Are You a Starving Artist? Here’s How to Fix Your Mindset

Tim Rettig
Dec 9, 2019 · 7 min read

Being a starving artist is almost always a mindset problem.

The wrong mindset causes starving artists to ignore market realities. For a variety of reasons, they act in ways that make it impossible for them to make a living from their work.

Here are a few of those reasons, which are pretty common:

  1. You want full creative control over your work
  2. You have a dream and a very unflexible idea of how you should get there
  3. You fail to acknowledge the reality of your situation

I get it, you have a dream and you want to get there. The problem is that you desperately want it right now and under your own conditions.

Your expectations are not in line with reality.

Market realities determine the success or failure of what you are doing

It’s impossible to force your way to success. Even if you truly love what you are doing and you get better at it every single day, it doesn’t mean that your efforts are ever going to pay off.

To make money, you must create something that other people or businesses are willing to pay for. In other words, your work must hold sufficient value for people to take out their wallets and depart with their hard-earned cash.

Honestly, it’s not an easy thing to do.

First of all, you have to hit a nerve with your potential customers. Often, that requires years of experimentation. And even if you do get there, then the competition is rough. There will probably be thousands of other people who are offering something similar.

On the road towards your dream life, there are a lot of in-between situations

What I’ve seen a lot among creatives is that they are thinking in terms of two extremes:

  1. A dream world where you simply follow your passion and do whatever you love doing
  2. A world where only money matters and you do all kinds of things that make you miserable just to increase your earnings

It’s not like reality consists of those two options and nothing else. There are millions of artists, who have found their way without either losing touch with reality or working a soul-crushing job that makes them miserable.

There are many ways to finance your journey. All you’ve got to do is to approach your financial situation with just as much creativity as you approach your own work.

Photo by Christopher Sardegna on Unsplash

Moving from starving artist to creative entrepreneur

I believe that all artists who have some aspiration to make a living from their own work should think of themselves as creative entrepreneurs.

This is not just a matter of wording, but a matter of making drastic changes in your identity, habits and belief system.

Entrepreneurship is deeply grounded in market realities. An entrepreneur seeks to understand his or her customers to create a product that is desired by the market.

As a creative entrepreneur, you don’t just think about what you yourself want. Instead of being lost in a dream world, you observe closely what the market desires and produce something to fulfill that desire.

While the world of artists is one of complete freedom, the real world is full of constraints. Creative entrepreneurship is about finding a healthy balance between both worlds.

Yes, you are an artist. But you are also an entrepreneur.

Insight #1: You are creating for others, not just for yourself

Entrepreneurship is about adding value to the world. The same holds true for art. It’s meaningless to create something if it is not interesting for anybody other than yourself.

You must have a deep understanding of your customers. Perhaps you will have to spend just as much time observing them and listening to them as you spend actually producing something.

Understanding your customers is the most crucial factor in producing something with the potential to make money.

It’s better to produce one thing that people really care about than to produce a thousand things, which nobody appreciates.

Artists focus all of their energy on getting better at their craft. Entrepreneurs, however, do everything necessary in order to provide the most value to their customers.

Insight #2: The quality of your work matters much less than you think

Many starving artists are in a constant struggle with their ego. They believe that their work just isn’t good enough. In reality, however, the quality of their work has little to do with their inability to reach financial success.

Obviously, you need to produce ‘good’ work. But hey, I am quite sure that you are already doing that.

There are millions of artists who are producing good work. And yet, only a tiny fraction of them are making a decent living from their work. They are so focused on getting better at their craft that they ignore the business aspect of their work.

Insight #3: Your craft is only a minor part of a larger whole

You are not just a writer, comedian, painter, actor, Youtuber, or whatever field of art you are into. There are many other factors that are necessary in order to turn your art into a viable business.

From getting your art in front of as many people as possible to creating various different revenue streams, all the way to the distribution of your work in as many outlets as possible.

Selling art is a business. You will either have to learn every aspect of that yourself or find a reliable way to outsource these processes.

Even if you do outsource these processes to a publishing house, music label or whatever, then you can’t just rely on them to do all of the work. You will always remain the primary advocate for your own work.

Photo by Junior Moran on Unsplash

Discovering the overlap between your passion and market realities

Creative entrepreneurship is a framework that will help you to figure out how to close the gap between your dreams and reality.

While you will have slightly less time to work on your art and slightly less creative freedom, you will finally figure out how to create something meaningful that actually pays the bills.

To do that, you must accept a few facts:

  1. Being successful in the arts is the equivalent of establishing a successful business in any other field
  2. Establishing a successful business requires a variety of skills that go far beyond your craft alone
  3. What your customers want is at least equally (if not more) important than what you want
  4. Market realities will play a huge part in the direction in which your work is going to develop
  5. A new project is worthless if it doesn’t have the potential to turn into a profitable revenue stream

The priorities of a creative entrepreneur differ from those of an artist

An artist is constantly thinking about his or her craft. The only thing that matters is to produce a higher-quality piece of art. Artists are constantly on the lookout for their very own ‘masterpiece’. In their view, there is an inherent sense of quality and beauty within art.

As a result, artists keep tinkering away on their work for ages before they release it into the world. In their view, they must have created the ‘perfect’ piece of art before they get to release it.

Creative entrepreneurs, on the other hand, judge the success or failure of their work based on market feedback.

They produce something, see how people respond to their work, and adjust their next piece of work accordingly. In short, they are going through constant iteration cycles in which they are adjusting their work.

As a creative entrepreneur, you think of your work as a minimum viable product. Instead of working on any particular piece of art for ages, you keep learning more about what your customers really want by publishing snippets of your work on a regular basis.

Creative entrepreneurs are constantly on the lookout for new revenue streams

The idea of artists is that if only they create work that is good enough, they will eventually be able to make a living from their work. Somehow, they will get that book contract they have always dreamed of, be ‘discovered’ as the next celebrity actor or something of the kind.

In other words, the idea of an artist is to rely on some external party that judges their work to be ‘good enough’ and thus decides to grant them the life they have always dreamed of.

Creative entrepreneurs have a very different approach.

As an entrepreneur, you are constantly on the lookout for new revenue streams. You keep thinking about how to start new projects that will generate a constant stream of cash flow for you as soon as possible.

In the beginning, that ‘project’ could simply be a stupid part-time job, which has absolutely nothing to do with your art. But the more you grow, the closer that project will be to what you actually want to be doing.

Keep developing new revenue streams. Then make sure to slowly close the gap between what you want to be doing and the reality of your situation.


If you want to stop being a starving artist, then you must think less like an artist and more like an entrepreneur. It’s crucial that you keep learning more and more about the business side of art.

This requires a huge shift in your mindset. You will certainly have less time to work on your craft as you will have to consider things like getting market feedback, developing revenue streams and so on and so forth.

Nonetheless, it’s a change worth making.

I mean, think about it. How much better would you feel if you didn’t constantly have to be worried about money problems?

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Tim Rettig

Written by

Author of Struggling Forward: Embrace the Struggle. Achieve Your Dreams / Subscribe: / Email:

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +585K people. Follow to join our community.

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