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Finding Success in Less

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Saying that something has a “cult following” is as vague as saying that something is “successful.” Both exist on a sliding scale, and while neither means much on their own, both are desirable. At times the difference between the two is non-existent, at others it’s worlds apart.

Neither Office Space and Idiocracy “succeeded” at the box office, yet the Mike Judge films both found “success” through “cult followings” when made available for at-home consumption. While a success is a success is a success, Judge has made the statement that just once it’d be nice to not have to rely on finding a cult following to find success in the medium. Both are great results, but still: one is seemingly less great. (“I would rather have a huge number one blockbuster, but hey, I’ll take it.“)

Shifting gears, in a recent blog post Seth Godin writes,

“If you want to get paid for your freelance work… then you ought to find and lead a tribe, build a base of people who want you, and only you, and are willing to pay for it.”

And in his recap of Dan Provost & Tom Gerhardt’s presentation at this weekend’s XOXO Festival, Anil Dash adds,

“Louis C.K.’s success narrative was ‘actually quite refreshing’ – but what about the rest of us? What if we’re not known and established? Kevin Kelly’s long argued that you should have 1,000 true fans in order to sustain your work. There’s a sweet spot between blockbuster and obscurity, and it lets you have a much smaller audience than you might imagine.”

To “succeed” is to meet a goal, but first you have to address what that goal is. And in addressing goals, why not open yourself up to the idea that you might be able to do well without capturing the lone objective that you feel is vital to your success. In his recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast, the classically-trained hard rocker (and party enthusiast) Andrew W.K. took a moment to describe why he doesn’t like to see creators limit their definition of success,

“I don’t understand that. This is not [meant as] a disrespect. I admit that my lack of understanding comes from: one, being very fortunate, but two, maybe some kind of ignorance. When I learned music is was because a joy in music. People say ‘How do you become a successful musician?’ I say, ‘Well, do you play your instrument?’ They say, ‘Yeah.’ I say, ‘Do you enjoy it?’ They say, ‘Yeah.’ I say, ‘Then you’re a successful musician.’ [Maron lunges forward in full-on hippie tone, ‘No man, I mean, like, on a record’…] Oh, then you’re going to be a businessman, then you’re going to be an entertainer, you’re gonna work in show business: Those are all very different things.”

All of this is to say a couple things. First off, you don’t have to be the passionate creator AND the business-savy marketer to be “successful,” as personal satisfaction and financial reward are wildly different measures. Second, those finding “success” outside of self are often the same people positioning themselves to emphasize their differences. And third, if you’re going to try to make a living from your work, it might be that tribes (or small, like-minded groups) are where it’s at: It’s been ages since you’ve needed to fill an arena to be a financially successful musician or rally for a New York Times Best Seller to be a financially successful writer. As Kickstarter (and the like) has shown, more and more a compact group of fiercely dedicated supporters is what will separate a creator from the green light and the gutter.

Step One: Honestly define “success.” Step Two: Play to your strengths. Step Three: Don’t underestimate the power of less. Simple in statement, yet daunting in practice.