Hit the Books with Dan Milnor: Create Your Own Luck

Here at Blurb, we know that creative success takes lots of hard work and no small amount of talent. In the business of self-publishing, we see it every day. But plenty of success stories also seem to start with “I was simply in the right place at the right time.” We talked to our Creative Evangelist, writer and photographer Dan Milnor, to find out what role, if any, luck plays in professional creative success.

Does luck play a part in a successful creative career?

Yes, for sure. But let me explain a bit further. Being a successful creative is about a lot more than one person toiling alone in their studio. Your career will be a constant ebb and flow of connections, associations, partnerships, collaborations, victories, and failures—yes, failures—and luck plays a distinct part in all of that.

What about timing?

Again, great timing, sometimes based on a bit of luck, is key. Especially if your work is that of a timely nature—press photographer, photojournalist, etc. Or you meet with the right client at the right time with the right work, and all the pieces come together. We should also talk about trends and being out in front of them, as opposed to lagging behind. It’s easy to get lost in trends and end up never making any of your own work, so be careful to only engage with the trends that strengthen your work, not distract from it. You can also land on a trend long after it’s lived its first life, such as film photography, which is now making a strong comeback.

What about being in the right place at the right time?

Well, this could be lumped under the “timing” aspect of your career, but sometimes “accidents” happen and you’ll make a connection based entirely on the fact that you’re the person there. I was once hired for a photography position simply because I was the one who walked through the door. The photo editor never looked at my work, never even looked at me. He just said “You’re hired.” They were desperate and I was a standard human they assumed could fulfill the requirements of the job. Nothing more.

What is creative success?

Great question. Success as a creative person means you’re making your best possible work and delivering it in the best possible way to make the best impact. But there is another way to answer this: “To each their own”. At one point in my career, I wanted to be the best newspaper photographer in the world. I wanted to work for the largest papers and get the best assignments. Then I wanted to be the best print magazine photographer in the world. Next it was on to portraits, a brief foray into the wedding photography world, and finally, back to my beloved documentary photography. Now that I no longer use the camera as my primary means of survival, I’m entirely content to make pictures for myself, share them with a handful of people, and move on. And I feel content and successful. You may find yourself in an entirely different scenario. The key to success, at the baseline, is to make your work, and make it consistent enough to make it your living/career, if that’s your goal.

What is a creative person ’s role in the rest of society?

The creative industry is often overlooked when it comes to things like GDP, but it’s an integral part of any society and brings in a serious amount of revenue. However, there is a more important role: Creatives help people see and understand the world through a variety of artistic means. Creatives can do anything. As a creative, you’re given liberties that people in other industries aren’t. Society looks at the creative people and demands, “Show us”.

How do I make my own luck?

Cliché alert … brace yourself. Okay, you’ve heard the expression “The harder I work the luckier I get”. I’m going to tweak this slightly. “The smarter I work, the luckier I get”. Creatives live on an island. It’s you on a tiny piece of land surrounded by the greater industry and greater world. At times, it can feel pretty darn lonely. But with advances in technology, the modern creative has a direct connection to the entire world. When I started my career, I had a telephone. A landline. That’s it. My island was remote, lonely, and sometimes frigid. Now I have a website, a blog, social media, and the Internet in general. I have a direct connection to my clients, followers, and an array of people I would have never been able to connect with before.

Making your own luck is about understanding who you really are as a creative and determining what you do well. Once you discover these things, work as smart as possible. Like a yogi. No wasted motion. No distraction. Soon you will have depth, consistency, and the need for luck, while still present, won’t be the driving force behind your making it (or not).

How do I become more creative?

Another good question. Many creatives put too much pressure on themselves too early in their career. Pressure to make it as a full-time professional long before that’s a realistic idea. They end up having to chase trends, make work that is palatable, safe, and lacking in personality. So, they don’t have a chance to figure out who they actually are. In other words, they’re someone else’s creative person, not their own. I can’t stress enough how important making your work is. And to figure out what your work is, you have to give yourself time, freedom, LOTS of energy, and permission to fail.

What do you mean fail?

Failure is an integral part of being creative. In fact, I would go so far as to say, if you aren’t failing on a regular basis, you aren’t trying hard enough. I don’t mean you fall flat for your clients. Failure on your own time is what leads to breakthroughs and creates a map to the artist you’ll be in the future. I’ve recently started painting, something all old photographers eventually start doing. My paintings are mostly horrible. But there is enough of a kernel of intent and result that has me intrigued enough to continue. Go forth and fail. Enjoy it. Celebrate it. Share it. (with friends!)

Is there anything else you can suggest to help with creative timing, luck, and being successful?

Yes, a few things.

  • Don’t conform. I’m always amazed at how many creatives are waiting to be told what to do and how to do it. Take my word for it, in 2018 you don’t want clients creating your portfolio for you. Make the work that’s true to your vision.
  • Live on the fringe. The best work I see is always on the fringe of what the industry deems “good”, “timely”, or “current”. Think about musicians. Remember when Rock n’ Roll landed? Critics were up in arms. The blues musicians said ‘Hey, you got that from us’. Classical lovers were sickened and parents began lecturing their kids. And then what happened? Rock changed the world. You can too, if your creative life lives on the edges of your abilities.

Can you translate all this creative wisdom into advice about printing and self-publishing?

First, timing is essential, as we’ve discussed above. Print on demand books are super time-effective and can be tailored for specific people at specific events.

Second, having a nearly endless combination of materials, formats, and price points allows you to make a book that’s truly a cutting edge, experimental representation of your work—just the thing for stacking the odds in your favor.

Lastly, the portfolio book is the new business card, so being in the right place at the right time with the right book, is now a very meaningful reality.

What role do you think luck plays in creative success? Get the conversation going below!





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