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10 Skills Every Artist Needs For Success

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If you follow this list I can’t guarantee that you’ll be a millionaire or have a legacy like Picasso. You may not have incredible talent or mastery of your craft. But if you combine the following list of skills with talent there’s almost nothing you can’t achieve.

Now, perhaps a few people will complain and say that some of the choices I’ve made below aren’t exactly skills per se’ but are more like character traits. I would argue that a skill is anything you learn. Its something you practice and repeat over and over. By seeing health, or mental toughness, or protecting the downside as a skill to be learned, it gives you the freedom to not be perfect and learn as you go.

CHARACTER VS. COMPETENCE(SKILLS)

Too often, after some business or personal failure, people will beat themselves up for thinking they have ‘bad character’ when what they really have are underdeveloped skills. Character traits like loyalty, honesty, integrity etc will help you stay grounded and healthy as you move toward developing your competence and skills. You need both but I’m assuming and hoping you have good character. What you need are some skills to help you get to that next level as a creative person.

Here is my list of ten skills that you need to succeed in todays world as an artist.

1) Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is about handling pressure and not being impacted by what people think. As an artist there is already a lot of vulnerability as we expose our emotions, but in todays world, with social media, we open ourselves up to massive criticism from complete strangers. I’ve had friends who thought they were being funny with a silly comment to something I’ve shared online but actually it came out really hurtful. Just imagine how it feels when a complete stranger unloads their venom in a vicious attack? You have to be tough mentally and know how to keep going and ignore that criticism and comments. Even more so when its your own inner critic.  Mental toughness helps you face the uphill climb and not give up when you want to quit.

2) Discipline

You’d think this is pretty obvious, and it is, but its amazing how important follow through and work ethic are to success. Not so much the 4:30am workout routines or working 19 hours a day, although the evidence for early rising is pretty strong, I’m referring more to the discipline to see things through. Finish what you start. Even if it takes a year to finish something you should have been able to do in a couple days, the rewards of eventually completing is the greatest feeling in the world. Keep going.

3) Protect the Downside (make sure there’s a way out so you can walk away and try again).

This is super important and where most of my entrepreneurial mistakes have usually come from. Be sure to create an exit plan when you’re hatching up an idea or business. Before you make a huge investment ask yourself what the worst case scenario is and then protect yourself from those outcomes. In the early 80’s, when Richard Branson was running a successful record label, he decided to start an airline. Instead of putting his entire empire in jeopardy by buying an expensive plane and hoping he made money he negotiated with Boeing to let him lease one and if after a year he decided to shut the airline down he could return the plane no questions asked.  Simple but very smart.

4) Willing to Experiment (and fail)

If you are afraid to try new things and possibly make a mistake here or there you’ll miss out on incredible opportunities. Maybe you are afraid of ruining your brand. Unless you try you’ll never know. Maybe you’re afraid people won’t like it. Its also possible you might find a new audience you didn’t know was there. There’s always a trade off. A willingness to experiment is fundamental to being an artist. Don’t be afraid of making crap. Everyone feels this way. Its healthy and important to do it anyway.

5) Have An Open Mind

Visit new places, try a new type of food, try a new experience, be willing to learn new things. You have to be open to the world around you. Its how you increase your archive of ideas in order to create. If you only listen to one kind of music then you’ll only copy that sound. Listen to a lot of different styles and you’ll combine them into something original.

6) Empathy

What makes an artist relatable? Empathy. Why? Because it allows you to connect with your characters, your audience, your collaborators, in a way that is human and real. If you are portraying Hitler standing in the hot sun before a large crowd ready to give a speech, empathy allows you to understand that he got hot and sweaty too, and you wipe your brow. Now, an audience can relate to him as a human. A flawed, psycho, very real human. When we lack empathy we often create art that is flat and one dimensional. If we can be empathetic with our medium or expression the painting or music etc has more soul and life in it. Now we are connecting not just creating.

7) Discernment Of People

You need to know how to ‘read the air’ around people. Beyond what someone says, knowing what they are thinking or feeling is super important. This skill set will give you Jedi like abilities of knowing how to negotiate contracts, how to build trust and love among friends, and how to communicate with an audience.

8) Basic Money Management

If you can’t manage your money find someone who can. Make sure you know enough to be sure you aren’t getting ripped off. Your art is more important than your money but your money is important so you can keep making more art.

9) Ability to Network 

This isn’t as big a deal as you might think but being able to find mentors, teachers, new friends and contacts is incredibly important. Learn to be interested in others. Ask questions. You’ll avoid countless mistakes by being curious about other people’s stories and learning from them. You’ll also find more work, build more relationships and expand your worldview.

10) Personal Health

If you aren’t healthy you have nothing. Physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health is fundamental to the life of an artist. You’ll live longer, be happier, and inspire more people. Don’t sacrifice your health for your art. Its not worth it.

How Do I Reinvent My Life?

Ever have moments where you feel like you’ve changed or outgrown your friends, place you live, or job? Maybe the clothes you wear no longer feel like a reflection of you and you’re beginning to wonder about making a fresh start. It’s possible you’re needing to reinvent your life. In this episode we discuss asking the right question to help you on that journey.

Mental Toughness


What does it mean to be mentality tough? Is it really that important? Wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage someone to be loving or caring or peaceful etc?

Those attributes are all great, but mental toughness is about endurance. Its about going the distance and lasting till the end. Its about dealing with adversity, and knowing who you are and being comfortable in your own skin. You can be the most loving person in the world but if you aren’t mentally tough you’ll most likely self destruct when the haters show up. And they always do.

MY JOURNEY

I was not raised to be mentally tough. That’s no criticism of my parents its just that while most students were involved in sports (where mental toughness is more often a focus) I was drawing or playing music or working in my laboratory in the basement. There were never any discussions about ‘drop and give me another twenty pushups!’ Or ‘finish what you started’. It was, oh man, I’m all out of crimson red to finish the sky in my painting so I think I’ll go cry. Or, someone said something really critical of me and my codependency issues and wanting them to like me made me want to find a corner somewhere and cry. Starting to see a pattern here?

It wasn’t until recently when I discovered some great books and teaching on mental toughness. I can see now how so much pain in my life was caused by not being able to mentally handle tough things.

Being overly sensitive to criticism. Lack of discipline or follow through. Plagued with thoughts of fear. Lack of focus.

All of these issues arise from a lack of mental toughness. People who are strong mentally are able to handle the pressure, rejection, criticism, etc because they’ve conditioned their mind to handle it. Its not like things don’t impact them but they know how to stand when the fight comes at them.

Being in shape isn’t about lifting weights in the gym, its about lifting weights in the gym so you’re in shape when you leave. You have to put the work in so you’re ready when adversity and stress comes whether mentally or physically.

NOT MY FINEST HOUR

Years ago I was employed by a company where I asked tasked with leading someone who didn’t want to be led. She had been at the company for decades and I was just another new guy hired to oversee her. She had seen guys like me come and go so there was no interest on her part in doing things the way I needed her to do them. We clashed from almost day one. I tried everything but I was immature as a leader and unable to bridge the divide.

Eventually, we were both called into a leadership meeting with the board who wanted to help find a workable solution. About five minutes into the discussion I began to cry. Not ‘Gilmore Girls reunion movie’  tears, but like ‘death in the family’ tears. Everyone was stunned. They all gathered round and tried to calm me down.

I eventually left and went into my office to pull myself together and I sat under my desk and wept like a baby. The pressure of all that conflict between myself and this person had been building up over time and I finally let it out. In a very public way.

I lacked mental toughness. I also lacked emotional health and the ability to understand my inner dialogue, or lack thereof. I’ve since learned how to recognize the signs so that I don’t let things build up like that.

Mental toughness is key to managing complicated relationships. You have to know who you are, who the other person sees when they look at you, and not let their false impression become your identity.
Mental toughness is also key to success because it will help you embrace challenges and problems others would run to avoid.

HOW CAN YOU IMPROVE YOUR MENTAL TOUGHNESS?

1) FOCUS ON IT

I’m a firm believer that unless you are intentional its hard to make anything a permanent habit or life change. There are countless books and videos that discuss the topic of mental toughness. There are great coaches and teachers discussing this issue all over the internet. Watch them. Every day. Make it a goal to listen to something about this topic several times a week for a year. You’ll be amazed at how, in a very short time, you view the world and handle conflict.

2) PRACTICE IT

Just like any muscle in your body, mental toughness takes deliberate daily work. You have to look back at situations you have been through and reevaluate them through this new lens you’ve acquired. How could you have handled things different? What situations are you in now where you feel anxiety and fear? How should you respond? Instead of worrying about where you are and how far you have to go take it a day at a time. Learn to rest in the daily decisions and choices you make and look for opportunities to practice your new skills.

3) SPEAK IT OUT: VERBALLY OR INTERNALLY

As silly as this sounds a huge part of implementing this into your life is to simply address situations with “I got this” or “I’m a little freaked out right now but I’m going to do it.” When a coworker says something that riles you up, telling yourself, “okay, no problem, I’ll work through this” has a dramatic impact on your life. I can’t explain how important it is. I think it must rewire the brain or something because when you actually talk to yourself and say things like “I’ll get through this” or “this isn’t that big of a deal, I can do it”, you start believing it. When you start believing it you start living it. There’s tremendous power in our words and when we talk to ourselves in this way we start to realize just what we are capable. Problems, tough relationships, difficult jobs, are no longer things we run from but challenges we know we can handle.

FINAL THOUGHTS

As you can see, being mentally tough takes practice and consistency. Its a muscle that needs worked on. Deliberate focused attention will reap incredible rewards as you find yourself running towards your problems instead of away from them and handling all the chaos that life has to offer.

You Have Permission To Fail

You have permission to fail. You are allowed to create art no one likes. You are allowed to build a business that goes bankrupt. You are allowed to fall in love and have your heart broken. If you spend your life running from potential failure you’ll never really be alive. Get out there and make a million mistakes. We’re all improvising and figuring this out as we go along so don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. Stay away from people who have never tried and failed. They typically go by the name of ‘expert’. They are liars and frauds.