The Invisible Sorting Hat of Creative Success

people who are successful resent the implication that they are so by chance.

this is really the wrong way to look at it.

out in the world, in any field or art form, there is a great mix of talent and effort. some people are lopsided, others evenly balanced. some people are just posers with too little of either.

successful people believe they are being compared to that great mix, when usually they are not. they are being compared to a subset of it, to those of comparable skill and hard work who are not successful. and there are many of them.

the truth is, there is an invisible sorting that takes place, a separation of those above some minimum threshold from those below. most successful people are chosen from this latter group. (note, i am not saying we have a meritocracy. i’m not saying the “best” or “most deserved” — however we might define those — rise to the top, just that successful people in any field or art form tend overwhelmingly to be above some basic entry-level skill.)

successful people — which is to say commercially successful people, although there are other kinds of success — are basically drawn at random from this invisible grouping. there are high-talent success stories and mediocre-talent success stories. there are stories of long struggle and stories of overnight success. there’s no reason to any of it. the race is not always to the swift.

but because we don’t see this sorting, because the only sorting we do see is successful versus unsuccessful, and because SO MANY unsuccessful people are in fact shit, it’s easy to think that anyone who is not successful must be ill-deserving: having too little talent or giving insufficient effort.

furthermore, successful people have privileged knowledge about all of the trials and setbacks they faced, which gives the appearance of validation — “i am successful because i overcame obstacles” — whereas they have little to no visibility into the obstacles faced by others, which will in some cases actually be greater.

yes, sometimes no-talent hacks are successful. this is true. but frankly, it is also rare. YOU might think a person has no talent, but if they are successful, that usually means other people disagree. (be wary of sour grapes.)

similarly, the true virtuoso is also very rare — the mozarts and the michael jordans. most otherwise successful people are not in this category, although they may think they are.

so success is meted out at random to members of an invisible group — non-posers — with none of us ever knowing if we are members of that group.

if you think about it, this is proven and re-proven by every artist who died penniless only to be “discovered” later. i think of edgar allen poe lying dead in a gutter. here was a man who invented the detective story and who elevated horror to an art form, dead in the street. fortune did not favor him in his lifetime, and if you passed his corpse, it would have been easy to dismiss him as an undeserving hack.

after all, the myth goes, the world rewards talent and hard work, and if he were deserving, he would have made something of himself. that he didn’t is taken to be prima facie evidence of low worth.

it’s a humbling thought and something i wish the kanye wests of the world could ever understand.

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