Photo: Henrik Sandklef via Flickr
What does it take to succeed? You may have heard the adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” And there’s truth to that. But before you can find the who, you first have to find the where.
I’ve written before that every story of success is really a story of community. But community is not just a group of people. It’s a place.
So how do you find one?
Genius Is a Team Sport
First, let’s be clear: You don’t do your best work alone. No one does. In the words of Keith Sawyer, genius is a group effort, not the result of any single person’s accomplishments.
Genius is a group effort.
What looks like a stroke of insight is often the accumulation of years of hard work from multiple individuals. Not only are we influenced by the work of others. Our environments shape who we become and therefore what we do.
So if you want to do better work, the best thing you can do is put yourself around those who are already doing that work.
When we look at the lives of successful artists, writers, and creatives, we don’t just see a collection of serendipitous moments. We see a series of events and connections that allow a person’s work to thrive. We see strategy.
Often, these events are more intentional than they seem. It’s not just luck that leads to success. It’s choice. And one of the most important choices you can make is where you choose to live.
It’s not luck that leads to success. It’s choice.
The Rule of the Scene
Surrounding yourself with successful people does not just happen. In fact, I would argue that more often than not a person finds herself in the right place at the right time because she put herself there.
We all need the right environment to challenge and inspire us to do our best work, and in this article I want to show you how to seek out such a place.
The Rule of the Scene, as I call it, says it’s easier to go where creative work is already happening than it is to will yourself to be more creative.
There are three elements necessary for a thriving creative scene:
- The right people to influence and challenge your work.
- A place to gather and connect with those people.
- A purpose for gathering so that you continue to connect.
That’s what you need to create a scene. Now, let’s explore how to find one.
The Hemingway Strategy: Join a Scene
In 1921, a fledgling writer named Ernest Hemingway moved from Chicago to Paris. He went there to join a group of expatriate writers and artists living on the Left Bank, because an author he admired told him it was where the most interesting people in the world lived.
In Paris, Hemingway met a group of creative minds unlike he had ever before see. By living there, he was influenced by them and in less than a decade would become one of the most famous authors of that century.
None of this was an accident. Where Ernest Hemingway lived and who he became are related. Joining a scene is not just about moving. It’s about finding the place and people you need the most to succeed — and who hopefully need you, too — and becoming a necessary part of that community.
Joining a scene is not just about moving. It’s about becoming a necessary part of the community.
Hemingway went to Paris to learn from established literary giants and follow in their footsteps. And what better classroom for a young writer than Paris in the 1920s, where you were likely to bump into James Joyce at a cafe or Pablo Picasso at Gertrude Stein’s weekly gathering of artists?
He went to the place where creativity was already happening and reaped the benefits of such move.
You can do the same today.
It’s Not Just Who You Know
Paris in the 1920s was what historians call a “genius cluster,” a term used to describe areas that produce inordinate amounts of creative output. Often, these places are a surprise to us, as with Florence being the birthplace of the Renaissance or Silicon Valley launching the Information Age.
But sometimes, if you’re paying attention, you can discover these opportunities as they’re unfolding. This is what I believe Hemingway did — he saw the genius cluster happening and decided to join it. We can do the same, because all around us, we find scenes:
- Each year, aspiring actors relocate to L.A. and New York in search of their big break.
- Musicians move to Nashville to try and “make it.”
- Hopeful entrepreneurs find themselves in San Francisco or Austin to chase down a dream of launching a startup.
Scenes abound. Our job is to recognize the right places for the work we want to do. Not all scenes are created equal and where you choose to live will affect the work you do. So consider each potential place with care.
In the case of Hemingway, he intuitively grasped his need for the right teachers to help him write the way he wanted. He also recognized the importance of gatekeepers in establishing him as a prominent literary voice. All those things he needed, he found in Paris.
But he didn’t just move to Paris to join those influences. He became a part of their community by teaching Ezra Pound to box, by helping Gertrude Stein get published, and by lending his editing skills to a literary magazine.
He didn’t just move. He joined the scene. This is an essential part of the process: It’s not just who you know that leads to success. It’s who you help.
All these efforts allowed Hemingway to rise to the top of a list of young writers who had all flocked to Paris with similar aspirations. But today, we remember one man’s name above them all — and it’s because he made the most of an opportunity when others did not.
If you’re trying to find a scene to join, consider the following:
- What do you really want to do?
- Who is doing that kind of work right now?
- Where can you find the most influential voices in your industry, and how can you help them?
Go where those people are, even just temporarily, and find a way to join the scene. It just might change everything.
The Brönte Strategy: Create Your Own Scene
Almost every time I talk about scenes, someone asks: “But what if I can’t move? Do I have to relocate myself halfway around the world to find my scene? Am I out of luck?”
Not necessarily. Not all of us are able to pack up our things and move at a moment’s notice. That’s not always the best strategy, anyway.
Sometimes, we need to leave home in search of new opportunities. Other times, the smarter strategy is to stay put and create a new scene. Let’s look at a group of writers who did just that: The Brönte sisters.
In the early nineteenth century, Haworth, England was a small, rural community devoid of literary opportunity. Patrick Brönte was a clergyman and widower who had moved his daughters there to keep them guarded from exposure to the outside world. To pass the time and amuse themselves, the children told each other stories.
One day, one of the girls found a poem written by her younger. The older sister shared that she, too, had been writing in secret. Before long, all three sisters — Emily, Charlotte, and Anne — confessed to being closet writers and began a literary collaboration that would last a lifetime.
The sisters went on to write some of the most influential works of English literature, and it all began in a small village, far from the reaches of civilization. These young women didn’t have to leave home to find their scene. Because for every Hemingway in Paris, there’s a Bronte from Haworth.
Sometimes, the community we need is closer than we think.
Make the First Move
You need a scene. That much is clear. You need a place where you will be challenged and inspired to do your best work. This requires all of us to get out of our comfort zones.
For some of us, finding a scene may mean a move across the room, as was the case with the Bröntes. For others, it may mean a move overseas, as in the case of Hemingway. In any case, you’re going to have to get a little uncomfortable to find the right people and place for your work.
You must move. Standing still is not an option. Everyone wants a scene, but someone has to go first.
If you’re trying to create a scene and wondering if such a thing is possible where you are, do the following:
Pay attention. Look around and see if others are doing the kind of work you want to do.
Go first. Find a way to to bring people together around a common interest — maybe it’s a meetup or a book club — and see what connections are made.
Keep people connected. Use a Facebook group or Slack channel to keep folks in touch with each other in between meetings so the next time you gather it’s a reunion, not an introduction.
This is always how scenes are formed. We all want to be seen and heard and challenged. But most of us are waiting for someone else to take that first step. To offer the excuse for us all to come together. To move.
Maybe that person can be you.
The Gale Strategy: A Scene within a Scene
Let’s look at one final and more recent example.
Every year, Eric Gale, a blogger and author comes to a small conference in Nashville called Tribe Conference.
He doesn’t just show up for the event, though. For three years in a row, Eric has hosted the unofficial meet-up for local writers in the area, many whom are there just for the conference.
No one asked him to do this. No one is paying him. He just saw a need to bring people together and took the initiative. He was hungry enough for connection with those who had similar goals and interests that he decided to do something about it.
And for three years, people have followed Eric’s lead. He did what so many of us want to do but are often too afraid to do. He saw an opportunity and took action. He created the community he needed.
This is the third strategy to consider: Build a community off of an existing community. Create a scene within a scene. Instead of going and finding a scene that requires you to permanently relocate or trying to create a local group, start by doing a little of both.
Find a scene that already exists and build a smaller community within the larger one. Use an event or reason that people are already gathering and turn it into an opportunity to connect at a deeper level and stay connected.
Who knows what it could lead to.
You Need a Scene
As my friend Ally Fallon once wrote, people not only live in places, but “places live in people.” A scene shapes you, makes you into the kind of person you become. To summarize, here’s how you find one — whether you do this far away, nearby, or in your own hometown:
- Find your place. Go where the work is already happening and put yourself out there. Join that community. Buy a ticket to that conference. Do whatever you need to do to get there.
- Find your people. Become a part of a community by helping others, filling whatever needs you can. Be relentlessly helpful and watch as others follow your lead.
- Find your purpose. Come up with a reason for gathering on a regular basis. Create an excuse for people to keep coming back together, whether it’s a group project or just a larger “why” behind what you’re doing.
Where you live will have significant impact on the work you do, the life you live, and the person you become. So choose that environment wisely. Because once you find your scene, everything changes.
Have you found your scene yet?