Choosing the right friends for a creative career

Your choice of friends doesn't just determine your company for Friday night drinks. It may also determine whether you make it to a career in the arts.

Research has shown your choice of friends is a remarkable predictor of your health and well-being. Growing evidence suggests disease spreads through social networks, and your risk of attempting suicide is four times higher if you have a friend who has tried to kill themselves.

n the upside, happiness is also contagious. Your shot at also being happy increases if you are surrounded by happy people, with your chances improving by 25% if a friend lives within 1.6km. 

The influence our friends have on our health and happiness begs the question as to what kind of impact can they have on our art and creativity? 

The answer is plenty.  ‘The people we know affect us in subtly major ways: for one, they help us land gigs. For two, they shape our behaviour: if you're someone who's endlessly assessing things, then it's a good idea to pair up (personally or professionally) with someone inclined toward action (though you may drive yourself crazy for a while). Third, they shape our ideas, ’ observes writer Drake Baer.

It seems the adage it’s not what you know but who you know holds some truth. art of the reason is pragmatic:  opportunities are attached to people. A chance conversation at a barbecue or a comment on Facebook can alert you to the job or project that has not been - and may not be - advertised.

Psychotherapist and author Tina B. Tessina is a firm believer in friends shaping your success, pointing out the enduring power of the old school network.

‘In order to succeed in many things, you need to know the people who have the power in that field. Throughout your school years, you build friendships with people who will turn out to be the powerful ones. And when you build good relationships with people who have succeeded, you find mentors and get an extra boost up the ladder of success that doesn't exist for outsiders.’

Building a creative support group

But high school may not have delivered the friends you need to support you aspirations for an arts career.

For centuries, artists have met with fellow artists in salons and watering holes to share musings, such as a group of British writers including J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams among others who formed the writing group theInklings.

While the meetings were informal and used to share latest drafts and discuss literature, the main idea was to connect with like-minded souls and build on each other’s strengths.

The idea of ‘Inklings’ has sprung many forms in the digital age, with creative entrepreneurs setting up accountability groups to motivate and inspire each other. 

One such example is The Elephants, a group of four that work towards 10-year goals with weekly and quarterly check-ins online. In person is just as effective, with the idea being to bring together a group of people to help uphold and develop professional, emotional, financial, creative and intellectual goals.

eeting regularly with people who support your work creates to a positive feedback loop where you feel encouraged and inspired, therefore creating your best work, and feeling encouraged inspired internally. 

It’s also integral to ensure challenge and healthy conflict to avoid confirmation bias. Having peers that can both encourage as well as push your limits is a key to getting the most out of an Inkling or accountability group.  

We are what surrounds us

While stripped of the formality of an accountability group, co-working hubs are also a breeding ground for creativity and collaboration.

Beyond that, even our location can dramatically impact our creativity and productivity as it determines who you can surrounded yourself with.

'When you are in the business of creating new products, ideas, or technologies, you need to be close to other people who are in your field,’ said Enrico Moretti, author of The New Geography of Jobs

‘The reason academics are so obsessed with who their colleagues are is not just prestige: it is productivity. The person that we hire and sits in the office next door influences our creativity and our thinking,’ he said.

Entrepreneur and writer Tim Ferriss echoes this sentiment that those closest to us have the greatest influence. ‘You are the average of the five people you associate with most, so do not underestimate the effects of your pessimistic, unambitious, or disorganized friends. If someone isn't making you stronger, they're making you weaker.’ 

Online friendship boosts creativity

Social media has increasingly become a place to share work and connect with likeminded creatives, yet it also fitted with traps such as compare-and-despair syndrome where an innocent scroll through Instagram can leave us feeling inadequate, talentless and far behind our peers. Surely this kind of online ‘friendship’ can’t be good for our creativity?

While a study suggested that envy increases with Facebook use, another found that direct or active interaction on social media actually increases feelings of bonding and social capital, while diminishing their sense of loneliness. 

By actively participating with the creative community and friends online, we can increase our self-esteem and by default enhance our creativity. It’s about shifting away from the passive lurking that can send us into a self-loathing spiral, and actively engaging, sharing with and supporting others.

Our online connections can also provide powerful motivation tools – public accountability, opportunities for social support, and friendly rivalry.

When friendship undermines us

While the right friends can help us get jobs and boost our creativity, the wrong ones can tear it to shreds. Artists have to fight off condescending inquiries from relatives and old friends such as ‘hen are you going to get a real job?’ nd those working for arts organisations find themselves defending the value of the arts, despite a growing body of research that gives them plenty of ammunition. 

When things go right, if our friends celebrate with us we are likely to recognise the opportunities but when they undercut us with backhanded compliments - perhaps the result of envy - we doubt ourselves. Friends’ reaction to positive events  predicts whether or not we continue to pursue what matters to us, says Shelley Gable,  author of ‘What Happens When Things Go Right?

Looking in the mirror

What such studies show is something that has been observed for centuries: it’s about the quality of friendships.

‘Aristotle’s opinion was that friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is this (reciprocal) mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons,’ writes Massimo Pigliucci in Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life.

‘It is not just that friends are instrumentally good because they enrich our lives, but that they are an integral part of what it means to live the good life, according to Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers.’

For our creativity, careers and lives to bloom, we need challenge, diversity, healthy conflict, self-validation, companionship and support from our friends. You most likely won’t find all of these characteristics in one person, but recognising the extraordinary influence our friends have on our lives helps us to form the right ones for our creativity and wellbeing. 

Read the article in full on ArtsHub