Top 3 Traits of Successful Artists and Writers

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WriterWhile listening to a radio interview in the car about music and creativity, I heard something that resonated for me as a writer and coach.

The interviewee, neuroscientist Indre Viskontas, was talking about music, but she was really discussing creativity, and what makes great artists.

Success as an artist, she said, came down to three things:

1. Obsessiveness

2. Imperviousness to feedback

3. Uninhibited.

I found this list surprising, and wanted to think about each one of these traits. Since writers are artists, we can apply this list to ourselves:

Her first trait, obsessiveness, gets a bad rap in our culture so often. But you know how you might make a dish many times, trying to nail it? Or how you agonize over a sentence, writing it over and over? Viskonta would want you to embrace your obsessive side.

Obsessiveness and perfectionism are linked. The only downside I can think of is if obsessiveness keeps you going around and around, and not moving forward. This can be an issue when deciding when a piece of writing is “done.” That’s what deadlines are for!

I don’t know about you, but Number 2, “imperviousness to feedback” sounds terrific, in theory. Great artists are not held back by criticism. They believe in themselves, the path they’re on, and their work. They are not destroyed or sidelined by what other people say about their work. I bet they don’t second guess themselves either.

It’s not that they don’t make changes or listen. It’s that they believe in their own process. Now the question is, how do we sensitive types develop a thicker skin? Psychology Today has some ideas.

And then there’s Number 3, the lack of inhibition. We’ve seen a lot of that (ahem!) on social media, but I don’t think that’s what Viskontas is getting at. Successful artists give themselves the freedom to create. They don’t judge themselves. They let themselves go wild and rein themselves in later. If you reign yourself in immediately, you’re not going to produce any writing. I have had to control my inner editor quite a bit, and give myself permission to write. Editing comes later.

She said that great artists are talented people who work hard, versus trying to achieve something. I take this to mean that are not working hard to get ahead. Instead, they are working hard because they have something to say, and they want you to experience it.

What do you think of this list? Do you have these traits? Can you suggest others?

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  1. Cristin says

    Wouldn’t the third trait need to be that they are un-inhibited? “Inhibition,” according to the dictionary, means being constrained, restricted, or held back.

  2. Susan G. says

    Thanks for this, Dianne. I think this might explain why I have never flourished as a writer, painter, or musician. I care way too much about what other people think of my work. (Or could it be due to lack of talent?!) Is it too late to develop that thick skin?

    • diannejacob says

      It is not too late to develop a thick skin! Did you take a look at that Psychology Today article? Of course the advice is oversimplified, but you could work on it. Go for it, Susan!

  3. says

    Interesting. My knee-jerk reaction was to say the the first two are our own problems, whereas the third can come from the outside. Life situation could inhibit our freedom to create. And yet! It does seem that 99% of the time the only thing that holds us back is our perceptions of blockades that easily could be circumvented. A matter of the mind and heart. And definitely you can develop these traits. But I love your point at the end. Don’t try to develop the traits to become successful, but rather, have or find something to say, and develop the focus and need to share it.

    • diannejacob says

      Amanda, I’m not sure what you mean by these traits being “our own problems.” I agree that all are colored by incorrect assessments of ourselves (or fears) that hold us back. I can’t take credit for Viskontas’s point, but I sure do agree with her. It’s like people who think they should write a book to become rich, versus people who write a book because they have something to say. Unless you’re the type who merits a 7-figure advance, it’s best to be in the latter category.

      • says

        A simple blip in clarity: All three are internal. Obsessiveness is another word for focus, precision, unrelenting standards, and dedication to a vision. They aren’t “problems,” especially according to Viskontas. They are traits. And like you said, any of the three can have their dark side. Maybe we might remember that success can have its dark side, too.

  4. says

    My first reaction to reading this is yes, that sounds about right. I do believe those qualities sum me up quite well indeed. Particularly number 1 – obsessiveness. I will agonize over a sentence and rewrite it a million times – tell my proofreader it’s ready to go – and before she can even get half way through editing the document, I’m texting her “Wait, I have one last change.” She loves when I do that. :)

    • diannejacob says

      Oh yeah I bet, Susan.

      I too go over my writing a million times. I was showing the back end of my blog to a room of people at a conference once, and one of my co-presenters gasped when she saw the list WordPress provides showing how many times I edited the post. I will never forget her reaction!

      • says

        Love the image of that gasp! Glad to know you do it too, Dianne. I really enjoy the process of going over and over my writing, tightening here, finding the right word there. But “obsessiveness” sounds negative to me. I never thought of it that way. More like: determination, tenacity, perseverance.

        • diannejacob says

          It does sound negative, doesn’t it? Maybe because of OCD. I like your definition of obsessiveness a lot better, Anna.

  5. says

    I love this. Especially the answer you gave to Susan. I wish I didn’t have to see how many times I have edited on WordPress also. I just have to shake my head and ask myself, what were you thinking sometimes. Enjoyed this immensely. Thank you.

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Bea. Yes, that’s why people say that “writing is rewriting.” But you do need the lack of inhibition to get it out there in the first place.

  6. Rose Mark says

    I like the word perseverance better. Although in truth I CAN get obsessive. I can’t help but be reminded that all these things are good but can also hold us back and it’s that old word ” balance” that comes back to me over and over again. So on one hand these things help us move forward. Like being able to be uninhibited- yeah let free your thoughts, ideas but also keep in mind, you gotta make sure how you communicate your thoughts are accessible so they can reach people. Impervious to feedback, c’mon you got to listen but not necessarily take EVERYTHING to heart but do let it in to look at what folks have to say. So that’s what I mean by balance. My 2 cents. As always I LOVE your blog. Thank you.


    • diannejacob says

      Yes, so true, Rose. We can’t go too far over the edge with any of these attributes, for our own sanity.

      Speaking of balance, I bet great artists are not in balance. They probably spend the majority of their day dedicated to their craft. And because they love it — are obsessed by it — it works for them.

  7. says

    Really interesting article Dianne. I think being impervious to feedback would be a good trait to develop (so long as you were still able to take on board constructive feedback) – it’s when negative feedback becomes overwhelming and totally discouraging that it’s a real problem for writers. The article in Psychology Today is especially relevant – hit the spot with me for sure!

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Anne. Re overwhelming and discouraging, we writers are sensitive and we sometimes over-react to anything that is not entirely positive. I have been there!

  8. says

    I think my mix of obsessiveness and perfectionism helps me immensely turn out the best of what I can do and does push me to analyze my own work constantly, improve and evolve.

    On the other hand, I think those who are impervious to feedback (or criticism) are too sure of themselves and rarely evolve. I have seen very popular writers and food photographers continue to pump out the exact same stuff, the same type of writing, the same styled photo every single time, year after year, without ever evolving, experimenting, or varying their work and to me this means one day others will pass them when that work gets stale to the viewer/reader. Those writers and photographers I know who listen to feedback and take criticism to heart (often feeling bad about it but that means they do take it to heart) are the ones who strive to do better, experiment and stretch themselves. They seem to be more creative.

    Uninhibited? I keep wondering if being uninhibited in our work goes hand in hand with being more sensitive to others’ criticism….

    • diannejacob says

      I’m not sure she meant that people should not hear good criticisms. It’s more that you are not sidelined by what people’s comments when you want to pursue something. People will say “oh that will never happen” in various ways and that can dissuade you from pushing yourself into new projects.

      Perfectionism, on the other hand, seems to be a blessing and a curse.

      Not sure I get your last point — how is inhibition and sensitivity connected? Maybe you mean that uninhibited people don’t care what others think, they just do their thing. That is correct to some extent. I admire people who are so unrestrained. A girlfriend took a watercolor class. She is quite quiet and circumspect. But in that class, whoa! She unleashed something inside her and created dazzling paintings full of color and expression. It surprised me. That is hard for me. I am always judging.

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