Is Being a Full Time Creative the Best Life Ever?
Or should you become a pragmatic juggler?
Behind every successful artist, writer, musician and actor, there resides a backstory. All the trials, tribulations, misteps and failures before fame and fortune arrived.
Fans infrequently take note of the backstories. They’re more interested in the celebrity fame and fortune. Also, fans dream about finding their own stardom and wealth.
Fame and fortune sound appealing to most folks, but not the many years of hardship, work, tears and sacrifice to attain it all. We tend to romanticize the lives of the rich and famous, but maybe it’s not all it’s cracked up to be?
Very few people attain fame and fortune. Most of us settle into conventional lives that revolve around work, family and hobbies.
This might sound somewhat dull and unremarkable, but it’s not. It might just be the preferable way to enjoy your life.
A phenomenal amount of pressure
Readers delight in the magic and wonder of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. However, before she became a near billionaire, Rowling was a single mother on government benefits.
After becoming the richest author alive, Rowling discovered some downsides to her fame. Like depression. Consider this excerpt from an article in the DailyMail.com:
They were the novels that brought her fame, fortune and the adoration of millions of fans around the world. But JK Rowling has admitted that at the height of the success of her Harry Potter books she was forced to undergo therapy to cope with the pressures of celebrity.
Ever heard of the author Robert Galbraith? He writes the “Cormoran Strikes” crime series. The name Robert Galbraith is really a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling.
An article in NPR explains Rowling’s reason for creating the pseudonym:
“A few years ago, Rowling wanted to start writing crime novels, but didn’t want people to know it was her, and so she hid behind the name Robert Galbraith.”
One of the down sides to becoming famous in a particular area, such as the Harry Potter novels, is that it’s hard for you to branch out in different areas. As Rowling goes on to explain:
“I think that Potter was incredible, and I am so grateful for what happened with Harry Potter, and that needs to be said. The relationship I had with those readers, and still have with those readers, is so valuable to me. Having said that, there was a phenomenal amount of pressure that went with being the writer of Harry Potter, and that aspect of publishing those books I do not particularly miss. So you can probably understand the appeal of going away and creating something very different, and just letting it stand or fall on its own merits.”
Fame and fortune can be wonderful, but they can also be isolating and limit your freedom. Further, they can affect those around you, like your family.
Here’s J. K. Rowling again:
“So I look at the effect that an individual’s fame has on their family, for example, and the limitations that places upon your life to an extent — of course, it brings marvelous things too, but it brings them mainly to the individual. The people around the famous person often pay a price without reaping many of the rewards.”
The novelty of fame wears off
A lot of creative people fantasize about becoming rich and famous, but fail to understand the costs. If you’re Brad Pitt, try eating out in a nice restaurant. He gets mobbed the minute people recognize him.
Now, imagine being one of Brad Pitt’s kids? Always wondering who wants to be your friend versus who wants to meet your famous father.
Many celebrities will tell you that the novelty of fame wears off. Before long, they tire of the attention, paparazzi and fans vying for autographs and selfies.
Celebrities become mired in business dealings, charitable requests and the exhaustion of endless travel and appearances.
Celebrities wall themselves off from it all behind private estates, security and personal jets. For the few who manage to find happiness, there seems to be many more who struggle with divorces, substance abuse, and depression.
The things we want versus the things we need
When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was draw. It wasn’t about fame, fortune or attention. It was about the joy of creating.
Each blank page represented a new adventure. Undiscovered possibilities. I could spend hours drawing, and my reward was the simple pleasure of creative expression.
Sure, it was nice when my parents or friends praised my artistic efforts, but most of the happiness I felt came from the work itself.
In my teenage years I fell in love with the fantasy artwork of Frank Frazetta. I loved his exaggerated style, sense of design and dynamic paintings. There were also many cartoonists I admired, including Pat Oliphant and Jeff MacNelly.
I created fantasy art like Frank Frazetta and began drawing cartoons for my high school newspaper. I considered studying art in college, and talked about it with my father.
Dad was quite the artist himself. He was a weekend oil painter who produced beautiful landscapes and portraits. But Dad was also a pragmatist. He put himself through law school and was an administrative law judge. This is what Dad told me:
“Johnny, you can certainly study art in college if you want to. But I recommend a more conservative career route. Making an living as an artist is very difficult. I know a local artist. His work is exemplary, but he still struggles to make a decent living.”
Sometimes, the things we want are not the things we need. Dad knew that what I needed was a good education in a discipline that could provide a good life for me. He knew I wanted to be an artist, but felt it wasn’t what I needed to craft a good life. Dad went on to tell me:
“Obtain a degree in a field of study likely to provide a good living. Something that you’d enjoy doing. Then, on the side, you can pursue your passion for art. And your art will be on your terms, not the whims of some advertising director or picky collector.”
At the time, I was disappointed with my Dad’s advice. It sounded like selling out. Taking the safe route rather than the path less chosen.
The problem is, youthful dreams (as beautiful as they are) are formed in the absence of significant life experience. We envision the best case scenarios, not the sobering realities.
Why skills trump passion
Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University. In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, he argues that following your passion is bad advice.
As the book description on his website states:
“Matching your job to a preexisting passion does not matter, he reveals. Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”
In my senior year of high school, a local deputy sheriff visited my American Government class to talk about careers in law enforcement. I used to enjoy television programs like Hill Street Blues and always thought police work was an exciting and noble profession.
With my father’s support, I went on to college and graduate school, studying Administration of Justice. That led to over twenty six years in law enforcement, with the last eight serving as Chief of Police.
Throughout my police career I never abandoned my artwork. I moonlighted as an editorial cartoonist for two, local newspapers. I took up landscape painting and studied extensively with master artist Scott L. Christensen, among others.
I infused artwork and creative writing into my police career. I crafted cartoons about my colleagues, which brought a lot of laughs and levity. I began blogging and building an online platform, to share my art and writing.
In short, I found a middle ground, to balance my creative passions and financial security.
Cal Newport is right. I didn’t need to directly pursue my art passion to have a great life. In fact, the skills and experiences I gained from my law enforcement career shaped me in ways I’d never imagined.
Law enforcement taught me how to deal with a wide variety of people, including belligerent and even dangerous ones. I honed my writing and speaking ability. I learned personal discipline and gained wisdom about all facets of the human condition.
My police career helped make me a better observer, listener and writer. Even my artwork benefitted, because I was more disciplined in my creative study, practice, education and output.
You have to become a jack of all trades
When I took landscape painting workshops in Idaho with Scott L. Christensen, I met a variety of full-time, professional artists. They shared with me their struggles. Gallery closings. The emergence of video games and online entertainment. The difficulties of making a living as a fine artist.
I learned that many artists rely upon workshops, art prints and video sales to help make ends meet. Being a fine artist today requires mastery of social media and development of an online presence. Artists must also stay on top of inventory, email newsletters to collectors, and all the related business and tax realities.
You can’t just create artwork. You have to become a jack-of-all trades. Fine artist. Small business owner. Website designer. On-line marketer. Social media expert. Email newsletter content creator and editor.
The same holds true for writers and musicians. Your published works or music are just the beginning. The entire constellation of social media, marketing, platform development, business investment, taxes and promotion, falls to you.
If you get lucky and skyrocket to fame and fortune, all of the above are amplified. Sure, you might have staff now to help with everything, but the decisions and challenges grow exponentially.
Become the pragmatic juggler
We all dream about becoming rich and famous with our respective passions. Be it writing, artwork, music, acting or whatever. Such creative pursuits sound so much sexier than becoming police officers, teachers, attorneys or business persons.
But here’s the thing. There is a third option, between “following your passion” and Cal Newport’s “skills trump passion” approach. The third option is to become the pragmatic juggler.
Pragmatic jugglers find a meaningful, conventional career they can enjoy. But they also make time for their side hustle. Be it art, writing, music or other creative pursuit.
The beauty of this approach is that your conventional career will broaden your professional skills. Your side hustle will keep your creative passion alive. In many ways, both approaches are complementary. They fuel your growth.
According to the author James Altucher, it takes 17 years to be a good writer. At least, that’s what he deduced from interviewing tons of writers. As he noted in his article The Horrible Things About Being a Full Time Writer:
“Kurt Vonnegut is a classic example. Started writing in 1945 when he returned from the war. Didn’t really have financial success with writing until about 1970 and even in 1968 all of his books were out of print.”
Seventeen years is a long time. And there’s no guarantee that after 17 years, you’ll arrive as a literary success.
Live a remarkable and fulfilling life
Seems to me, it makes a lot of sense to have something to fall back on. Dad might have been right. Find a conventional career you enjoy. Something that will pay the bills and insure a bit of security for you and your family.
I did that with my police career. Those twenty-six years flew by. Outside of work, I got to develop my artwork and writing. And guess what? I was able to retire at 52 years old. I have a healthy pension, own my home and cars, and am now able to pursue art and writing full time.
The best part is that I get to be my own boss. I’m not beholden to an editor or art director. I can create the work I want to create.
There’s a lot to be said for the pragmatic juggler approach. Your conventional career will hone your people and business skills, and your creative life will continue to grow. Then, when you retire from your day job, you’ll be able to take your creative life to the next level.
Yes, there are a few lucky souls who are able to embrace a creative career early in their lives. But, for those of us who become pragmatic jugglers, the end result of our life pursuits are just as sweet. Maybe even more so, because we get to live more than one professional life.
So, the next time you feel a bit down about your conventional career, take heart. It’s possible to become a pragmatic juggler, and live a remarkable and fulfilling life.
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss, fine artist and writer. Get on my free email list here to receive the latest artwork and writing.