Success 2.0: Getting to the Top and Staying There

    To stay relevant in the creative industry, creators must evolve with changing tastes and have a diverse repertoire. Embracing novelty and pursuing variety can increase the chances of initial and long-term success.

    enMay 29, 2023

    About this Episode

    There are plenty of talented people in the world. So why do only a tiny percentage of us reach the highest peaks of achievement? This week, we conclude our "Success 2.0" series by talking with researcher Justin Berg about whether there's a secret recipe for finding — and sustaining — success.  

    Make sure to listen to the rest of our Success 2.0 episodes: Taking the Leap, Getting What You Want, The Obstacles You Don't See, and The Psychology of Self Doubt. And if you like Hidden Brain and want more of it, please join our new podcast subscription, Hidden Brain+



    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Successful individuals possess an instinct for greatness that we can learn from, and understanding their strategies can help us achieve sustained success in our own fields.
    • Despite initial doubts and negative reviews, the Star Wars franchise became a smashing success, while Used Cars, a lowbrow comedy, flopped. The willingness to push the envelope and try new things can lead to success.
    • Despite facing rejection due to his poor box office track record, Robert Zemeckis did not give up and eventually found success with Back to the Future, proving the value of persistence and risk-taking in the entertainment industry.
    • Back to the Future's unique blend of romance, family, and action has made it a cult classic and a nearly perfect film. Zemeckis' diverse body of work proves his skill as a director and refusal to be pigeonholed.
    • Back to the Future's compelling story, characters, and risks paved the way for director Robert Zemeckis' versatile and unpredictable career. The film's massive success transformed him into a sought-after filmmaker.
    • Emotional depth and versatility in filmmaking can create enduring success in the creative industry, while demystifying the creative process can help aspiring creators.
    • Success in creative industries is difficult, with only a tiny minority achieving sustained success. Getting noticed and sustaining initial success are the biggest challenges in a highly competitive, unpredictable and random industry.
    • Success in creative industries isn't solely based on talent or the amount of work produced. Cumulative advantage, where success breeds success, plays a significant role in sustaining success for hit makers. Keep producing work and never give up.
    • The past portfolio of creators is a strong indicator of their future success. Novelty is not always the key to success and initial failure may occur if creators hope to make a mark with something daring and new.
    • Building a portfolio of novel songs may be a risk, but creators who beat the odds will have a resource for sustained success. Novelty is the driver for further success, making it crucial for sustained success.
    • To achieve success in the music industry, creators must balance between producing conventional ideas for short-term success and unconventional ideas for long-term success. However, unconventional ideas have a harder time getting recognized, leading to a bizarre distribution of one-hit wonders and few hit makers.
    • To stay relevant in the creative industry, creators must evolve with changing tastes and have a diverse repertoire. Embracing novelty and pursuing variety can increase the chances of initial and long-term success.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    Exploring the Psychology of Creativity and Success through the Stories of Filmmakers

    Repeated and enduring success in various domains, such as art, sports, and technology, is limited to a small number of superstars who account for a disproportionate share of the spoils, while the rest of us are lucky to even have fleeting success. Luck and talent seem incomplete explanations for this phenomenon. Within this context comes a new research that aims to explore the psychology of creativity and success by examining the stories of two filmmakers whose work you know, and what we can learn from them. Successful individuals have an instinct for greatness that we can tap into and learn from to achieve our own forms of sustained success.

    From Doubts to Success: The Star Wars Franchise and Used Cars

    Despite initial doubts and negative reviews, the Star Wars franchise became a smashing success, earning over 400 million worldwide and becoming the highest grossing film in 1980, with The Empire Strikes Back being widely regarded as the best installment. George Lucas wanted to build an entire franchise around Star Wars but didn't want to direct the sequel himself, so he enlisted Irvin Kirshner, a professor at USC who initially thought Lucas was crazy. Used Cars, a lowbrow comedy, on the other hand, was a flop, receiving negative reviews for having too many plot lines and too many characters. Robert Zemeckis, its writer and director, had a knack for pushing the envelope, and before Used Cars, he directed a musical called I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

    The Importance of Reputation in the Entertainment Industry

    Reputation plays a significant role in the entertainment industry. Irvin Kushner became the king of sequels and a director with a magic touch, while Robert Zemeckis struggled to find work due to his poor box office track record. Studios rejected Zemeckis' family time travel movie idea based on his reputation and a long list of reasons, including that time travel movies don't make money and there wasn't enough sex. However, Zemeckis was given another chance to direct and came across another screenplay that would eventually become the popular movie Back to the Future. This shows how persistence and a willingness to take risks can lead to success in the entertainment industry.

    Robert Zemeckis' Creative Freedom in Hollywood Showcased in Back to the Future

    Robert Zemeckis' success with Romancing the Stone allowed him creative freedom in Hollywood, resulting in the iconic film Back to the Future, which combined romance, family, and action in a unique way. The film tells the story of Marty, who travels back in time and accidentally interferes with his parents' first meeting, leading him to find a way to make them fall in love. The movie's popularity has resulted in a cult following and is considered a nearly perfect film by some. Zemeckis' ability to create wildly different movies demonstrates his skill and artistry as a director and proves that he cannot be easily pigeonholed.

    The Success of Back to the Future

    Back to the Future was a massive success due to its compelling story, characters, acting, pacing, music, and aesthetics. The film takes risks, including one plotline where Marty accidentally meets his own mother and becomes the object of her infatuation. This scene presents philosophical and psychological implications in a successful and funny way. The film's success transformed Robert Zemeckis into one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood, while Irvin Kusher's career flatlined. Zemeckis' reputation became that of a novel, creative, and adaptable filmmaker capable of covering different terrain from comedy to drama. Back to the Future earned nearly $400 million worldwide, cementing Zemeckis' status as a brilliant, daring, and unpredictable director.

    The success of Robert Zemeckis in the creative industry

    Robert Zemeckis is a versatile and innovative filmmaker who created iconic movies that endure till now. His movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, and Castaway show that he can direct any genre and make it successful. Moreover, his characters are memorable and have emotional depth that transcends the screen. In contrast, Irvin Kushner, who started with success like The Empire Strikes Back, never achieved the same heights and had a short-lived career. Researchers like Justin are fascinated by the success of outliers like Robert Zemeckis and want to demystify how they create ideas and bring them to life. The creative industry attracts many people who are looking to achieve success and make a difference in the world.

    The Power Law Distribution of Success in Creative Industries

    Success in creative industries, such as writing, filmmaking, and music, follows a power law distribution, with sustained success being achieved by a tiny minority of creators. The challenges to success are twofold - getting noticed and sustaining initial success. The music industry is a good indicator of these challenges because it has constant new entrants and high competition. Research has shown that those who achieve sustained success have made it through a difficult obstacle course, and the very thing that helps them get past the first obstacle makes it harder to get past the second. Overall, success in creative industries is much less predictable, and there is a high degree of randomness.

    Understanding Hit Makers and the Role of Cumulative Advantage

    The majority of signed artists have no hits, and half or more of one-hit wonders in creative industries is a consistent finding. While talent and quantity of work can help increase the likelihood of having hits, they don't explain the whole story. Cumulative advantage, where success begets success, plays a significant role in sustaining success for hit makers. To become a hit maker, individuals need to keep producing work and not give up. While individual creativity and quantity of work can help, there isn't a surefire way to explain how creators become hit makers.

    The Importance of Path Dependence in Predicting Future Success of Creatives

    The past portfolio of creators predicts their future success, a concept known as path dependence. This factor has been overlooked in the existing literature on sustained success in creative careers, which mainly focuses on the novelty and variety of a given product. Novelty is a negative predictor of initial success because audiences prefer songs and genres that are already popular. To analyze how a musician's initial songs and career might offer clues to their later success, it's important to study everyone, including those who never have a hit, those who have a single hit, and those with sustained success. Hoping to make a mark with something startlingly new and daring may lead to initial failure for creators.

    The Power of Novelty in Building a Successful Music Career

    Creators who build portfolios of typical, similar songs are more likely to have an initial hit but become one-hit wonders. On the other hand, building a novel portfolio is a risk to produce hit songs. But, creators who beat the odds and have a hit with a novel portfolio will have a resource for sustained success. Internal learning and external expectations are the two reasons for sustained success with novelty. Creators learn more adaptable lessons from their novel portfolio than from a typical one. Moreover, the outside world sees them as innovators, allowing them to come out with new music and pursue a broader array of songs after their initial hits. Novelty is the driver for further success, making it crucial for sustained success.

    Balancing Novelty and Similarity as a Hit Maker in the Music Industry

    To become a hit maker in the music industry, creators need to balance novelty and similarity in their work. While producing conventional ideas can lead to short-term success, creators with unconventional ideas are more likely to have long-term success. However, creators with unconventional ideas also have a hard time getting those ideas off the ground in the first place. Therefore, new artists in the music industry can't maximize their odds of becoming a hit maker without simultaneously increasing their odds of having zero hits in their career. The initial hit triggers a path dependence that sticks with you for the rest of your career. Music and similar creative industries are high churn and end up with a bizarre distribution of a lot of one-hit wonders and very few hit makers.

    The Importance of Variety and Novelty for Success as a Creator

    To be a successful artist over time, you have to evolve with the changing tastes of the audience. Having a limited repertoire early on in your career may make it difficult to keep up with new entrants. Novelty and variety are two dimensions that can help creators in this regard. Having a high novelty portfolio with a wide variety of novel songs can increase the likelihood of initial success. While trying new things may decrease the odds of initial success, trying various new things can increase the odds. It's crucial for creators to understand the importance of variety and novelty to remain relevant in the creative industry.

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