How to Pursue Your Creative Calling While Working Full-time

How I faced “economic rationality” and other self-limiting beliefs, lessons on what worked and what didn’t, and how making a little space for creative expression is both possible and worthwhile


To fellow working professionals with a closet creative side — artists, writers, photographers, actors, poets, dancers, filmmakers, singers, musicians (this somehow conjures up in my mind an image of a joyous bacchanalian procession but with iPhones) who have been told throughout most of your life (probably by the people who love you the most) that such passions are fleeting, not practical and generally don’t matter, yet have an ongoing feeling you can’t quite shake that something’s “missing” — this post is dedicated to you.

I have loved making art since I was a child. I drew on the walls. I tried, unsuccessfully, to convince my mother to convert our laundry room into an art studio. In high school, I took weekend classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In college, I stopped making art. I explored my other interests across technology and the social sciences. As the daughter of Filipino-American immigrants, I directed my studies and activities towards getting a job after graduation. I joined business groups and did internships, including one on Wall Street. Amidst these endeavors and career-related considerations, I didn’t think art was “worth” making.

And besides, I wasn’t the “best” at it. There was always some other kid in the art class whose work the teacher liked better anyway. Socially, I didn’t fit in among the hipsters who studied art and creative writing.

I have been working in tech for the past five years. The work is fulfilling in many different ways, yet I still felt like something was missing.

When I thought about the last ten years of my life as a college student and working professional, I noticed that art kept coming up again, even if I didn’t create art myself. In addition to the pursuits mentioned above, in college I had also volunteered to do art projects with hospital patients, led an art studio course for non-art majors and led two initiatives to apply technology to share art — all activities that made art more approachable to others. I eventually concluded that whatever I was going to do in life, art would be some part of it.

I also noticed more and more working professionals quietly pursuing their creative interests outside of work, mostly around music. The product marketing manager recording an album. The business development manager slowly assembling a home studio, one Amazon shipment at a time. The sales manager playing in a string quartet. Engineers and product managers taking up DJ-ing and participating in local capella groups and jazz bands. The list goes on — across photography, dance, filmmaking, writing and more.

For those of us who feel a strong need for creative expression, this feeling is with us for life. Indulging such creative expression is a fool’s errand; at the same time, so is suppressing it.

We can’t all drop our responsibilities to create full-time. But there’s a gray area between all or nothing, in which making a little bit of space for creative expression amidst life’s circumstances is both 1) worthwhile and 2) possible.

So, how does a working professional carve out space in his or her life for creative expression?

This is the story about how I created 70+ art pieces and the foundation for an upcoming art book while working full-time.

The 70+ day challenge

I had concluded that art would be some part of my life, but I didn’t know where to start, so I kept an eye out for relevant wisdom. This post, this post and a leadership workshop with Maria Molfino shifted my worldview and helped me face my inner critic — certain “rational” thought patterns aimed at safety and self-preservation.

These were the same thought patterns that were discouraging me from making art. I learned how to manage such thoughts more constructively. As a result, I started making art again for the first time in years.

For my first project, I painted a commission for a YC startup’s office in Palo Alto. I enjoyed the experience, so to keep up the momentum, on Saturdays I took a class at the San Francisco Art Institute with Sarah Stolar.

The teacher’s proposed class assignment sounded simple: a daily 10-minute sketch each of the 70+ days of the class, to prepare for larger projects later in the class. In the instructor’s experience assigning this, only 1 student had ever completed it.

Challenge accepted.

Over several nights, during what’s otherwise “Netflix time,” my quick sketches evolved into standalone conceptual pieces. By the end of the course, I created 70+ pieces. The work evolved into an interactive installation that highlights a curated selection of 30 pieces. I’m currently working on transforming this collection of pieces into a book.

If you had told me January that this is what would happen with my work by May, I would not have believed you. All in all, I feel more complete, at peace and alive.

As a bonus, I experienced a solid month of euphoria. During that time, I was grinning from ear to ear. Amidst the state of flow and the unexpected outpouring of support from those with whom the work resonates, emerged a combination of autonomy, mastery and purpose. My seemingly ongoing mid-quarter life crisis found brief respite in this newly found equilibrium.

Now that the class is over, the logical question is, “What’s next? Will you drop everything and be an artist? Or are you satisfied now and will you stop doing it?”

Based on my experience with this project, I have a different approach, and I would like to share it with other working professionals with a creative side:

What if you start from the assumption that this need for creative expression will be with you for life? How might you carve out some space in your life for it, turning it up and down based on your current circumstances?

This essay is about the process behind creating art daily for 70+ days, and what I’ve learned from making space to pursue my creative calling while pursuing my career.

For those of us who feel a strong need for creative expression, this feeling is with us for life. I believe making at least a little bit of space for creative expression amidst one’s current circumstances is both 1) worthwhile and 2) possible.

The creative gift, for life

The following encounter hit it home that this desire for creative expression is here to stay. I had the aforementioned commission framed at a reputable frame shop in San Francisco. When I went to pick up the framed work, the accountant finalized the paperwork. She was a middle-aged Asian immigrant woman who could have easily been an auntie.

She cheerfully whispered to me, “I’m so happy to see an Asian! There’s no Asian artists who come here. Are these for your show? I wanted to be a musician, but my parents wouldn’t let me so I’m an accountant. My brother is good at drawing but he’s an engineer. Whatever you do, follow your dreams!”
She continued, “My son wants to design staging and lighting, and I let him. He tells me, ‘Mom you’re not like other Asian parents.’ Follow your dreams!”

Huh. This desire for creative expression among working professionals was more prevalent than I had thought. I was not alone. The desire for creative expression was not a “phase” we can grow out of, or something specific to idealistic millennials. For those of us who feel the desire for creative expression, this would be with us for life.

The creative gift meets the rational allocation of scarce resources

In college, I went to an excellent talk that gave career advice to pursue the Venn diagram of 1) my interests, 2) my skills and 3) the market (example of a similar visual). Such an elegant Powerpoint slide. How hard could this be?

And it makes sense to prioritize practical pursuits over art. In such a highly competitive economic environment, the most rational thing to do is to allocate my scarce resources of time, energy and youth towards building something lucrative and scalable. Diverting resources from more economically rational activities, even as a hobby, is the evolutionary equivalent of willfully standing in front of an oncoming bus.

Furthermore, human civilization has been able to mass-produce aesthetically pleasing images for more than 1000 years. It’s irrational and economically inefficient to spend even some part of my life making them.

If this is all so simple and logical, what’s wrong with me? Why do I still want to make art?

Shouldn’t this fear of scarcity and this logical deduction have chased away the desire for creative expression?

I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to align my career with such a model and it is fulfilling in many different ways, so why do I still feel incomplete?

I don’t know.

The data suggests that our ancient ancestors had shorter lifespans and greater challenges with basic survival, yet still spent resources to make art. With respect to the visual arts:

“Though fully modern humans have lived on the earth for over 100,000 years, the dates assigned to the earliest objects classed as “art” go back about 40,000 years. Earlier humans had crafted tools out of stone and fragments of bone, but what inspired them to make detailed representations of forms found in nature? Some scholars suppose that image making and symbolic language as we know it are the result of the new structure of the brain associated with homo sapiens sapiens.
…Whatever led to the ability to create art, whether a gradual evolutionary process, or a sudden mutation, it has an enormous impact on the emergence of human culture, including the making of naturalistic images. Such works force us to reevaluate many of our assumptions about art and the creative process, and raise fundamental questions, not least of which is why human beings make art at all.” Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition, Seventh Edition, pages 1–2

The perplexing, hand-wringing details from the outside world about whether a given act of creative expression is a hobby or a business, is there a market for it, will an authority figure externally validate one’s work and baptize it as “real” art — all of these absolutes and labeling and judging miss the point.

Should you only take up running if you’re planning to run a marathon? Or aiming to win an Olympic medal?

I argue that making room in your life for art, even though it may not seem economically rational, is worthwhile and possible — and if you don’t, you risk feeling like something’s missing in your life well past your mid-life crisis.

The following three specific practices were effective in helping me make enough room in my life to create art over 70+ days.

What worked

1. Performing the creative process

The project that my teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute had assigned was to do a daily sketch. Stated otherwise, the project was to show up each day to perform the creative process with an open mind. The project was not to pick a clear goal (e.g. “2 really good paintings”) and work backwards. If I had done that, I would have never created this series.

Why not? I needed quantity to get quality. By starting out already having the end state in mind, I would have capped my upside, as they say in finance. Having a fresh start each day gave me an opportunity to grow artistically, because I could work on a new idea that came up during the day, or incorporate something I learned the day before about how different materials worked with one another. As this excerpt illustrates:

“The instructor divided the class into two groups for their final weeklong project. The students in the first group were told that their entire semester’s grade would be based on each student producing one pot — the very best, most perfect pot possible — by Friday. The second group’s grades would be based only on the number of pots they could produce by Friday. Guess whose pots were better? The group with the most practice, of course!
The moral: Paint many paintings. Paint every day that you can. Maybe you’ll like only a handful of the many you create. Success is made up of many small failures and the decision to challenge every one of them.” — Chris Saper, Painting Beautiful Skin Tones with Color and Light, page 12

My daily success criteria was not about the quality of the individual piece (i.e. the end result) but whether or not I made time to try to make something.

Through the momentum of the daily sketch format, I practiced managing my fear of failure. I knew that if I ended up not liking a piece, I could try again the next day. In addition, the structure and community of a class provided accountability, feedback and practice for carving out time for art (at the very least to attend the class each week).

To unhook from praise and criticism, I waited until I had finished a number of pieces before starting to post to social media. There’s a time and place to adjust one’s work in response to external feedback, but in this embryonic phase of starting to create art again, waiting to post helped me stay true to my own ideas.

2. Minimizing friction to make it easy

I applied behavioral design thinking to make performing the creative process each day as easy as possible. To start, I chose the materials of ink and watercolors because they lend themselves to quick iteration much more than canvas and oil paint.

To reduce daily setup cost, I put a small table in the kitchen of my apartment as my workspace. This became my “sacred space,” as Elle Luna describes in her book, The Crossroads of Should and Must. I didn’t need a studio. In fact, having a studio would have increased my daily setup cost, since I would need to go the studio each day. Gobble enabled me to make a quick and healthy dinners in between layers of paint.

When I traveled for work, I brought a pared down set of supplies and created some pieces during a few pockets of downtime in airports and hotels.

Setting up the project to have clear start and end dates was key to sustaining mental commitment. The finite duration of my project helped me stay focused. I felt more comfortable deprioritizing certain things since I knew I could address them after a specific date when the class was over.

3. Working with your current skill level

I soon discovered that my classmates were more advanced in their technical painting skills.

Undeterred, I took the opportunity to focus on other aspects of the art creation process, especially in making stronger visual metaphors. Creating each piece was a puzzle — how might I convey a given idea in a memorable way that was still within my technical skill level? I also took the opportunity to experiment with other materials and techniques.

The capacity for creative expression is not proportional to technical skill with a medium. In this TED Talk, Cristina Domenech describes teaching a writing workshop at a prison in Argentina. The inmates’ limited educational backgrounds didn’t stop them from writing two books of compelling poetry. Creative expression has the power to break the logic of defined systems, no matter what skill level one brings to the table.

The challenges

1. Making tradeoffs

The biggest barrier to sticking to the project was not cost of the class and the supplies, but the prioritization of time. During this project, time felt even more precious than it already is. To make space in my life to create art, I needed to re-evaluate how I was spending my time and have the courage to say no to some things. If I didn’t need to say no to anything, I would have already been doing this.

For example, for the duration of the project, I gave up most of my already minimal social life and some exercise. My mind is clearest in the morning, so sometimes I woke up at 6:00 am to finish a piece from the previous night before heading to work.

Setting up the project to have clear start and end dates was key to sustaining mental commitment. The finite duration of my project helped me stay focused. I felt more comfortable deprioritizing certain things since I knew I could address them after a specific date when the class was over.

2. Unfinished business

The constraint of limited time has some benefits, such as forcing time prioritization decisions and pushing creative boundaries to simplify the execution of pieces.

However, the perfectionist in me would love to finish or redo some pieces. This would increase the yield of strong pieces as well as assuage my frustration of knowing how they could be better. Nonetheless, I had to discern of when to let go of finishing a piece and develop the discipline to move on.

3. Hitting the Exhaustion Wall

A characteristic of the state of flow is an altered perception of time. “10 minutes a day” gradually bloomed into longer periods of time. I didn’t notice it at first, as years’ worth of uncreated art came to life. But over the several months of the project, the hours added up.

Similar to the concept of athletic overtraining, I hit a two-week period that I call the “Exhaustion Wall.” I was so tired in the evenings that I could barely motivate myself to start a piece, much less to set up and to clean up paint. As Danielle Laporte put it:

The journey has to feel the way you want the destination to feel.

At this point, the journey was not feeling that great. On one hand, I hacked around it. Inspired by a video of Matisse’s work, I started working with paper cutouts, which have their own unique expressive quality as well as comparatively minimal cleanup.

On the other hand, physical exhaustion eventually trumped discipline. I learned when to back off, rest and better pace myself going forward.

Learning from this, I am experimenting with more sustainable ways to make art going forward. For example, I could continue with the daily sketch format, but actually cap it at 10 minutes a day. Or have two cycles of creativity a year, in the spring and in the fall. And so on.

I look to examples of celebrated creative minds, from poet Robert Frost to composer Charles Ives to actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who for at least some part of their lives had careers outside of the creative work for which they are known today. In various cases, having careers provided the financial support for them to kick off their creative work, practice their craft and even explore experimental directions that were ahead of their time. They were able to figure out a way to make it work. All in all, having a career did not discourage them from creating.

Worthwhile and possible

I found it easy to say no to making art with the mindset that it’s all or nothing: that the only options available were to create art full-time, or not to express my creativity at all. It was more challenging, yet rewarding, to do neither extreme — to carve out a little bit of space for art in my life and to manage the tradeoffs that come with it.

To my friends and fellow creative spirits who supported me throughout this project: thank you. I continue to believe it’s 1) worthwhile and 2) possible to make space for creative expression. No matter how great life seems when your career is in order and you’re doing some fancy, important stuff every day, something feels missing without creative expression. With joy and peace, I have chosen to welcome a little bit of creative expression into my life, even if it can be at times a difficult guest.

“He understood that the task of molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work man can undertake, even if he fathoms all the enigmas of the higher and lower spheres — much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting coins of the faceless wind.” — Jorge Luis Borges, The Circular Ruins

Thanks to the guidance of Maria Molfino and Sarah Stolar along the way. Thanks to Nathalie Arbel and James Liu for feedback on this essay.

P.S. I’m working on transforming this collection of art pieces into a photo book that I would love to share with you — a story about moving through fear towards creative expression, told through a “gallery tour” of the 30 works in the installation, and the pieces of wisdom that inspired each of them. Sign up to receive updates on this book and my other creative projects. Best wishes on your own journey making a little bit of space in your life for creative expression.