The Unfair Truth About How Creative People Really Succeed

Last week, I was invited to a dinner hosted by a friend. Those attending included some of my favorite writers, bloggers, and communicators, people I’ve admired for years. Halfway through the dinner, I silently asked myself, “How did I get here?”

Photo credit: Jeremy Cowart
Photo credit: Jeremy Cowart

For years, I heard people talk about their influential friendships and subsequent success. And I silently seethed with envy. It just seemed unfair. Of course those people were successful. They knew the right people. They were in the right place at the right time. They got lucky.

Years later, I would discover how success is born of luck (I don’t think any honest person disputes that), but that luck, in many ways, can be created – or at very least, improved.

The truth is this is not fair. For creative work to spread, you need more than talent. You have to know the right people and get exposure to the right networks. And as unfair as that may seem, it’s the way the world has always worked.

The good news is you have way more control over this than you realize.

The Systems Approach to Creativity

What makes a person creative? Of course, as human beings we are all endowed with the ability to create. But what is the difference between that kind of “little c” creativity and the world-changing “big C” creativity?

In his decades-long study of how creativity works, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes what he calls a “systems approach” to creativity. Since creative work tends to be subjective, he posits a model that includes three “systems”:

  • Domain
  • Field
  • Individual

In order for a work to be considered Creative (in the sense that it offers some kind of enduring work that the world remembers), it must satisfy all three of these areas. Here’s how it works:

  1. An individual must master her craft in a given domain (art, science, mathematics).
  2. This person must offer the creative work to a field of influencers in that domain who are trusted experts.
  3. These gatekeepers decide if the work is worth being accepted as authoritative into the domain.

As much as I initially winced at the word “gatekeepers” when considering what makes creative work succeed, once I started to read biographies of famous artists, scientists, and musicians, it made a lot of sense. Talent is only part of the equation. The other two parts have to do with networks.

Hemingway and Paris

When he was just a young man in his early twenties, Ernest Hemingway moved from Chicago, Illinois to a poor artist district in Paris, France.

He had just returned from a short stint of serving with the Red Cross in World War I and wanted to pursue a career in writing. There was just one problem: he didn’t have much experience or exposure to other writers. Who would teach him?

In Chicago, Hemingway met the writer Sherwood Anderson who encouraged him to move to Paris to meet Gertrude Stein. There, Stein was leading a community of writers, poets, and artists who were all sharing their ideas and growing in their respective crafts. Plus, it was cheaper to live in Paris, and as newlyweds, the Hemingways could live modestly while still having free time to travel and write.

In Paris, Hemingway did meet Stein, as well as Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and many others who would help shape his work. This included a connection via F. Scott Fitzgerald to Scribner’s, the publisher that would later publish most of his novels and contribute to making him the most famous writer of his time.

Once you understand the story of how this environment uniquely shaped one of America’s great writers, it’s inconceivable that such a development could have happened anywhere else. In other words, without Paris in the 1920s, there would have been no Hemingway.

Finding your own Paris

So what does this mean? Are we doomed to failure if we don’t live in the right place at the right time?

Of course not. But it does mean that networks matter. This is why Van Gogh’s work matured more quickly once he met the French Impressionists. He now had a field of gatekeepers who would vouch for his work.

This is also how we got The Lord of the Rings — through the collaborative power of a writing group called The Inklings. Similarly, I began reaching out to influential people in my town, in effect creating a network, I started to see unprecedented momentum in my work. Communities, it seems, create opportunities for creative work to succeed.

But how do you apply this approach if you don’t live some place like Paris, or even Nashville for that matter? Well, you could do one of two things:

  • You could move. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it’s easier to move somewhere new than it is to will yourself to be more creative. It’s easier than ever to transplant yourself someplace fresh and inspiring, even temporarily (I did this eight years ago).
  • You could let go of your excuses and realize there’s a network available to you right now, wherever you are. This may come in the form of an online mastermind group or an event you attend. But the truth is there are connections at your disposal that you just may not be tapping into.

How I got a seat at the table

Five years ago, I made a decision to let go of my cynicism. I reached out to dozens of influencers, even though I considered myself a shy person. Once I met the people who responded, I followed up and did everything I could to help them.

I tried to be the kind of person they would want to invest in. I followed every piece of advice, did everything they told me to do, and didn’t question a word of it. And yes, at some point, I got lucky.

It’s naive to say success doesn’t involve luck. But at the same time luck can be planned for, anticipated. Although I can’t tell when or where I’m going to get lucky, I do know the more I put myself in the company of great minds, the more likely some of that greatness will rub off on me.

So if you want a seat at the table, the process is simple:

  1. Find a gatekeeper. In my case this was Michael Hyatt, whom I met five years ago over coffee. This wasn’t by chance. I was strategic in reaching out to him, tenacious in staying in touch, and intentional in demonstrating that I was teachable. For Hemingway, this was Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein. These were the people who held the keys to the kingdom, and every domain has at least one.
  2. Connect with other people in the network. Once I had spent six months earning Mike’s trust, he introduced me to others he knew. In some cases I asked him to do this. In many others, he just did it. Similarly, Stein introduced Hemingway to other writers in Paris who could help him.
  3. Help as many people in the network as possible. This is crucial. It’s not just who you know, it’s who you help. People remember what you do for them a lot more than they remember how funny or clever you were. In the early days, I tried to help influencers by interviewing them for my blog. It wasn’t much, but it was a foot in the door. And in spite of his reputation as an alpha male, Hemingway did this too.

Of course, every person’s journey is their own. But what I am now more certain of than ever before is that success in any creative field is contingent on the networks you are a part of.

The question is, will you embrace the power of networks and put yourself in the right place with the right people? Or will you keep thinking those people are just lucky? The fact is, luck comes to us all. But those who prepare to leverage it are the ones who succeed.

I believe every story of success is a story of community. And the way you’re going to find your path is by walking alongside others on theirs. So what’re you waiting for?

To read the addendum to this post, check out: What to Do When You Feel Left Out.


  • To read more about Hemingway’s formative writing years in Paris, I recommend the book Hemingway: The Paris Years.
  • To learn more about the systems approach to creativity, read the book Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
  • You can listen to any of these books on Audible for free when you sign up for a free trial.

How has a network helped you succeed? Share in the comments.