What Sustains a Belief in Success Among the Unsuccessful?

I’ve been haunted by the question of what sustains belief in success among the unsuccessful ever since I read Reinhard Bendix’ magisterial book, Work and Authority in Industry. Bendix wrote about the economic ideology that kept millions of people in England, the United States, and other Western capitalist societies working in arduous and poorly paying jobs, apparently in the belief that someday, sooner or later, their hard work would be rewarded. Bendix’s view was that this ideology enabled developing capitalist societies to survive in spite of the hardships experienced by their working classes and the demonstrable economic inequality produced by economic growth.

A similar question occurred to me a few days ago after I finished a fruitless 6 hours of fly fishing at a local Lake. Along with the other members of my small fishing group, I had spent the day in bitterly cold weather, casting into a howling wind, with almost nothing to show for it by way of trout landed. This was not an atypical day, except for the cold, as we often spend an entire day fly fishing without catching more than a handful of fish. Nonetheless, every week, on our appointed day, we trek back to the lake and try it again.

Afternoon sun on the Duchesne

Afternoon sun on the Duchesne

On the way home from the lake, I found myself thinking about the similarities between my fly fishing experience and that of underemployed members of the creative professions that I’ve been studying. Actors, musicians, authors, dancers, filmmakers and others often spend years without finding steady employment in their profession, sustaining themselves by working in other jobs that may have little or no connection to their professional identity. For example, at the beginning of 2012 report by Actor’s Equity Association said that the average unemployment rate for actors was around 90%.

One of my friends asked if I would accept an analogy between the experience of athletes, who often experience “failures” through losses in competition and infrequently-employed creative artistic professionals. I said no, because the context for athletic failures is quite different. Athletes, whether amateur or professional, are competing within a context where there are rules that govern their actions: there is little uncertainty about the need to experience failure. Every athletic contest has a winner and a loser, determined by rules that were set a priori. The very nature of athletic competition mandates that someone will lose in every game.

By contrast, fly fishermen and creative professionals are operating in a highly uncertain context. There are well-established and standardized procedures for acquiring the skills needed to potentially do well as an angler or artist, but for any given performance, whether it will be a “success” or “failure” is highly uncertain.

Additionally, many products produced by creative professionals either fail to get distributed or lose money when they are distributed. Paul Hirsch pointed to the overproduction of many cultural products, such as films, records and CDs, books, and plays, resulting in a large number never reaching their intended audiences. American playwrights, for example, consider themselves fortunate if their new plays are produced for a 2nd or 3rd time, after their premier. Many are produced once and never appear in a theater again.

So, in the face of such long odds, what sustains a belief in success among these unsuccessful creative professionals? As I drove home, I pondered the similarities between these artists and fly fishermen. Admittedly, initially it seemed a bit of a stretch, but then several principles came to mind. 1st, as we know from behavioral psychology, intermittent reinforcement is a very powerful force in sustaining a behavior. Indeed, intermittent reinforcement – – receiving reinforcement on an unpredictable schedule – – is more powerful than receiving reinforcement consistently after every trial. For anglers, all it takes is a few successful catches in a day to create the feeling that the day has been a success. Perhaps for artists, the same thing holds?

2nd, and probably more important, anglers, especially fly fishermen, are often part of a very resilient community that gives them a very strong sense of shared fate with other anglers. Fly fishermen have magazines, blogs, videos, television programs, voluntary associations, and other mechanisms that enable communication with others who share a passion in fly fishing. I believe the same is true of the creative professions. Having a strong sense of social identity, in which someone perceives their identity as tied to that of a larger community of like-minded people, could sustain a person through difficult times.

3rd, if someone has experienced powerful socialization pressures such that their personal identity is bound up with their occupational identity, they may tolerate an enormous amount of misery before abandoning that identity. Thus, someone who strongly identifies with their artistic craft may continue to hold onto that belief, regardless of having few opportunities to demonstrate their prowess. Lena and Lindemann used data from a very large survey of individuals who had pursued an arts degree in the United States to investigate the question of artistic identity, noting that many workers are defined themselves as artists did not hold artistic jobs. They focused on the very large group that said they had worked in an occupation associated with the arts but who did not indicate that they identified as a professional artist. However, what caught my eye in the survey was a much smaller number of people who said they either currently or at one time had worked as a professional artist but then indicated in another question that they had never worked in an occupation associated with the arts. This small group of people apparently had sustained a sense of being an artistic professional while never having an opportunity to work in an occupation associated with the arts.

I would love to know more about these “artists” – – were they able to publish, record, perform, or otherwise display their talents just often enough to maintain a belief that someday they would “make it big”? Were they member of local communities of creative professionals who reinforce one another’s beliefs that they were just going through a temporary bad patch and success was just around the corner?

What sustains entrepreneurs through adversity?

9 thoughts on “What Sustains a Belief in Success Among the Unsuccessful?

  1. Andy Van de Ven

    Hi Howard,
    What do you mean by success? I learned from my 94 year old father-in-law, who still comes fly fishing with us for a week each July floating down the Madison River in Montana, that success is in the journey — figuring out what fly to use, casting it in the precise spot along the river bed or behind rocks where the trout are supposed to be, seeing the mallard ducks swimming in the river, the beautiful cloud formations in the sky, and enjoying lunch and coffee breaks with the fishing party. That’s what it’s all about. Oh yea, bringing in that trout is a high, as are the strikes, the ones that got away, but nothing is greater than just being out there. As the saying goes, I’d rather catch no fish than to be working!

    1. Howard Aldrich Post author

      Andy, I guess this is where the analogy breaks down! You’re right — in fly fishing, it is the journey, not the destination. I’m quite content to spend a day on the water — not working — and come back with nothing to show for it but a deeper tan.
      So, how do we compare this with artists/creative professionals? Based on my field work & reading, I wonder whether just being in the community, associating with those who do get jobs, those who have their work produced, distributed, etc., would be satisfying enough. For us anglers, getting on the river is the “success” in terms of experience & satisfaction. But could you go months without catching anything & continue to say that “I’m still having fun”?
      Thanks for the thought-provoking response. This issue may be more nuanced than I thought!

  2. Jeff Leary

    Hi Howard, I like your analogy, but funny enough I had a similar thought to Andy concerning success. Personal definitions of success, or maybe satisfaction, in particular. Amongst us fly fishers, we both know those who truly are satisfied by the experience, with or without fish in hand. We also know those who will fish twice as hard and long if someone else catches a fish, and those who will encroach on your spot if you are catching and they are not. For the latter, is the catch much more a part of their definition of success? It’s enough to drive them to the boundary of behavioral norms. I have always thought the intermittent reward you pointed out is a driver. True also in golf, where the average golfer hits the ball 100 times in an outing, and only a few are good and provide that satisfactory feel. It’s often said “That’s good enough to bring you back!” As far as employment goes, for some, success is enough money to lead a desired life. For others, it’s international renown in the chosen field. For some, I suspect it’s perceived power acquired. Like all things, pretty complex, but maybe you should develop this concept further. It seems fruitful to me!

    1. Howard Aldrich Post author

      Jeff, great response! Yes, heterogeneity of goals/motives makes any analysis of this question pretty challenging. I think I’m focusing on the “average” or “median” person in my analysis, and it might be an empirical question as to what fraction of the under- or infrequently-employed creative professionals stay with it and what fraction give up. And then, within the set of persistent people, how much diversity is there in what drives them?
      Good points about creatives & what drives them — money, fame, power — but again, the question is why do some stick with it, in the face of very infrequent positive feedback.
      Thanks again!

  3. Steven Aldrich

    Dad – We recently conducted a survey of over 500 very small business owners at various stages of their lifecycle and found them to be exceptionally positive about their future. Among the group, 88 percent are more optimistic about their company’s prospects than before they started their business. They also reported they were happier and healthier, too.

    Among the reason they cited were the less tangible aspects of entrepreneurship including things like an unstructured workday that allows time for exercise, seeing family and friends, and yes, deciding what they wear and where they work.

    Those non-economic outcomes have enough value to the business owner that they outweigh the high likelihood that their business folds and the lower income many will earn.


    1. Howard Aldrich Post author

      Steven, I agree: non-economic benefits must be at the root of the persistence I pointed out in my post. Of course, for fly fishing, I doubt that anyone ever contemplated material returns! But for the creative professionals & artists, and now your point about small business owners, the rewards of sustaining a belief in “success” — or, perhaps this is your point — the concept of “success” itself, inheres in the journey itself (as Andy & Jeff argued in their posts).

  4. Kathy Giuffre

    Hi, Howard — The artists to whom I’ve spoken overwhelmingly say that they create because they have no choice. They have to do it. It’s not a very sociological explanation, but I hear it over and over again. Success would be nice, but it is not the point. Maybe they just buy into the romantic myth of the artist, but they seem to buy into it wholeheartedly. Here is a passage from Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, an argument between the Gauguin character and another character who is trying to talk him out of changing careers to pursue art:
    “What makes you think you have any talent?”
    He did not answer for a minute. His gaze rested on the passing throng, but I do not think he saw it. His answer was no answer.
    “I’ve got to paint.”
    “Aren’t you taking an awful chance?”
    He looked at me then. His eyes had something strange in them, so that I felt rather uncomfortable.
    “How old are you? Twenty-three?”
    It seemed to me that the question was beside the point. it was natural that I should take chances; but he was a man whose youth was past, a stockbroker with a position of respectability, a wife and two children. A course that would have been natural for me was absurd for him. I wished to be quite fair.
    “Of course a miracle may happen, and you may be a great painter, but you must confess the chances are a million to one against it. it’ll be an awful sell if at the end you have to acknowledge you’ve made a hash of it.”
    “I’ve got to pain,” he repeated.
    “Supposing your never anything more than third-rate, do you think it will have been worth while to give up everything? After all, in any other walk of life it doesn’t matter if you’re not very good; you can get along quite comfortably if you’re just adequate; but it’s different with an artist.”
    “You blasted fool,” he said.
    “I don’t see why, unless it’s folly to say the obvious.”
    “I tell you I’ve got to paint. I can’t help myself. When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.”

    1. Howard Aldrich Post author

      Yes, I’ve heard that too. I don’t doubt that individuals wholeheartedly believe that they have an inner calling that drives them to take up something that would seem a fool’s errand to others. The issue remains, under what conditions to people believe such things? In what context are such beliefs generated and sustained? With regard to the Gauguin character in the Somerset Maugham story, I would ask, to whom has he been talking recently? Where he does he hangout? And what cafés or restaurants has he been drinking? Who are his close friends? Clearly, at least one of his friends is trying to talk him out of it, but perhaps others have been encouraging him? So, I accept that people may articulate motives that seem to come from within, but I still believe that context plays an important role.

  5. Angela Forgues

    What you wrote made me think about the Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) movement and the differing definitions of success in entrepreneurship I’ve seen emerge across FIRE subgroups. While the general movement serves to educate and encourage others in their pursuit of financial independence and, most importantly, freedom — many of the subgroups focus specifically on entrepreneurship, whether as a “side hustle” or main pursuit. I wonder if the definition of success or “making it big” in entrepreneurship needs to be expanded? I’m not steeped in this research, so I don’t really have a good sense of whether this is a useful question or not. But, social media, blogging, mentor networks, innovations in data analysis and web design have — at least to a certain extent — made it easier for people to be moderately successful in entrepreneurial side hustles.

    Related to the above, I wonder if there is any research on occupational/career hedging? There is ever increasing uncertainty (at least in the US) with regards to length of careers, multiple -isms, technological disruption, firm/employee loyalty, etc. I wonder if more individuals are attempting to pursue “parallel paths” that provide options if certain occupational endeavors don’t go as planned? Perhaps people are increasingly likely to have multiple occupational identities, even in the same period? There is at least a small subset of the population that is interested in this approach.

    Finally, re: your question does a belief in success among the unsuccessful persist because people are members of local communities of creative professionals and nascent entrepreneurs who reinforce each others’ beliefs, helping sustain the perception that they are just going through a temporary bad patch? Based solely on observation through my own involvement in similar communities, I see a lot of the “sunk cost fallacy.” Creatives in the communities I have participated in (voice-over and acting) often feel that they have invested far too much to abandon their initial goals. Depending on the community these individuals find themselves in, the success of others and the urging of the communities buoys their sense of commitment and they continue. There is a lot more of this happening because of social media — and if you are alone in giving “more practical” advice, the comments left for you seem never ending. Discouragement is not allowed. Given issues related to privacy, I’m not sure how one could leverage social media communities – but social media influences the decisions of many.

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