toil over our labour.
It also explains why creative anxiety—the fear of not being good enough—remains consistent among many working in creative fields. This doesn’t fade over time. Even after winning 15 Grammys and making an indelible imprint on his industry, Eminem feels this insecurity strongly enough to pen the verse: “Now take your best rhyme, outdo it, now do it a thousand times. Now let ’em tell ya the world no longer cares or gives a fuck about your rhymes.”
So long as this insecurity doesn’t reach a debilitating severity, it can become a driving force. It provides the motivation to push harder, find new angles, study the legends and do work you feel proud of years later.
The image of the brilliant Bohemian artist, just living life and experiencing things, is a reductionist fantasy. To quote the short story writer Dorthe Nors: “You know the cliché: You’re out on the town, you’re doing drugs, you’re drinking, you’re running on the walls, you’re pissing on the fireplace. It’s a cliché. Often you run into artists who live that life—and at one point, you find out that they’re not actually producing that much art. They’re living the life of the artist without the work.”
Only a few creative types (think Bob Dylan) get away with living life on the road and penning 15-minute masterpieces on the back of diner napkins. For the rest, it’s a case of running on a treadmill powered by insecurity as you try to stay ahead of the realisation that you may not be good enough.
This, I think, is also part of the reason why people in this industry tend to swap treadmills so regularly. Once things become a little too comfortable, the pace slows down, the self-doubt starts to catch up and again raises the question of whether you’re still capable of doing good work or if you’ve just benefitted from a forgiving incline.
In 2018, I intend to see if I can stay ahead of my insecurity as I step onto a new treadmill at the New Zealand Herald. And as I depart and pass NZ Marketing on to the capable Erin McKenzie, I can only hope that I encounter a little luck along the way.
Thank you to everyone for reading over the course of 2017. In our usual tradition, we’ll be publishing our Year in Review pieces over the Christmas break. Here’s to an even better 2018.