Creative Careers

The creative journey is filled with twists and turns, unpredictable developments, and surprising new insights (as well as frustrating dead ends). That’s the message of my new book Zig Zag, which is filled with advice about how to succeed in your creative journey.

At the SNAAP conference here in Nashville, today’s lunchtime presentation was an interview with comedian Lewis Black, by playwright and lyricist Willie Reale. Lewis talked a lot about his career, and I was struck by how many zigs and zags he passed through before he became “Lewis Black” the famous comedian. Until the age of 40, he was a struggling playwright, doing okay in serious theater, but starving artist poor…his path to standup comedy was not at all linear. Check out these zigs and zags:

  1. In high school, he loved theater, and decided he would go to college to study theater.
  2. At UNC and then at Yale’s School of Drama, he followed this dream.
  3. He moved to New York, and got a job as a bartender at a divey bar in the East Village. In exchange for tending bar, the owners let him book acts in the club, so he got experience and connections with the theater scene.
  4. Eventually he moved to manage the West End Theater, where he stayed for eight years. He started introducing the acts, and gradually his introductions became longer as he gained confidence. After a few years, he was doing a special one hour stand-up on Saturday nights.
  5. At the age of 40, still pursuing his career as a serious and respected playwright, he cowrote a quirky musical about the Russian Elvis Presley, filled with Cold War themes; it gained some attention.
  6. It was 1989, and two weeks before the play was to open, the Berlin Wall fell. He and his cowriter had to add a second act to the musical in which the Berlin Wall fell; that took six months.
  7. The revision was successful, and they were invited to produce the play at a respected theater in Houston.
  8. Down in Houston, after several days and weeks of being treated badly by the management of the theater, one night he got really frustrated. To let off steam he went across town to the local comedy club’s open mike night. He did a 15 minute bit, and as he put it, “I killed.” On the spot, the owners offered him top billing and $1500 a week. That, he says, was the moment he decided to give up on playwrighting and become a standup performer.

This story is just like the zig-zag path that leads to successful creative innovation. And it’s not just Lewis Black’s career; this morning, Professor Steven Tepper presented data showing that creative careers almost always follow these unexpected twists and turns.

It’s fascinating that creative careers have the same improvisational, unpredictable structure, as the path that leads to a single creative product or invention.

My new book ZIG ZAG is coming out later this March; pre-order it here.

One thought on “Creative Careers

  1. I like the concept you’ve described here and it speaks to a challenge we see in the creative industries. The democratization of the tools of production make the creation of high quality work more accessible. Creators must therefore be more concerned with becoming a creative monopolist, as described by David Brooks in the New York Times about Peter Thiel’s work in his classes at Stanford. Zigging and zagging, as you describe it, allows for people to accumulate a broad swathe of experiences from which to draw and to position themselves as uniquely capable as opposed to being ‘the best’, Being the best in a crowded space is hard. Being the best in a market of one is much easier. However, too many artists and other creative people follow a path of ever-great domain expertise to a point where they are unemployable except to educate the next generation of economically irrelevant specialists. They often create works of tremendous beauty but lack the resilience or the acument to translate that beauty into commercial gain or public exposure.

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