How To Be an Artist With a Day Job
The vast majority of creative people will never make a living from their art. but the moment we stop thinking of that as a sign of failure, the sooner we can find true success and Happiness as artists.
There are fifty thousand articles online about turning your creative passion into a full-time career (that's an exact number I counted myself, so no need to check if it’s accurate). Many of said fifty thousand articles include very good advice. You should read them and maybe take what they say to heart. But there aren’t many articles tackling the far more common situation: being an artist and having a—*gulp*—day job.
I mean, I get why this is the case. It’s more romantic to think about dropping everything and making a living from your hand-knit beer koozies. It’s idealistic. It’s "the dream." An article about how you may be better off figuring out how to enjoy life without becoming a full-time artist doesn’t inspire clicks. Worse yet, it may sound cynical, as if the author is telling you to bitterly give up on your dreams and aspirations, put on a tie and start talking about mutual funds to incredibly stuffy people at wine and cheese parties.
But I clearly don't give a shit about pageviews, so I'm going to let you in on a dirty little secret: the percentage of people who achieve the aforementioned full-time artist dream is less than 100%. It's difficult to get any hard numbers on a stat like that, but here are a couple examples to give you an idea: one study estimated that 90% of all musical acts could be considered "undiscovered." And a Washington Post article found that roughly 1.4 million people were making a living as artists in the United States. We don't know how many people in the country are attempting to be career creatives, but the total population is about 320 million. By the way, those 1.4 million are nearly all white and have a median salary of about $30k, which for many of us doesn't even qualify as a living wage. More people are incarcerated in America than are making that level of a "living" from art.
In other words, it’s not impossible, but the majority of us will never get to the point where we support ourselves completely with our creative passions. So it's probably important to understand that it’s more than OK to be an artist with a day job. It doesn’t mean you’ve given up on anything or sold yourself short. Maybe you’ve been working hard for years and your craft hasn’t brought in adequate income. Maybe you have a family, and with it comes pressing financial needs or time you’d like to spend with them rather than running a business (which is what you'll need to do to make a career of your art). Maybe you don’t want to turn your art into a business at all. Or maybe it's still early in your career and damn near impossible to make enough money to pay your bills.
Welcome to the world of creatives with day jobs, populated by the vast majority of artistic people. But among the broken dreams is a world in which you can not only survive, but thrive. You don’t have to be cynical and bitter, you can be optimistic and realistic. Yes, realistic optimism is an actual thing that involves recognizing harsh realities while understanding how to make the best of them. This post isn’t about giving up on your dreams, it's about embracing the journey to achieve them. It's also about accepting the reality that you may never be able to work on your number one creative passion full time. Here’s how you can live like that and be happy.
Your Job Matters. A Lot.
Many people want to make a living from their passion because they hate their job, but they’re trying to solve two potentially all-consuming problems at once. We'll get back to the passion part later, first we need to talk about that sucky job of yours. Not wanting to continue on your current career path is one thing; working at a job that makes you want to decorate the cubicle wall with your brains is quite another. Don't fall prey to the logic that says a bad job helps you suffer for your art; there's plenty of suffering in the world to inspire you. Being in misery 40 hours a week will not help your creativity in any way.
I used dread something I called the “Rock Star Hangover.” The RSH occurred when I would be out playing a show at night, sometimes to hundreds of people, basking in the adulation of the crowd, getting free drinks, making new friends, and generally being treated like a champ into the wee hours of the evening, only to lug my gear into the car, go home, wake up early and shuffle like a zombie into an office I hated and go back to being treated like the same old nobody I had been the day before. It sucked, hard, and I predictably hated a good chunk of my life.
If you find yourself in this situation—chronically suffering from your own version of the Rock Star Hangover—you're never going to find anything resembling happiness. This is because your day job matters a lot. If you wake up every day and go to a job you despise, it's time to make a change. This can be scary. But it's not only worth it, it's unbelievably important. You will feel a huge weight off your shoulders when you make that move, although be warned it can take more than one try to get it right. Regularly hating a large portion of your life is like slowly poisoning yourself, and it saps your precious creative energy during your off time, AKA when you need it most.
The key is to find a job that allows you to be creative for some of the time, or at least satisfies one of your other interests. There are many job titles that let you be creative in some capacity, which helps keep you from getting excruciatingly bored. One strategy is to find a job in an industry that interests you. Maybe you're a musician and you'd enjoy working at a record label. Maybe you're a woodworker with a passion for animal shelters. Maybe you're an actor who is secretly aroused by spreadsheets. No judgement here. I've gotten many jobs where I've been paid to write blog posts and promo video scripts and things of that nature. It's not always deeply satisfying, but it often helps scratch an itch.
No job is gonna be sunshine and high fives 100% of the time, and you'll probably have to do your best to embrace some busywork. But if you spend at least some of your time exercising your creative muscles or pursuing a genuine interest, you'll be more satisfied in your work and consequently more energized and present for the important stuff when you get home.
Think of those moments that you don't enjoy as necessary evils, like going to the dentist or standing in line at the godforsaken DMV. You'll still have to do stupid shit like that even if your life is amazing and you're a celebrity chef just like you always dreamed, so just power through the rough patches and find a job that minimizes them rather than serving as a weekly 40-hour rough patch.
Embrace Sacrifice, Retain Balance
OK, so your day job is sorted out. Let's get back to talking about your passion. There's no way to dance around a few hard realities in this post. Here's one: if you spend a lot of your free time working on creative projects, you're going to sacrifice time that could be spent on other things. Things that could genuinely enrich your life. Luckily, this sacrifice will feel like an easy choice if you're really doing something you love. But every once in a while you may find yourself second-guessing the time you dedicate to creative stuff. This is especially true if you're trying in earnest to turn your passion into a career, which means spending a lot of time working on the business side of things (including not-so-creative mindless tasks and dealing with the bullshit of "making it" in various creative industries seemingly set up solely to make your success impossible). Even if your work has purpose, working during your free time isn't always going to feel good.
This is natural. We're all making sacrifices with every decision we make, it's just a matter of choosing which sacrifice feels like less of a loss. Artists often give up the type of stability that comes with the "traditional" life path. But the alternative is sacrificing the pursuit of your true passion, which would weigh you down with much more regret later in life. You've chosen to dedicate a lot of time to your creative projects, and sometimes you will feel like you're missing out.
But you also need balance in your life. In those occasional moments where you feel like you're needlessly depriving yourself or pushing others out of your life, take a step back and restore the balance. Go out with friends if you're afraid your social life has taken a hit. Get some exercise if you've felt too immobile. Read a book if you're behind on your reading list. No project is more important than maintaining a healthy and complete lifestyle. If you run yourself into the ground, your art will once again suffer. Also, if you neglect your well-being you totally might die. That would suck. You really won't be creating much then.
Get Organized and Set Small Goals
I've never really been one for detailed planning or super-specific goal setting. I generally like to keep my options open and make decisions based on how I feel in the moment. But when I do plan, I plan like a motherf#$%er.
Part of the reason, as I've mentioned in previous posts, is that I'd be an unredeemable mess of disorganization if I didn't set some strict productivity boundaries for myself. But even for the freest of spirits, structure is essential. And when you don't have the luxury of spending all day creating, you're going to need to form a habit of creating. This isn't a habits blog—there are already plenty of people who do a great job of helping you build habits like Leo Babauta and James Clear and Chris Winfield—but in order to get into the habit of creating, you need to incorporate it into your daily routine.
Create a routine not to build a rigid framework that you can never stray from, but to have a productive home base that you can go back to if you get distracted and veer off course. Otherwise your lack of productivity will spiral out of control and you'll be having a beer with a friend three months later wondering why you never finished that novel about a cockroach detective who is trying to figure out who the mysterious invisible murderer is in everyone's favorite roach motel. (I just came up with that on the spot while typing, feel free to use it.)
Find an organizational system that works well for you. Set goals so you have something to work toward, even if they're vague to start. Getting too specific with your long-term creative goals can be stifling and frustrating, but breaking those bigger goals into specific short-term tasks will give you something manageable to work on now that will result in solid progress on the whole. When I first started drawing Of The Fittest, I made an initial goal of updating it twice a week for a year. It seemed like a modest ambition, but 365 days later I had 104 comics, which to me was a big accomplishment (and a lot of work). So form a habit of small artistic progress every day after you get home from work.
Force Work in Chunks
Unless you're some sort of focusing psycho, you might have some trouble concentrating on just one thing for hours at a time, especially when you're a little tired after working your hopefully-not-completely-soul-sucking job. Creating can be fun, but it can also be exhausting. And frustrating. Sometimes just thinking about everything you haven't done yet can wear you out. If you get sidetracked and waste that initial creative energy, you won't get much accomplished. "Man, I can't paint a detailed portrait of Boba Fett playing with kittens, what was I thinking? Oh shit, they put the next season of Always Sunny on Netflix! Might as well watch three or four episodes. What was I doing again?"
In order to get creating and avoid the instant gratification monkey, you may need to force yourself to get started. This is normal. Set a timer and make yourself begin working for 20 minutes, distraction free (no phone, no email, no social media, etc). If you're not locked in when the timer goes off, step back, take a break for a few minutes and eat some string cheese. I find string cheese is pretty good at getting my creative juices flowing. Then go back and try again for as many sessions as you have time for. If you are truly in the zone when the timer goes off, ignore it and go as long as your feeble body will take you. Ride that wave to glory, my friend.
Most people aren't able to do anything continuously without breaks. In fact, it's been scientifically demonstrated that taking breaks is good for your creative energy. But even if you just get one rather unproductive but good-intentioned 20 minute block in, that's still progress. And if you can get a couple chunks of work done every day (again, form a habit), you'll be in better shape than most people who walk all the way to the corner coffee shop to write four sentences of their screenplay about a vegetable who was raised by fruit, then goes on an epic journey to find the broccoli family that abandoned him as a child. Again, on the spot, you're welcome for the idea.
Embrace Your Inner Hippie and Be Grateful
Of all the things I've talked about here, this is probably the most important. Entitlement is the enemy of creativity and happiness. And as Mark Manson brilliantly wrote on his blog, we are not entitled to make a living doing what we love. If you create from a place of entitlement and think that you deserve to get noticed or discovered simply because you are pouring your heart into it, your work will suffer. In fact, when we create art simply for the sake of creating art, we tend to get noticed more because it's authentic.
So allow me to get sentimental as shit for this final point: the single most important thing about being a successful creative person is being unabashedly psyched that you get to do this awesome thing that you love to do. Many people haven't figured out their passion. Many people aren't as creative as you are. Some people think their time is best spent marathoning episodes of Peep Show like I did the other day. Other people can't do the thing that would make them happy because they're too poor or they live under an oppressive regime or they lost both arms in a freak Segway accident.
But not you. You know what you love. You get to do it. And you may not yet be lucky enough to do it from nine to five on weekdays, but goddammit you're glad you have the time and privilege to do it at all. Don't insult the poor folks who can't pursue their passions by being ungrateful. It's all about loving the process, because that's the part that makes you happy. Sure, you'd like to get a final product out there or land a paid gig. That accomplishment feels great, for about a day or two. Then you know what happens? You say, "That was fun, I think I'll do another!"
You say that because it's the doing what you love to do, in any capacity, that makes you happy and fulfilled. Embrace it. It's f#$%ing awesome. Now go out, follow your dreams and create great art.