Author’s note: “Breakthrough: How to Overcome Doubt, Fear, and Resistance to Be Your Ultimate Creative Self” is a book for writers, artists, musicians, and creators who want to enhance their creative practice. The following excerpt examines a prevalent success myth and explores why developing an enjoyable and sustainable relationship with creativity is crucial.
The Study that Will Forever Change How You Look at Commercial Success
A multiple reality study published in Science shows that the secret to commercial success is not what most people think.
The story that’s often told in our society about commercial success is that the books, songs, films, and other artistic works that become hits do so because they’re “the best.” For instance, people frequently think that if a book is a best seller, it must be because it’s “better” than others. Conversely, people might think that if a book isn’t as successful as others, it must be because it’s not as “good” as others.
If these claims are true — if the works that become hits are qualitatively “better” than those that don’t — then those qualities should be measurable, and what will become popular should be relatively predictable. But that’s not the case.
Experts frequently fail to predict what will become popular. Think of all the producers who’ve put millions into movies that flopped. Or think of the numerous books that got rejected by scores of editors before becoming huge hits.
In the book publishing industry, I’ve heard it said by editors at a few big houses that on average around seven out of ten titles will not earn back their advance. Of the other three titles, two might break even, and one might become a hit. Producers and publishers are surprisingly bad at predicting what will or won’t take off.
Case in point: a few weeks ago I asked an editor from one of the big five publishing houses (who prefers to remain anonymous) why she thought some books rose in popularity and others didn’t. “If I knew, I’d be a millionaire,” she replied. Then she told me that the “best” book she’d edited — the one she was certain would be a huge hit due to its beautiful prose, engaging story, and unforgettable characters — barely sold any copies at all.
A Multiple Reality Study on What Makes Hits
In 2005, social scientists at Columbia University set out to explore why predicting “hits” is notoriously difficult. One of the challenges of testing this is that we live in only one reality. As a result, when something becomes a “hit” we tend to think it must have become a hit due to special qualities the work possesses, and we use those qualities to justify why the work took off.
We might think, for example, that The Hunger Games became popular because it had a strong female protagonist, it was written in a gripping present tense voice, and it tapped into anxieties over economic inequality during an economic crisis.
All this is true, but it overlooks the fact that several other well-written books also had these qualities and did not take off. And there may have even been “better” books that didn’t get published. To effectively test why a work becomes popular, what’s needed are multiple duplicate realities that all start from the same place.
Princeton Professor Matthew Salganik, one of the lead researchers in the study, explained it this way in 2014 interview with NPR, “To see the role of chance you need to see multiple realizations of the same process. But we only get to see one outcome. So we see the world where the Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings, and it’s hard to imagine that something different could have happened.”
Fortunately, Salganik and his fellow researchers came up with an ingenious way to use multiple virtual worlds to explore why some works become hits and others don’t.
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The study (which was published in the journal Science) went like this: researchers gathered 48 contemporary songs from 48 randomly selected bands that were determined to be unknown by the study participants. The 14,000 study participants (recruited voluntarily from a popular website) were then divided into nine different online “worlds” that operated completely separate from each other.
In each of these nine virtual worlds, the participants could listen to, rate, and download any of the 48 songs they liked for free. In eight of the virtual worlds, study participants could see how many times a song had been downloaded in that world (a measure of the popularity for that song in that world). In one control world, participants couldn’t see how many times a song had been downloaded, and simply had to go off their own preferences.
Now, if songs that are qualitatively “the best” rise to the top and become the most popular, then one would expect that the songs that become popular in all nine virtual worlds would be the same or similar. Except that didn’t happen — not by a long shot.
Instead, the top songs in each world were vastly different. Overall, songs that were generally seen as being “high quality” productions tended to do better in each world than ones that generally ranked lower, but not always. And in no two worlds were the top ten most successful songs close to being the same. For instance, one song, “Lockdown” by 52Metro, ranked 1st in one world and 40th (out of 48) in another.
Think about that for a moment. Nine different virtual worlds, and nine completely different results for which songs became popular. If you lived in the world where “Lockdown” became a number one hit, you might think, “Of course ‘Lockdown’ is a hit. It’s a great song. How could it be otherwise?”
But in another world “Lockdown” was a complete flop, barely noticed by the hundreds of study participants in that world. If you lived in that world, you might think, “Clearly, this song is missing something people want,” and you’d see other songs as obvious hits.
What can we learn from this?
One conclusion the researchers gave is that, to a surprising degree, blockbusters are random. Songs with higher production qualities tend to outperform poorly produced songs, but once a song reaches a high level of production quality, whether it becomes a hit or not is largely unpredictable.
In fact, more than something intrinsic to the work, social factors and social influences often determine how popular a work becomes. The study also found that the more social influences are involved, the more unpredictable popularity becomes.
For writers this means that, once your work has reached a high level of production quality (working with a professional editor), whether it becomes a hit has surprisingly little to do with the work itself.
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Recognizing this is essential to maintaining an effective and sustainable relationship with creativity. As Salganik put it, “if you believe that there’s a large role for chance in the outcomes that people have and the kinds of success that people have and also the kinds of failures that people have, it changes how you treat other people.”
Does that mean there’s nothing you can do to influence your own creative success?
No way. We’re going to explore several things you can do that make a tremendous difference. But knowing that commercial success is largely due to chance will hopefully help you become more compassionate when considering the successes and failures of others and yourself.
Your ego wants you to believe that it’s all in your control. Research shows that’s not how reality works. Don’t shame yourself when a well-crafted work fails to take off. And don’t let it go to your head when a work does. Realizing that commercial success is largely due to chance and social factors beyond your control is crucial to persevering and staying creative.
Take Away Two: Undiscovered van Goghs
It’s important not to misunderstand the findings of the study I described. Just because chance plays a big role in commercial success doesn’t mean you should give up or use “being unlucky” as an excuse not to attempt something. It’s the opposite. The fact that chance plays a significant role in commercial success makes perseverance even more critical. After all, raising your odds by continuing to create is the part you can control.
Take Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games. She was a television writer for over a decade, and she published six books before her wildly popular Hunger Games series became a blockbuster hit. That’s how you increase your odds.
Just as it’s important to recognize the role of chance in achieving commercial success, it’s also important to recognize that there are many great, high-quality works that don’t become hits due to chance.
Consider Vincent van Gogh. He only officially sold one painting, “The Red Vineyard at Arles,” during his lifetime. The rest of his 2,000 works remained unsold and largely unappreciated while he lived, despite the fact that his brother, Theo, was a renowned art dealer who tried for years to promote Vincent’s work.
For every painter like van Gogh who gets resurrected from obscurity, how many other extraordinary artists are there who don’t get discovered? Whose works are never lifted up for others to appreciate?
For every Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (rejected an astonishing 121 times before selling over 5 million copies), or A Wrinkle in Time (rejected 26 times before winning a Newbery Medal and becoming one of the most read children’s books of all time) or The Help (rejected around 60 times before selling over 7 million copies) how many other great books are there that don’t gain attention?
We’ll never know all those creations and creators who remain overlooked. We only know the works that are lucky enough to be held up and praised in our reality. Undoubtedly, there are numerous amazing artists who work in obscurity, and numerous brilliant works that end up gathering dust in an attic until they’re thrown away. Other works might get published but don’t receive the attention they deserve.
The way to increase your chances of having something take off is to persevere and keep creating. Keep growing as a writer or artist, stay open to new possibilities, keep sending things out, and embrace the opportunities you encounter.
To do this over many years — to keep functioning at your creative best — it’s essential to develop an approach to creative endeavors that enables you to love the process. Because if you don’t love what you’re doing, it’s going to be hard to get others to love it. But if you love what you’re doing, you increase your chances that others will love it too. Even if commercial success doesn’t come your way, you’ll still have spent your precious mortal hours doing what you love, which is what true creative success is all about.
Todd Mitchell is an associate professor of creative writing at Colorado State University. He’s the author of six award-winning books, including The Last Panther (Penguin Random House), The Namer of Spirits (Owl Hollow Press), and Breakthrough: How to Overcome Doubt, Fear, and Resistance to Be Your Ultimate Creative Self (winner of the Nautilus Book Award).To learn more about Todd, or to book him for a school visit, author talk, or workshop, visit www.ToddMitchellBooks.com.