Leon Ingulsrud's picture

Are you successful? 

Do you feel successful? 

What does success even mean to you? 

Do these questions feel familiar to you?

Does it seem like I’m about to try and sell you something?

The question “Am I successful?” is on our minds a lot more than we let on. This is not only because it is a trickier thing to evaluate than we are led to believe, but we tend to think that to ask the question at all is to implicitly answer it in the negative. 


We think success should be self-evident, or assumed of the successful. We take a kind of “I’ll know it when I get there” attitude and in the meantime we live in doubt. This is dangerous because in this state of doubt we are vulnerable to all kinds of snake-oil sellers who seek to manipulate our definitions and expectations of success to exploit us.


So what is success?

Success is complicated for me because I’m a big advocate of failure. One of the things that I’ve learned from years of working on the Suzuki Training, is that failure is the road to growth and learning. Success is nice and it can feel good, but it doesn’t really nourish you deeply. Like a candy-bar, it’s sweet and a lot of fun, but you can’t live on it, and if you have it all the time, it’s bad for you. There’s an adage in motorcycle racing that says, “If you’re not crashing occasionally, you’re not going fast enough.” Failure is proof that you’re pushing the limits. Failure is the great teacher. 


However when we look at our lives on a larger scale, we don’t want to be failures. We want to be successful. And I think as artists in the 21st century, we need to ask ourselves what we mean when we say this?


I know for myself, when I think about success, I often fall into the trap of comparing my life and accomplishments to those of other people. I play the game of “where were they at my age” etc. I know this is senseless. Our lives are all very different, and we cannot reasonably be measured against each other without reducing our entire lives into simplistic, one-dimensional metrics. These comparisons lead to, if not jealousy, then its twin… arrogance: two of the more clearly useless and wasteful emotions. And judging another’s success is clearly flawed to begin with. It goes beyond the level of anecdote. I know plenty of people who are, from my point of view, successful, who say that they don’t feel that way. 

But if other people aren’t the yardstick, then how are we to measure our success? What are the metrics?

I think the easiest metric to grab onto in our society is money.

On Studio 360 a few years back, I heard an interview with a Chinese artist who was talking about the changes to the arts scene in China brought about by the recent transformation of the social and economic climate in China. He used an image that I have found useful in many different ways. He said that art’s relationship to money is like a boat’s relationship to water; if you don’t have enough of it you can’t get anywhere, but if you have too much of it, in the wrong place, you’re in serious trouble. This seems deeply wise to me. Its wisdom is partially in that it so clearly casts money in the role of something that is not the real point of what we are trying to do. Sometimes we go out in a boat because we want the pleasure of just “being on the water,” but more often we are trying to get somewhere, and a boat is useful because the water is either in the way, or offers access to our destination.

Part of the question we need to ask is about values, and I think we live in a time when values are hard to talk about. In a global civilization that is ever so slowly waking up to its own diversity and multiplicity, how do we talk about what’s truly valuable to us?


It is often helpful to think of our culture having a theocratic value system, with money holding the position of the deity, and the wealthy as the priests. I think this situation is persistent and inevitable because money is such a fungible form of value, and there has been an explosive evolution in the abstraction of money but its resulting ability to flow all over the world. This technologically enhanced liquidity has led to some of the largest levels of income disparity in history, partially because if all the water in the world is connected and mobile, it’s easier to gather massive amounts of it into vast oceans. Leading to deserts elsewhere.

It’s hard to deal with this, because it is really difficult to argue with the proposition that it’s good to be rich. Study after study shows that money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy things that support happiness. And people like me like to shout about how bad it is to be poor, but we’re shy about saying wealth is good. In one sense, wealth is like a terminal academic degree; it’s not going to open any doors but it will keep some of them from being shut in your face. I think most people think that they could benefit from having more money. Even reasonable people who have good sustainable lives, can imagine what good things they would do if they had more money.

At the current moment, it’s hard to talk about this without saying something about Donald Trump. I don’t like giving the man very much attention, because I humbly submit that he’s getting enough. But let me just propose that it is not Trump’s actual wealth that has put him in the position he is in. It is his PERCEIVED wealth. Stories abound about how much money he might NOT have, and how bad of a businessman he might actually be, but they have trouble gaining cultural traction because he is the 21st Century version of the top-hatted Monopoly man. He’s Scrooge McDuck. He reads “rich” and therefore “successful.”

My father used to quote his own dad, a Norwegian immigrant ex-cowboy North Dakota farmer, who apparently was fond of saying “I’m richer than Rockefeller.” My grandfather’s logic was based on an anecdote where John D Rockefeller, arguably the wealthiest person in modern history, answered the question, “How much money is enough?” with, “Just a little bit more.” My Grandfather’s joke is that because he didn’t need any more than he had, he must have more money than Rockefeller. It is the rather buddhist idea that freeing himself from the desire for more, makes him in fact richer. As charming, and frankly noble as this might be, if someone had shown up at the homestead with a suitcase full of money and a reasonably ethical proposition for giving it to Grandpa, I don’t imagine him turning it down. This doesn’t make him hypocritical, but it does get to the empirical power of money as value.

This power has been so pervasive for so long that it has led to a state of affairs where it seems to be very very difficult for us to define or feel value without attaching money to it.

Although most Americans of my generation and/or political leanings tend to focus our ire on the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizen’s United case in 2010, money has officially been recognized as political speech since Buckly vs. Valeo in 1976. This was the precedent which was applied in the Citizen’s United vs. Federal Election Commission case (wonk mic-drop). Although I disagree with this decision and think it has done a lot of damage to our society, when you sit down and think about it deeply, it’s kind of hard to fault the court. 


In the performing arts, we confuse tickets for ballots in a democratic voting process. We routinely evaluate the “success” of a movie or play based on its box-office receipts. This would be perfectly reasonable if we are looking at these endeavors as purely commercial businesses. But even if we were to say that we are seeking something as intangible as “cultural impact,” ticket sales are a tempting ruler to use. It is true that the number of tickets sold to a movie or play does have a relationship to the number of people who were touched by it, which in turn has a relationship to its cultural impact. Cultural impact is difficult to measure empirically but money is not, so it’s easy to transpose and use financial success as a yardstick.

But history offers may examples of commercial failures that are culturally vital.

These issues are very awake for those of us who work in what is called the non-profit sector. 

Former SITI Company board chair and fantastically clear thinker Jaan Whitehead 
writes eloquently about how we cut our feet out from under ourselves in the arts by defining ourselves as “nonprofit” etc. These negative definitions are damaging to ourselves and our perceived worth in the culture. But they speak to the fact that we can all agree that we are not going to measure our success on the basis of financial gain, but we have trouble agreeing about how we DO measure our success.

Darron West was telling me about a conversation he had with Teller (of Penn & Teller) while they were working on a production of “The Tempest” that Teller co-directed. Teller said that he didn’t get the non-profit model at all. He said something along the lines of “You make something. You work really hard at it so that it’s good enough that a lot of people want to see it. Then you charge them money to see it. Why would you do it any other way?” I hear this opinion expressed in many ways. It is often an argument against government funding of arts. It boils down to: “Let the market sort things out.” I hear really smart people, who I agree with on a lot of points, making this argument all the time.

It comes down to a difference in how we see art and artists, and what they’re doing in society. 

Tadashi Suzuki used to have a devastating note. When he didn’t like something you had done in rehearsal he would say “…and you want people to pay money to see THAT?” There is something to this. There is something fundamental about feeling accountable for the value of what you are doing. To respect that the audience made sacrifices to be there. But at the same time, if someone came to me and said, “I just saw the show. That was really good… Here’s some more money.” I would be really weirded out. It would not make me feel successful. As an artist, my relationship with any member of my audience does not hinge on whether or not they paid for their seat, or how much they paid for their seat.

So if I don’t want to measure my success with money, what DO I want to measure it with? Knowing what I’m NOT doesn’t go all the way to telling me who I am.

I found one clue when I recently read in the
New York Times that Alex Breaux of Red Speedo was inspired to become an actor by seeing SITI’s “bobrauschenbergamerica” at American Repertory Theater while he was at Harvard. When I read this, I felt the surge of fulfillment that I associate with success.

It seems to have something to do with seeing things out in the world that I can trace back to ripples I played a role in starting.

With the SITI Company, what is sometimes troubling is that we’ve had a really good measure of what might be called “success”. And as I’ve said, success is sweetly dangerous. Going back to the metaphor of the boat on the water, it’s important to see success as water in the boat-water relationship. Part of the point of any endeavor is to succeed. But if we miscast success or look for it in the wrong places, it can sink us. I’m very fond of a quote attributed to director Alan Schneider that goes something like “A bad review can never hurt you as much as a good review.” The problem of success is that it makes one think that what is genuine about what we do is based in something other than what we are doing right now. Too often it pulls us back into the past rather than push us forward. And success can seduce an artist into thinking that they themselves are the thing that is loved, rather than their work. The path of art is littered with the corpses of artists who bought into their own hype and lost connection to what they are actually doing. I’ve been around enough “successful” artists to see how difficult this problem is.

SITI recently got a grant for a project that I’ve been working on. Our staff and I worked very hard on the grant and we got it. Success! The tempting thing is to think that getting the grant reflects on the value of the project. To see it as a conformation of its worthiness. This might seem like a harmless eliding of values, but it’s not. The success of getting the grant is the success of the grant application process. If we equate getting the grant with the worthiness of the project then, when an application is rejected, we question the worthiness of our art. With all respect, questioning the worthiness of our art is not up to granting organizations. That’s OUR job as artists. A secondary job is to craft grant applications that demonstrate how our art is aligned with the interests of granting organizations. I don’t mean that cynically. It’s an intense process and it’s a deeply artistic process. But its success and/or failure is separated from the success or failure of the project itself.

Anne Bogart once told me that if you make a work, and it really comes from your heart and it really reflects what it is you want to be doing in the world, and no one comes to see it, then you simply haven’t found your audience yet. If an audience comes to see it and they don’t like it, they were the wrong audience. They’re not bad or stupid. They were just not the people who should be seeing this work.

So then if success is a dangerous thing that is both desirable and hard to measure, how do we relate to it? As usual, my default approach is to try to define the word itself.

A number of years ago, I participated in a workshop which we hosted in our studio led by the wonderful
David Diamond. The workshop was focused on this very idea. It was David’s assertion that much of our unhappiness as artists comes from a misunderstanding of what success is. He really helped us disconnect our thinking from the pressures that others are putting on us, and try to see success on our own terms. By the end of the session, he proposed a definition for success that I have tried to hold onto ever since. David defined success as the full expression of our deepest values. I find this so profoundly helpful, I use it every day in making decisions and in evaluating past decisions. In the intervening years I have paraphrased David’s definition in my mind into a version of it which is something like: success is seeing your values activated in the world.

I like this. It makes my own success about something other than me. It puts me into contact with things that are much larger than my own life or my own activities. It also allows me to fail on so many levels and still succeed.