I review a lot of portfolios in a year. Between conventions and seminars and events and emails and classes I teach, I’ve guesstimated it at about 400-500 portfolio reviews per year. More if you count repeat viewings of the same artist. And after 10 years at Orbit (and a few years as an Art Director at Doubleday before that), I can say with all likelihood I’ve reviewed over 5,000 portfolios.

That’s a lot.

I’ve seen great artists and terrible artists and artists who were very new, and artists who are legends. And after all those portfolios, there is one factor that tells me whether you’ll have a successful career. After years of reviewing artists then watching what comes of their career, there is one quality that will predict who will make it and who won’t. One thing that is a key quality that unlocks the rest.

Spoiler: It has nothing to do with your art technique.

Technique and skill comes with practice. It’s not magic. As Greg Manchess often says, there’s no such thing as talent. There’s a formula, and it’s practice + time = skill.

…I have to judge how much truth this person is ready to hear.

When someone sits down to show me their portfolio, I check them out as a person before I look at their work. I look at their body language, and I can read in a second whether they’re nervous or confident. After that I have a few seconds to chat with them, hear a little bit about who they are, and in those moments I have to judge how much truth this person is ready to hear. Not whether or not I am honest with them—I am honest with everyone who sits in front of me—but how deep they are ready to go. How much are they really willing to hear? It’s exhausting giving a really in-depth review, and just for the sake of self-preservation, I’ve learned to save those reviews for the people that really want them.

There’s a few classes of people that approach an Art Director for a review:

  • The person who expects to be hired on the spot.
  • The person who wants you to confirm their belief that they are the best artist.
  • The person who wants you to confirm their belief that they are not the worst artist.
  • The person that knows they aren’t ready to work for that AD yet, but wants some simple feedback to point them in the right direction.
  • The person who knows their work is not right for that AD but is hoping for referrals of who their work would be a good fit for.
  • The person who cannot judge their own work—and that work is way worse than they think.
  • The person who cannot judge their own work—and that work is way better than they think.
  • The person who wants an in-depth, turn-them-inside-out breakdown of their work.

I have a few moments of conversation to figure out which of the above personalities a portfolio reviewee is, and adjust my feedback to fit. Very rarely are people really looking for a true in-depth review. I can tell by their facial reactions and body language pretty clearly early on if they do or don’t. Most of the time an artist doesn’t want an in-depth review, they want a simpler step – a basic improvement they can make to their work. And that is perfectly fine. Sometimes you are just looking for the next step you need to take, and you’re not ready for the whole road atlas.

Regardless of how in-depth you want your feedback to be, how much time you do or do not spend in front of me, I know whether you are going to be successful or not. It really all boils down to one thing: Do you trust in the process? Are you willing to risk work trying something without the guarantee of a payoff? Or, are you only interested in putting the work in if you know it will turn out the way you expect?

I can tell which camp each reviewee is in by the first few minutes of a portfolio review. Are you actively listening and taking notes (mental notes or physical notes)? Or are you filtering out everything I am saying and only hoping to hear the praise or commission you want? When I suggest something to you to help push your portfolio forward, are you reluctant to do it unless there is a concrete guaranteed return on your investment? How willing to experiment are you? Is my feedback falling on fertile ground? I can tell by how interested and open you are to what I am saying.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on a good name for this magical quality, and one hasn’t really come to mind yet (feel free to suggest some in the comments). “Risk” gives the wrong impression. Maybe it’s “Willingness”. It might be “Trust”— but a very specific kind of trust.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic, talks about “Fierce Trust”, which she defines as putting your effort out into the world regardless of the outcome. You trust that you may not get what you want, exactly the way you are picturing it, but if you keep working, you trust in the end it will be worth it. Our first instinct is to say “Why should I put all this work into something if the outcome might be nothing?” But we have to realize the process is the point. You should be saying to yourself “I should put all this work into something because the process is the point, and the outcome is a bonus.” She says the right question to ask is not “What would you do if you knew you could not fail” but much more importantly “What would you do if you knew you would fail?” In other words, what would you do because you loved it, even if you knew you would never be a success at it?

…what would you do because you loved it, even if you knew you would never be a success at it?

The people who have this “Fierce Trust” — if that’s what you want to call it — are the ones who are the successes. They don’t get discouraged by how far away the end of their quest is, because it’s not the outcome that’s the point, it’s the journey that’s the payoff. That’s very zen, I know, but it creates people who are not daunted by setbacks. People who will figure out how to get over an obstacle even if they have to try 3 different approaches before one works. Or five. Or ten. It feels completely counterintuitive that the people who are most successful are the ones who care more about the process than the goal, but it’s been proven to me again and again and again. Right now I am reading Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and that is the point of the whole book — that the process is what keeps creatives creating, and that’s what makes people happy, not the final destination.

It’s this quality— this grit, this determination, this trust in the process — that makes an AD sit up and pay attention, and note to themselves that the artist sitting in front of them is someone to watch more closely, because we know they’re going to be one of the success stories.

Illustrations by Diego Schtutman on Shutterstock