Why The Ladder of Success Doesn’t Apply to Your Art Business

blue door artists

Stairway to Blue Door Artists in Amelia Island, Florida. Photo courtesy Casey Matthews.

One of the most-used business metaphors is the ladder of success.

It’s assumed that you start at the bottom and work your way to the top in a nice, progressive fashion.

A few months ago, I woke up with the epiphany that this is not how it works.

Think about it: What happens when you get to the top? You’re done? It’s all over?

I have never heard of a single artist – visual, performing, or otherwise – who thinks they’ve reached the highest level they’re ever going to reach.

You want to keep going for as long as you breathe.

You want to learn more, improve, grow, and change.

The Circle of Success

Rather than the metaphor of steps or ladders, I’ve adopted the circle to explain how I think art businesses and careers expand.

I believe that at any one point in your art business, most of your energy is focused in one of the areas identified in this circle.

circle focus areas

The Art Biz Coach circle of success for artists.

You bounce back and forth inside the circle as your focus changes, depending on your goals and obligations.

You might remain in one focus area for three months or three days. Then you return to it later because you don’t have one exhibition or one planning session and call it good.

You do many of the same things month after month and year after year to build your business.

The Circle Expands

With this consistency and repetition, you become more sophisticated. You learn what does and doesn’t work, you adapt, and you add new tools, tricks, and technology.

You expand.

So rather than looking like this (stairs), your business growth looks like this.

circle growth

There is plenty of room for more circles – more growth, more success – beyond what is visible.

Each artist finds his or her own trajectory. You will find your own way.

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15 comments to Why The Ladder of Success Doesn’t Apply to Your Art Business

  • Dear Alyson, I like your analogy for the artist’s journey – the circle. The imagination connection I made was with the playground game of hopscotch (that ought to hint at my vintage). How many of us have struggled and benefitted from leaping well beyond the next ‘space’? It’s taken me years to acknowledge to myself that all experiences – even the ones outside the circle of artistic professional development – expand insight and understanding.

  • Hi Alyson, this expanding circle metaphor is exactly the right visual at the right time for me. I’m exploring new directions in my work and am firmly in the “seek inspiration” segment. And Tania, I love the hop-scotch image of making the process more playful!. The more we can enjoy working in the various spaces, the more it will expand and grow. I’ve been in a slump as a result of this frigid winter so thanks for a very motivating post!

  • I have issues with the word, ‘success’

    In the US, it is so often used in a gestalt that includes fame and money. Fame and money, for me, have nothing to do with success.

    I’m a success if I am ‘in the circle/s’ the ones you have been inspired to show us. I’m a success if I’m crazy happy with my life, my work, the effort I’m able to put out to market myself. (Yes, I like putting effort into things… it feels good!)And I am crazy happy with all those things so I wake up a success every day and it is flat out awesome. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    • Victoria: Many other times I have written that YOU define what success means to you – and don’t let anyone else do it for you. It’s an entire chapter in my book.

  • I love the circles. I especially love the way you used the pie graph, showing the actual making of art as just a piece of the business. When I’ve fallen off track, it has always been because I was focusing on a single sliver, rather than the whole. I know that this is just common sense, but as someone who tends to hyper-focus, I appreciate reminders to see the big picture, rather than developing tunnel vision.

  • Bonnie Klatt

    Alyson, I love the idea of circles. It is a very organic approach to growth and is similar to the concept of spirals – ever evolving – which is how I view my art calling.

  • Thanks Alyson! This is a great visual for the trajectory of your art business/career. I’ve also heard the hills and valleys metaphor but the circle and spiral makes more sense. I’m going to add this chart to my art business journal as a reminder.

  • I also like how the circle pie chart also relates to the circle of influence that has been referenced in several marketing trainings I have participated in over the last couple of years in addition to this blog.

  • Hey Alyson,

    Congratulations on your 12th year anniversary! I think I was one of your first emails. :)You have taught and encouraged me so much! Thank you!

    My two cents on the circle is what you told us 12 years ago. 50% of your time is marketing and 50% is doing your art. So my brain has to see half of the circle creating, and all the other things in the other half. The hardest thing I do everyday is go to my studio, so if I don’t see it in the circle, it becomes this left brain consuming thing that makes me feel like a failure. I remember feeling so relieved after you told us that half our time should be the business part of our working and half painting. I had been thinking something was wrong with me because the business stuff was eating into my painting time and I was feeling guilty. Now I have the opposite problem, making excuses that I need to do the marketing before painting. Lol!

  • Just had to say it….love the short haircut Alyson!
    I have this on my studio wall:
    Success: To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded. Ralph Waldo Emerson.
    As my Mom said frequently…she’s just doing her own thing!
    Along the way I have learned a lot from your tips and webinars; I thank you! And congratulations on your success!

  • Just like scientific methodologies. 😉

  • Just love the circle analogy. In addition to everything you’ve said, it seems that the circle reflects the inclusion of others in our journey, whereas the ladder only has room for one. Thanks for this rich imagery.