I Tried to Choose Money Over Art, But Art Came Back

I’ve been writing about my college and grad school story all month, from the day I got my full-ride college scholarship to the day I peeled the white tape off my credit card and started getting into debt.

Here’s the last chapter:

During the final semester of graduate school, I announced a new career plan. I wanted a job that paid $50,000 a year.

Yes, I did focus on the dollar amount rather than the job itself — and yes, I did say “fifty thousand dollars a year” like they were words on an internal vision board.

Why $50K? I picked that number because it was $10,000 more than the amount of money Penelope Trunk said you needed to be happy. She wrote a blog post about how researchers had determined a person needed $40,000 to be financially comfortable, so I decided I would ask for $50,000.

Despite the fact that I was months away from earning a MFA in theater directing, I was pretty sure that this $50,000-a-year job would not be in theater. The faculty on my graduate program said my work was occasionally brilliant and occasionally average, and we had recently hired a new program director who changed up the grading system and handed out Cs for average work. (Our previous system was “pass/fail,” where As were pass and Bs were fail, so my GPA dropped significantly overnight.)

I was a good teacher, though — he might have given me a B on that one, if our TA efforts had been graded — and I had gone into my graduate program with the idea that I would graduate and then start teaching. I knew, since I had once served on an academic hiring committee, that a transcript full of Cs might not necessarily tank my application on sight, but it would certainly put me at a disadvantage.

So I went to talk to another professor about what I needed to do to teach at the high school level.

“Well, the market has just tightened up so much … it used to be that we could place our students at private high schools, but … you know, if you wanted to teach at the high school level you would probably want to go the public school route, which means another two years of coursework, but you might be able to do some of it part time.”

Then I went and I did an informational interview with a person working “in the field.” I can’t remember what job this person held, but I do remember that he worked at a well-known theater in Washington, DC. I also remember him telling me that he had been working there for a number of years and had just started earning $32,000.

Okay, fine. I was smart enough to know when I was being encouraged and being discouraged, and it seemed like the whole “well, your work is just average…” “I mean, you could teach at a public high school I guess…” “I’ve been working here for years and I just started earning $32,000…” felt like a deliberate discouragement.

Plus I wanted to earn $50,000. I had tried art, and now I wanted to try money.

I knew that I needed to have money to earn money, so a few weeks before graduation, I decided to sell off seven years’ worth of theater textbooks and scripts. I arranged my books on a table in the School of Fine Arts student lounge, and sold most of them to undergrads and grad students who would be taking the appropriate courses next fall.

I tried not to have any feelings about selling off my books, and I sat at the table and dared anyone to say anything about it. Nobody did.

If I recall correctly, I earned around $600 from selling my books and immediately used part of that money to buy a suit. It is interesting that I chose to sell my books to buy the suit instead of, say, putting the suit on my credit card. I guess I didn’t think of the suit as an emergency. I thought of it as a goal.

But what job would I get, with my new suit and my $50,000-a-year dreams? Interestingly, nearly everyone I talked to said the same thing: executive assistant. Even the program director who had said my theater work was average said “I would hire you as my assistant right now, if I could.” I was not quite sure what an executive assistant did, but this felt like encouragement.

I did not go to my MFA graduation ceremony. By then I was in DC, sleeping on the floor of my sister’s apartment and going to temp agencies to talk about executive assistant jobs. I knew that if I tried applying the usual way, I would have to overcome my unusual resume — but if I went in through a temp agency, I could take the tests that proved I knew how to type and use Microsoft Office and get hired based on my skills. The temp agency placed me in a temporary receptionist gig right away, and a few months later was able to place me as an executive assistant making just over $50,000 a year.

So there you go. I picked money over art, and I started earning money. I saved $10,000. I got out of debt. The recession happened.

And then art came back. It probably wasn’t related to the recession; it was probably just related to me being me, in a way I’m only starting to understand now that I’m in my 30s. Who you are always comes out in the end.

The thing about choosing money was that it made it easier for me to choose art, when I decided I wanted to get into songwriting and crowdfunding and freelancing. Having an income buffer helped me take on expensive projects — like the Mink Car Cover album that I produced in 2011 — that I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish if I hadn’t had a $50,000-a-year job.

And in return, I was able to be smarter about the finances of my artistic risks. I was able to say “okay, I can only do this if I figure out a way to earn money from it.” I still made a lot of mistakes, like running a Kickstarter that left me $3,000 in debt, and I will definitely continue to make mistakes. That’s what a career is; a series of mistakes and successes with money (and debt) in between.

The latest research says it now takes $75,000/year to hit the same financial happiness point that $40,000 brought in 2006, and this year I’m likely to earn $60,000 before taxes.

This story is part of our College Month series.