Creatives: Don’t Compare Your Career to That of Your Doctor Friend

Sure, it’s difficult to become a doctor, but being a creative professional isn’t “easy” either

Many of the friends I’ve grown up with have found success in medicine, law, business, engineering — you know, professions society traditionally deem important.

Sometimes, I feel left out and less-than when I’m with my friends and they’re all discussing some complicated, scientific concept. There’s a belief that STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, math), along with a few other things like law and academia, are more valuable than the arts.

STEM jobs are good, necessary, and worthy of respect. But the importance of STEM does not negate or invalidate the arts.

If you, like me, feel tempted to compare your career to that of your well-educated — and likely richer — STEM friends, this article is for you.

Are STEM subjects harder?

Some people think STEM, law, and academia are “harder” disciplines, and there is evidence that they are, at least on some measures.

But “hard” is pretty subjective. I hate doing lab reports and solving math problems, but STEM friends have told me how much they hate writing papers.

This discussion among University of Toronto students is pretty on-point, I think. I largely agree that the humanities are easier to pass and harder to fail. After all, you can bullshit your way to a half-decent essay, but a kick-ass essay is a work of art. In the meantime, STEM courses may be easier to fail but easier to score well if the questions on an exam have one right answer.

STEM being more elite than the arts is also due to a variety of reasons. For example, science students switch majors more than humanities majors because of the way STEM is taught and perhaps because the arts experience grade inflation — which doesn’t necessarily mean art subjects are easier.

STEM jobs are good, necessary, and worthy of respect. But the importance of STEM does not negate or invalidate the arts.

But even if STEM subjects were objectively more difficult, I don’t see why it matters.

Something being difficult doesn’t make it better. People with higher IQs working in demanding jobs aren’t inherently worth more than people with lower IQs who do menial labour.

You can argue that computer programmers are worth more because it’s hard to find and hire someone with this coveted skill. But you can say the same about musicians, actors, writers, and artists.

Just like any other job market, artistic jobs are competitive. There’s a reason why companies run casting calls across entire countries to find the right person for the job.

Personally, I was stronger in the arts simply because I liked them. I spent more time studying because I genuinely wanted to understand the concepts. When I’ve had to take required STEM courses, I did the bare minimum because all I wanted was to pass the course.

Are STEM careers harder?

If you have STEM friends like me, you may also feel tempted to compare your career trajectory with theirs. It’s a little intimidating to log on to Facebook and see people get their medical degrees, dressed in their white coats and stethoscope. Meanwhile, here I am still trying to get my first novel off the ground.

But it’s entirely unfair to compare two wildly different career paths. Artists and doctors are not the same thing.

To become a doctor in North America, you follow a prescribed path. First, take all the necessary prerequisite courses in high school and do well. Then, maximize your chances of getting into a good med school by choosing a good undergraduate program.

Then, take the MCAT and get into a good medical school. Slog through medical school, get licensed, and then complete your residency. (You’re probably running a sleep deficit of -9283 hours at this point.) After residency, there may be more years of work to do if you want to specialize. And hey, don’t forget to pay off those student debts!

Becoming a doctor is difficult. Very, very difficult. And I commend all the people who go down this path.

But becoming, say, a novelist isn’t less difficult per se. It’s just very different.

Art careers are hard, period

The biggest challenge with artistic careers? There are no recognized career paths.

You don’t go to school, earn a certificate, and voilà, become a professional artist with a living wage. In a way, it’s easier to become a doctor, dentist, or lawyer because there is a clear set of steps to become one.

In fact, you can practice for 10,000 hours, be a highly skilled actor, dancer, or saxophonist, and never get a living wage. In the arts, the right people need to notice you at the right time and give you the right opportunities.

And if you are from a marginalized community, you may get passed up for opportunities thanks to pure discrimination. For example, if a production only wants one or two BIPOC characters, they’ll only hire one or two BIPOC actors. This is less of a concern for professions where you take a test to qualify for a license.

The career of an artist is one marked by twists and turns, false starts and mistakes. I’m 27 years old with a degree in creative writing and several years of professional writing experience, and I’m still figuring it out.

The publishing industry, in particular, is extremely opaque. I’ve spent years trying to figure out how it works, and I still get conflicting information from different people who have been inside.

But are STEM jobs worth more?

Answering whether some careers are worth more than others is more difficult. At the end of the day, we most definitely need people to treat our illnesses, defend our rights, and build our houses.

I won’t deny that STEM jobs are essential. To be honest, when the pandemic first began, I had an existential crisis where I wondered if I was contributing to society at all. Here we are in a global crisis, people are dying, and I’m sitting in my bedroom worrying about content marketing. What the hell?!

I honestly felt an urge to change career paths. It’s too late for me to become a doctor, but surely I could be a pharmacy assistant or even a nurse. Something useful.

Then, I talked to a friend whom I grew up with and who had just received her medical degree from Columbia. To my surprise, she assured me that my job is indeed useful. People need information they can trust, she says, and writers can give people that.

Indeed, the people who write the CDC website, for example, are super important. And even people like me, who comment on the pandemic (such as its effects on folks with OCD), have a place in society.

Art is not worthless

But even if STEM jobs are worth more, this doesn’t mean art is worthless.

I think people underestimate the value of art because we take for granted how ubiquitous it is in our lives. This viral tweet puts it very well:

Text with claps between words: You can’t call the arts a non viable career path and then turn around and spend all your free time consuming Art. the arts are not just a glorified hobby.
Text with claps between words: You can’t call the arts a non viable career path and then turn around and spend all your free time consuming Art. the arts are not just a glorified hobby.
Screenshot of tweet by @cactusmerlin [source]

Art isn’t “just a hobby.” Art is everywhere and we use it every day. If you drank from a mug, used a website, or read the newspaper today, you engaged with art. Someone had to design mugs, newspapers, and websites.

Writing is everywhere. Every pamphlet, owner’s manual, and community centre newsletter had to be written and designed by someone. Someone wrote the pamphlets in the doctor’s office that counsel people recently diagnosed with cancer.

Entertainment art isn’t that different. Most of us listen to music and watch television. Someone had to create those songs, write those shows, and act in them.

Furthermore, don’t underestimate the impact of entertainment. Sure, movies don’t save lives — at least not directly — but they do have an immense effect on how we think. That’s why people from marginalized communities crave representation so much. Stories can affirm lived experiences, spur empathy, and influence how we view important social issues. Perhaps stories can even affect how we vote on social policy.

STEM may affect our everyday, external lives. But art affects our insides — who we are, what we do, and what we will become as a species.

If you think art is useless, make it useful

There’s also a simple solution if you think your artistic practice is worthless to society: make it useful!

It’s no coincidence that many writers aren’t just writers. Almost every writer I know has a little activist in them. Writers are often very well informed about social issues. We must because we have a voice and it is our responsibility to use that voice towards good.

That’s why when I write, I don’t just write to attract as big of an audience as possible or to earn as much money as possible. I write because I have something to say, and I truly believe that by writing it — by using my rhetorical skills and constantly improving those skills — I can give back.

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(She/They) Author on unceded Coast Salish territories (Vancouver, Canada). At work on first novel. Get links to read my stuff for free: https://bit.ly/2MleRqJ

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