17 Jun 2016
While in traditional careers career progression is job-specific and confined to one or two organizations, in creative careers individuals usually pursue a sequence of job opportunities that go beyond the boundaries of any single employment setting. This “boundaryless” aspect of creative careers contributes to their highly stimulating and highly uncertain nature.
Consider the case of film directors. For the general public, individuals like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg are among the most successful directors of Hollywood. Most movie-goers ignore or downplay the role that failure and versatility play in such acclaimed creative career paths. Even academic research tends to downplay the role of failure and focuses sharply on how mobility and career competencies secure momentary professional success.
In a recent study* we decided to flip the direction of those relationships and explore how the interplay between success and failure relates to subsequent mobility, career competencies, and career evolution through the life span. Using a biographical design, we examined how the interplay between success and failure influenced the unfolding of the creative careers of 12 acclaimed film directors: Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Milos Forman, Stanley Kubrick, Mike Nichols, Alan Parker, Roman Polanski, Sydney Pollack, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg.
We found that over a 40- or 50-year-long career these filmmakers have been not only successful, not only directors, and not only Hollywood. Despite the great variability in their stories, throughout their careers they all experienced iterative cycles of success and failure, be it in critical acclaim and/or at the box office; they all enacted various roles (e.g., writer, producer, actor) other that of the director; and they all worked in contexts and media other than Hollywood and feature films (e.g., television, theatre, video games).
Many of those career transitions were recursive, rather than linear, which suggests that directorial careers are not fixed in any single organization, short-term project, professional role, or medium. We also found that mobility to other professional roles or/and media is linked to and has implications for maintaining career alternatives; acquiring insider domain knowledge; calibrating social networks; renewing one’s creative energy; and protecting one’s creative freedom; without any of these drivers alone reliably increasing chances of success.
In traditional careers, professional success is usually conceptualized as the cumulative outcome of the career journey. We believe that individuals in creative careers may benefit more from conceptualizing career success and career failure not as endings but as beginnings, as critical moments that influence the unfolding of boundaryless careers. An Oscar-winning blockbuster or a box-office flop denigrated by the critics can exert such a great influence on careers that we may as well conceptualize success and failure as boundaries that mark the subsequent evolution of careers. While in the extant literature the dominant metaphors of boundaryless careers are those of “paths,” “ladders,” “trajectories,” and “plateaus,” our research suggests a new metaphor for creative careers in the 21st century: the roller coaster.
* Mainemelis, Charalampos, Nolas, Sevasti-Melissa, and Tsirogianni, Stavroula. (2016, in press). Surviving a boundaryless creative career: The case of Oscar-nominated film directors, 1967-2014.Journal of Management Inquiry.