May 17, 2011

Achieving Success On One’s Own Terms

I was reading how the movie “The Beaver” with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster (director) failed miserably at the box office.  The article talked about Jodi Foster’s faith in the film and it’s message, and when asked about the financial disaster said:  “I’ve learned … that if you gauge your self-worth at the box office, you will be a very sorry person.

How do I , as an artist, gauge my self worth?  Do I base it on sales, reviews of my work, the galleries I’m in, the price of my work, how many important people like my images and the awards I receive?  Is it possible to be feel successful and not achieve all of these accolades?

External success is a fickle mistress; she may love you one day and not even know you exist another.  You’ll never really know her, for her standards change frequently and she’s always looking for her next new lover.  To measure success by her standards can lead to an insecure existence and frustration as you try to win her love back by creating work that you hope will please her.

For me, art is an expression of the heart and only one opinion matters; mine.  It is my creation and if I love it, then it doesn’t matter what another thinks of it.  Success is a internal standard that must be met before any external measures matter.  Please do not misunderstand, I still enjoy showing my work, exhibiting it and I do gain pleasure when others like it.  But these are not the reasons why I create and those things are not necessary for me to feel good about my work or myself.

Perhaps my resume says it best (


My art has appeared in hundreds of exhibitions, numerous publications and has received many awards.  And yet my resume does not list those accomplishments, why?

In the past I’ve considered those accolades as the evidence of my success, but I now think differently.  My success is no longer measured by the length of my resume, but rather by how I feel about the art that I create.

While I do enjoy exhibiting, seeing my work published and meeting people who appreciate my art, this is an extra benefit of creating, but this is not success itself.

I believe that the best success is achieved internally, not externally.

One of the reasons that I’ve been pursuing my recent portfolio entitled The Fountainhead is because I love the philosophy of the novel by the same name.  I create these images to honor one of the core principles illustrated in the book; achieving success on one’s own terms.

This has been a perfect project for this purpose because in truth people have not been that enamored with my new images and they may never obtain much exposure, fame or fortune.

But that’s okay!  I love these images and have had a wonderful time creating them.  And I feel very lucky when I do come across another who appreciates the series because they share my love of architecture or because they can relate to the message of The Fountainhead.  For me, this is success.

One of my favorite quotes from The Fountainhead serves as my artist statement for this series.  This is an exchange between the main character Howard Roarke who is a young architectural student, and the College Dean who has expelled him for not conforming to the design standards of the day:

College Dean:  My dear fellow, who will let you? (design buildings)

Howard Roarke:  That’s not the point.  The point is, who will stop me?

Who can stop me from achieving my own idea of success?  No one can.

16 thoughts on “Achieving Success On One’s Own Terms

  1. Hey, Cole! This is a wonderful post! There is a quote of yours I keep in my mind when I’m out shooting: “I am fortunate enough to NOT have to earn a living from my art.” It is a reminder that I can create what I want and enjoy myself regardless of what others think of the finished product. Thank you for your wisdom and guidance!

  2. Lauro, good point!

    I have two responses to the comment “True when you don’t have to earn a living from your art.”

    First, nobody has to earn a living from their art, they choose to. That is a good decision for some and a bad decision (in my opinion) for others. Nonetheless, it is a decision!

    Second, I think I could build an argument that even if you “have to” earn a living from your art, focusing on what pleases you and expressing it passionately is more likely to result in success. People sense and are drawn to passionate expressions and people.

    In any case, I’d prefer to earn a living by following my heart rather than marketing images that are trendy and the flavor of the month!

    But that’s me and you’re right, I don’t “have to” earn a living from my art because I chose not to!

  3. I shoot weddings, portraits and sports events as part of my “job,” but I shoot wildlife and landscapes because they are my passion. The “job” pictures have to please others, while the “passion” pictures are for me (however, it is nice when others like them too!). I think it is important to always have a personal “passion” project on the go, no matter what your “job” is.

  4. Hi Cole,
    Love your recent post, it makes alot of sense.
    I’m also loving the Tree stream with ‘Two Trees in Snow – Laporte, CO – 2006’ being my fav. You’re work is always an inspiration!


  5. Mike, excellent point, we should all have a creative passion in our lives!

    And Donal, those “Two Trees in Snow” are in my backyard and that image has become a measuring stick as I watch them grow each year. They also remind me that I don’t have to go somewhere to create a great image!

  6. When one does not have to earn a living from their art, or chooses not to as you do, we are free to continually reinvent ourselves to prevent stagnation and burnout. My love is landscape photography but I enjoy macro, black and white and more recently photography after dark. The variety keeps me alive and successful in my own way. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. They inspire me.

  7. Love this post Cole. I photograph because I want to…not need to. A real luxury I never forget. If the image speaks to me I like it, play with in the darkroom, and print it. If the image does not speak to me….I do not. I never snap the shutter or work in the darkroom for others. Wben others love my work it is a bonus. I read others ‘artists statements’ and am sometimes completely confused and amazed by what I see there. While I admit I would be so gratified if others liked my work…I could never photograph for them. By the way Fountainhead changed my life…and your images capture it a way that very consistent with Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

  8. Hello, Cole,
    I recently spoke with an artist who paints wonderful –from my viewpoint — abstract pieces. She lamented that gallery visitors often discount her work and barely pause to look at it. She continues to work despite that reaction. She does it because she enjoys it.

    I should also say that my photography is primarily for my own enjoyment – which is good since it is clearly just in the development stage. It would be easy to be discouraged by external reactions. My desire to learn more pushes me forward.

    Thanks for the post.

  9. I am always inspired by what you write Cole!
    While I am extremely fortunate and grateful that my husband is able to pay the mortgage, I still have to say I photograph because I “need” to. Maybe not to pay the bills, but to keep my soul alive with passion and purpose. With that in mind, I still have studio bills and overhead to consider. However, I have found time and time again, if I start making photographs because I think others will like them but they don’t make my heart sing, than it’s a waste of time. Those “should” images are never as strong as my “because I love to” images.

  10. Your blog and these comments are very interesting and all came at an approriate time for me too. I am always intrigued by the fact that my wife who is a painter (and who should share at least some insights about my work) often remains non-committal or clearly isn’t impressed with a photo that I show her. At first that certainly disappoints me… but I then realize that her viewpoint is unique to her. Even more interestingly, these very images are often chosen by others as their favorites. And ultimately, I like them (or I wouldn’t have spent so much time on them). So the bottom line is the same. Create art only to please yourself and let others decide for themselves! For me, nothing beats the satisfaction of completing an image that I like.

  11. Hi Cole,
    Just joined your blog and just saw your work through Youtube…excellent work! Very inspiring.

  12. Cole, I so enjoy your thoughtful posts of wisdom and common sense, as well as your wonderful black and white photography. As a side note I feel a connection with you, I used to live in Ft Collins and would ride my bike through your valley on my way to Estes Park and back. Thanks for sharing.

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