The theme of Genius Types is the balance of Creative Life and Online Income. The idea grew from a struggle to reconcile the competing creative and practical forces of my personality in my twenties.
I was known as both an artist and an entrepreneur in junior high and high school. My dual passions for art and business meant that when I wasn’t sweating it out in my lawn business or selling T-shirts, I was working on a piece of art in my basement.
Insecurity and Starving Artists
I enrolled at the University as an art major, but switched to business in my second year. Deep down I wanted a creative career, but I was terrified of becoming a “starving artist.” I wasn’t secure enough with myself to lower my standard of living in order to accomplish my dream.
I thought that a life of entrepreneurship would give me the ability to be creative in a business sense while still putting food on my table. The process of creating a business was as thrilling to me as painting a picture. Maintaining that business was another story.
What I didn’t fully understand was how time-consuming and constrictive owning a business can be. I had a thriving business selling custom T-shirts in college, but I didn’t have much time to enjoy it.
I also didn’t pay much attention to my finances (that was the artist coming out in me). Even though I was making decent money, I was spending it all and racking up a ton of debt in the process.
After a few years of that lifestyle, I found myself with less freedom and more responsibility than when I started. With a bunch of debt on my shoulders, my focus switched from being creative and entrepreneurial to figuring out a way to make enough money to pay my bills. I got a “real job” and almost lost my creative dream forever.
The experience taught me two things:
1. The fact that you own your own business doesn’t mean that you have more freedom in your life. Sometimes it can even mean that you have less.
The businesses I owned at the time were very labor-intensive. To make matters worse, I had to re-create the work over and over each time I wanted to get paid.
The lesson I learned was that I never wanted to be a part of any business that didn’t have a residual component, meaning that I could leverage my time by getting paid over and over for work done once.
2. The Artist’s Dilemma: In the short-run, the truer you are to your own genius, the less it pays.
This is the curse of the starving artist. A true artist wants to create original artwork, but needs to eat at the same time. The artist could take a job, but that would take away from time needed to create art. Since it takes a long time (if ever) to see a payoff in original artwork, the artist needs to make a decision: be a starving artist, or put art on hold to put food on the table.
You can start to see why so many artists throughout history have gone insane.
What I Know Now
In light of the artist’s dilemma, I would suggest two options for an artist who wishes to build a lifelong career creating original art.
The first option is limited to those who have not yet burdened themselves with responsibilities such as a family, debt, or other obligations. Those who have just graduated high school or college are usually the most representative of this group.
If you are free from obligations and wish to dedicate your life to creating original artwork such as music, painting, acting, or film-making; it’s first necessary to determine the strength of your desire for creative freedom.
Do You Have a Burning Desire?
Do you want it so badly you are willing to give up luxuries such as a decent car, dining out, a comfortable apartment, or new clothes? Are you so dedicated to your craft that you are willing to be broke and unable to find a date? Are you such a purist that you are willing to marry your craft, even if it never pays off?
If you can’t answer yes to all of these questions, I wouldn’t advise pursuing a life of creating original art. Your creative talents might be better suited to some form of commercial art where you would earn a decent paycheck for your work. You won’t have creative control, but you still get to be creative.
If you can answer yes, it’s important that you become very clear about your path as an artist. You must overcome your own ego, making an agreement with yourself to trade off material possessions for your passion.
Economics tells you that you won’t be making any significant money from your artwork until you have built up sufficient demand; which could take years (if ever). In the mean time, you’ll have to work a flexible odd-job to pay your expenses. If your expenses are too high, you’ll have to work too much and you’ll never get around to your passion.
The Artist’s Life
To keep your passion for art as your number one focus, it’s important to limit your working hours to part-time, and establish the discipline to work on your art full time. The only way to do this if you aren’t independently wealthy is to keep your expenses to an absolute bare minimum.
This means living with a roommate (or several) in a less-than desirable place. It means driving a junker, or better yet: riding a bike. It means never touching a credit card and paying for everything with cash. It means eating mac ‘n cheese for lunch and beans ‘n rice for dinner.
You’ll have to become numb to what other people think of you. People might look down on you, or write you off as insignificant. What they won’t understand is the amount of freedom you are creating for yourself. Since you aren’t bogged down with debt and responsibility, you’ll have the freedom to create whatever you want and share it with the world.
The best job I can think of for an artist is in the service industry. Tips pay a lot better than minimum wage and the hours are flexible. It’s easy to get your shifts covered and most places won’t care if you only work a few days a week. Working nights and weekends will open up your days for your art.
Be careful of two pitfalls to this technique.
1. Going into debt.
Living on such a small salary leaves you especially prone to going into debt. Live on cash alone and avoid credit cards at all costs. Don’t buy anything you don’t need such as furniture or clothing.
The more debt you get into, the more you’ll have to work.
As a former bartender, I can tell you from personal experience at several restaurants that most people in the service industry are artists of some kind. How often have you heard the cliché: “Oh, you’re an actor? What restaurant do you work at?”
Even though the industry is filled with artists, there are surprisingly few practicing artists. The reason is: most of these people get themselves into debt, have to work more, and don’t have time for their art.
2. Forgetting About Your Art
Don’t forget about the whole reason you put yourself in this lifestyle! Having a lot of time off and no expenses leads some to lose track of the time. It’s easy to stay up late, play video games, or party.
If you’re going to be a serious artist, you have to be disciplined. Set up “business hours” for yourself and stick to them! Work on your art at least 4 days a week.
Option Number Two
If you’ve already amassed some responsibility but still have the desire to create original art; or if you have the mentality of a producer (sort of an entrepreneurial artist); there is only one other path.
Put off your art for a couple of years and put your energy into lasting, sustainable streams of online income. Once your online income has reached a certain level, you’ll be able to create all the art you want without consequence.
For a step-by-step rundown of this option, read A Roadmap From Debt to Living Your Passion.
An Artist’s Sacrifice
Being an artist certainly isn’t easy. Creative types have to make tradeoffs in order to follow their passion. They have to get creative in their financial lives so that they can get creative in the rest of their lives.
If your focus is clear, and you follow one of the paths laid out in this article, you stand a much better chance of hitting it big. Since you were smart enough to establish an environment where you could focus all of your energy on your art; you gave your art a chance to grow and develop. You gave yourself a chance to become really great at what you do.
If you are able to pour yourself into your passion, and have the patience and strength to weather the hard times, you will be vindicated in the long run. Whatever you do, don’t quit! Stick it out and believe in yourself.