You’ve wondered. Admit it.
How some people get the breaks and the attention.
How did that performer land that audition or appointment with the industry rep?
How did that writer, speaker, designer, or cartoonist come from out of nowhere to suddenly being everywhere?
How did that contestant impress the judges and manage to stand out from thousands of hopefuls to secure a spot on The Voice, American Idol, or America’s Got Talent?
Why were they picked?
Are they well connected or just lucky?
They might obviously be much more talented than you or your friends are – or not.
Maybe you’ve worked just as hard, for as long (or longer) than they have. You’ve promoted all over social media. You’ve networked like a champ.
So what gives? And what hope do you have?
Believe it or not, high profile exposure – while exciting – doesn’t always deliver the future benefits that you think it will.
It’s helpful to step back a bit, analyze the situation, and put everything in perspective.
Success isn’t guaranteed. There are things that you can do to prepare for big opportunities and to make sure that you’re not forgotten two weeks later (which often happens).
These strategies might not be glamorous, but they will set the stage for you to enjoy a long, fruitful career doing what you love, if that sounds like a life you want.
The truth behind Craig’s Cinderella story
I’ll be honest, I don’t watch TV.
But I do keep up with what’s happening. I listen to what friends say about new artists or authors to check out. I read who people are raving about on social media and I watch great (or poor) performances online after the fact. I pay attention to the conversations, feedback, and comments on blogs and posts.
That’s how I discovered Craig Wayne Boyd, the most recent winner of The Voice. Some of my friends and acquaintances have known and supported him for years. They were beyond excited that he was on the show. They said he deserved to be there, and they became more and more thrilled for him as he progressed through each week. I had to find out what the deal was.
Craig has a great story – and an all-too-common one. He worked hard for many years. He was close to breaking through several times, only to be disappointed when opportunities fell through. He was actually ready to give up right before this big break came (his drummer talked him out of it.) You might never have heard of Craig Wayne Boyd, but he was out there hustling.
Finally, Craig got a chance that didn’t fall through – and this time, he won.
But he was by no means an overnight success. As a matter of fact, his experience was a messy rollercoaster – and he’s not alone in that.
So what does Craig’s story have to do with you?
After all, you’re not one of the lucky, “chosen” ones… or are you?
Well… that depends on you.
How big contests give creatives the wrong idea
The winner and runners-up were announced, and the social media post-mortem followed immediately. Most reactions were congratulatory, many celebratory, but some responses – especially from fellow artists – were less than positive.
What I saw didn’t surprise me, but it did sadden me.
I read comments like,
- “I have friends in my home town who deserve to be there more than they do.”
- “I know many people who are far more talented.”
- “I know they have to make a television show but I hate how the industry works.”
I mean, no one can blame the public for not understand the way creatives find success. That’s not their life’s work.
But if you’re an artist, writer, designer, or performer who’s thought the same things, then you owe it to yourself to learn the truth.
It’s really not your fault if you fall for the hype – there are many common misunderstandings out there.
The problem is, the wrong ideas can keep you from ever finding the success you deserve, and high-profile contests alone have almost nothing to do with the way creatives build successful careers.
The first thing you have to do is stop waiting for someone to choose you – and choose yourself.
The truth about overnight success and winning contests
There’s actually no such thing as overnight success. While winning a prestigious contest is nice, and could add to your credibility, it won’t save you. Just look at past contest winners for the evidence.
Sure, you can find your 15 minutes of fame – but true, long-lived, career success only comes from your own efforts.
Every creative starts at zero and learns their craft and their business. Everyone struggles to find their voice and learns to connect with their audience. And most of our hard work is done in anonymity.
What the public perceives as “overnight success” usually comes from an exposure opportunity, which suddenly puts you in front of a larger audience.
Whether you’re a rhinestone cowboy, a reclusive writer, or somewhere in between, when the big exposure opportunity comes, there are two possible outcomes:
- You’ve laid your groundwork with your supporters and devoted yourself to your craft and connecting with your audience, buyers, readers, etc. You have the creative chops as well as the business chops, and you’ll work your butt off to keep those new fans and make sure you benefit from the exposure.
- You’ve stumbled into your 15 minutes of fame. Your work isn’t ready for a large audience, you don’t have a solid business foundation in place that will let you turn new fans into loyal fans for life, and you’ll soon fade away.
Have you wondered why many contest winners drift back to relative anonymity, even after winning?
Artistic talent without business savvy just isn’t enough. A big win may open doors for you, but there’s no guarantee those efforts will succeed, and you have to be prepared to take 100% responsibility for making sure that the audience you attract stays interested, engaged, and loyal.
Why? Because those industry dudes only care about your success to the extent they’re making money.
I don’t want you to be disappointed when a big exposure opportunity doesn’t pan out like you think it will.
I’d rather see you thrive whether you land a “big break” or not.
How to position yourself for success, with or without a big break
There are a few valuable lessons you can take away from Craig Wayne Boyd’s experience.
You can be ready to capitalize on a huge opportunity when it comes, or (even better) you can have a strong enough foundation in place so that you don’t need to rely on a miracle to pay your bills.
1. Expect to invest at least 5 to 10 years of your life
You might have heard that “overnight success takes 10 years.” Craig pounded the honky-tonk circuit in Nashville for that long before getting the call from The Voice – and don’t forget about the work he did before moving there. Every situation is different, of course, but 5-10 years is a good guideline.
You really do make your own breaks. Focus on doing your work day in and day out. Lay the right foundation. Learn how to connect with influencers, build relationships with them and with your fans, and don’t wait for someone to save you. When you finally get an A-Lister’s attention and endorsement, it will be the cherry and the whipped cream on top of an already-loaded banana split.
If you never get that major spotlight, it’s no problem. By that time you’ll be doing just fine on your own.
2. Stock up on shock absorbers
Expect a bumpy ride. You will be tempted over and over to give up. Craig was ready to quit music before the got the call from The Voice, and he’s not alone. Stephen King, Michael J. Fox, Jon Stewart, Paul McCartney, Eminem, and Norah Jones all were ready to quit for one reason or another – right before they got their big breaks.
Many other artists make good livings without ever becoming nationally or internationally famous.
Expect down times, and prepare in advance as best you can. Surround yourself with supportive, understanding people – and let them know when you need them. Save money whenever you can, and build new income streams so you have a cushion and options.
3. Treat your creative work like it’s your child
I’m a firm believer that you have to take your work seriously or no one else will. Why would anyone else believe in you, invest in you, or promote you if you don’t believe in, invest in, or promote yourself? The problem is, we’re often too close to our own work. Sometimes it takes a dear friend, family member, or dedicated fan to help us see that we’re being foolish or wasting our talents – or (as in Craig’s case) to tell us that we shouldn’t give up.
If your creations were your children, would you neglect, ignore, or starve them? Of course not! If you don’t take your passion that seriously, maybe you should start. Commit yourself to whatever level you can right now.
4. Stop giving strangers the keys to your BMW
Imagine for a moment that – after many years – you’ve worked, saved, and finally bought your dream car. What color is it? Is there a sunroof? Leather seats? Killer sound system?
Now imagine that you got it home and immediately start lending it out to random neighbors because you’re afraid that if you drove it, you’d wreck it. You’d do that, right?
I thought not.
You’re building a life doing something you love. By all means, assemble a team and get help. But don’t be so anxious to hand over the keys to your future to an agent, manager, publisher, or label who may or may not care about your work anywhere near as much as you do. Drive that baby yourself.
5. Know your industry, know TV – and know the difference
Spend time studying up – and connecting with – the folks in your industry who are making things happen for themselves. Get a good mentor. Read blogs, listen to podcasts, read up on the trends, figure out what’s working now and what conventional advice you might need to throw out – because the landscape changes quickly.
Whatever you do, don’t confuse a television show (that exists to get ratings) – or any other high visibility contest – with your “industry.” It’s not. Winning a prestigious contest may be a great resume builder and get you attention, but it’s not the path that the vast majority of pros take. You have a better chance of being struck by lightning. Winning those contests are also no guarantee of future success.
6. Play the lottery out of your abundance, not your rent money
Craig was ready to give up music, true – but he had not spent the last 10+ years of his life gambling with his career. He worked hard rather than jumping up and down, hand in the air, begging someone in power, “Pick me, pick me!” Instead, he built his fan base, worked on his music, and built something worth the attention.
In the words of cartoonist Hugh MacLeod, “If your business plan depends on suddenly being “discovered” by some big shot, your plan will probably fail.” Build a solid platform first. Perfect your craft, build your audience. The right people will find you; today, industry backing often comes after you don’t need them anymore.
7. Build something no one can ever take from you
In the beginning – and often even long after that – you’ll build your audience and fans one at a time. That’s not a bad thing, but you can build faster whenever you can get in front of someone else’s larger audience. You do this through guest blogging or being featured on prominent blogs, opening for larger, more established acts, combining forces with your peers in art, craft, or gallery shows, and by doing interviews of established artists (thus building relationships and helping a larger audience).
Build your list and business as if no one will ever save you. Commit to your craft, to connecting with fans, and fighting for your creations as if they were your children.
If a big exposure opportunity comes, you’ll be positioned to benefit from it. If you win a contest, you can make sure you continue to move forward. And if an opportunity doesn’t pan out, it won’t hurt you because you’ve already got a strong foundation.
So, what are you going to do to make YOUR overnight success inevitable?
While a chance at big exposure and the credibility of winning contests is exciting, you can’t count on that to change your life. It won’t make your career out of nothing, save a floundering career, or compensate for slacking off mastering your craft or your business.
There are so many important factors that contribute to long-term success – and the chances of being picked to compete, let alone win, are incredibly slim.
So don’t wait to be picked. Don’t gamble your life’s work on a long shot.
Pick yourself. Do great work. Learning the business of marketing and engagement – become a master of connecting with and building loyalty among your audience, customers, readers, and fans.
Make things happen.
People will notice if you’re doing things right.
If you’re in the game long enough, sooner or later a chance at big exposure will come – and when it does, you’ll be ready.
You won’t be one of those who just fades away.
In an interview after winning The Voice, someone asked Craig, “So, what’s next?” He replied that he planned to continue to “work his ass off.”
That’s the response of a guy who gets it.
Competing in contests is like playing the lottery.
By all means, play if you want to. But play out of your abundance, not your rent money – and vow to yourself that you’ll create that abundance first, in the form of a business that works for you.
You can do it.
Get out there and make yourself a winner!