Success, as defined by most people, hinges as much on the number of dollars in your bank account, as followers on your Instagram account. But this one-size-fits-all model of success completely falls apart if you’re an artist. For you, my creative friend, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Everyone has a Big Dream, whether you want to be a film-maker, write a novel, or start a fashion label. We’ve all got them, but the one thing that divides us (even from ourselves) is whether or not we’re actually doing anything about it. This article is for anyone whose Big Dream is about becoming an artist and creating beautiful things for a living. All you photographers, graphic designers, illustrators and writers reading this right now, this article is going to hurt a little, but don’t let that scare you. The truth can be incredibly painful, but it can also be a paradigm shift. We’re going to look at why there’s a very real possibility that none of your childhood dreams will ever come true, and more importantly, why that’s not such a bad thing. Read on.
‘If not now, when? If not me, who?’
Answer: Tomorrow. Someone else. Unfortunately your ideas are not so unique that if you don’t act on them there will be a gaping hole in the fabric of history. The world is full of great minds just like yours. This was never about being original, unique or important, but about being who you really are.
The cold hard truth is that if you don’t jump on that idea you have cooking inside your head, someone else most certainly will. No matter how original you think your idea is, it’s only a matter of time before one of the 7 billion minds on this planet stumbled upon it and instead of second guessing themselves, or putting it off, they just do it. The problem with statements like “If not now, when? And if not me who?” is that it makes your dreams and ideas sound like some kind of noble quest that you’re being called to like Joan of Arc or Frodo. And like all good quests, the ending is bound to be a happy one as long as you’re passionate enough and try really hard. No matter how nice that sounds, treating your creative career as a noble quest is dangerous because failure is actually inevitable. The question isn’t will you fail, it’s how will you handle the failure when it happens. How will you redefine success when after many years you’re still just scraping by?
Not everything you love has to be monetized in order to be worth doing. If you want to paint, then paint. If you want to write, then write. Don’t let the idea of earning a living from doing what you love distract you from just doing it. If it feeds your soul, if this is truly who you are, then be it. Yes, even if no one is willing to pay you for it.
“Work until you no longer have to introduce yourself.” I’ve seen that quote printed on coffee mugs and tshirts all over the place, and it perfectly captures the essence of what we as a culture believe success is supposed to mean. Recognition. Admiration. Validation. Approval. And of course, money is part of it too. But more than money the thing that motivates us to become successful is this idea that success will mean validation that our presence on this earth truly matters. This kind of desire for success is more about self-esteem and the need to be validated than anything else.
Recognition can be a beautiful shining thing for any artist, it can be downright life-affirming, but it can also be poison to your creativity if you buy into the misguided belief that your value as a human being, and as an artist, comes from how much someone is willing to pay you for your craft.
You Don’t Have to be Defined by Your Dream Job
For decades we’ve been groomed to believe that our worth lies in our professional achievements, but contrary to what you’ve been told all your life, you don’t have to do a startup, you don’t have to branch out on your own and transform an entire industry, you don’t have to save the world – you don’t have to do any of this stuff to have a happy and fulfilled life.
Following your passion isn’t about blowing up big, it’s about finally becoming who you really are. Not everything you love has to be monetized in order to be worth doing. If you want to paint, then paint. If you want to write, then write. Don’t let the idea of earning a living from doing what you love distract you from just doing it. If it feeds your soul, if this is truly who you are, then be it. Yes, even if no one is willing to pay you for it. Ironically, our cultural obsession with finding this holy grail of a job is often the very thing that keeps us from doing what we love most.
Or maybe you’re not about that at all. Maybe you’re secretly ok with not enjoying your job as long as you love every minute of your life outside of work? Would you rather just focus on growing your family? Hanging out with your friends? We’re talking about who you really are here. It’s totally ok to not enjoy your job, because some of us are not defined by what we do for a living. Sometimes a job is just a job, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s no need to put so much pressure on yourself to go out into the world and chase unicorns just because that seems to be the soup du jour for everyone these days.
You don’t have to do a startup, you don’t have to branch out on your own and transform an entire industry, you don’t have to save the world, or invent a new eco-friendly way of running a business – you don’t have to do any of this stuff to be happy and fulfilled in life. This is easier to understand on an intellectual level than it is to fully accept emotionally because for decades we’ve been groomed to believe that our worth lies in our professional achievements.
We’re living in a strange time. Our picture of other people’s lives is so unbelievably misleading and one-sided, it seems like everyone on Instagram is living a dream life. The messages we’re being bombarded with on a daily basis is that in order to live a truly fulfilling life, and in order to be seen as an important, valuable person, you have to do something extraordinary, something that might one day be turned into a Netflix original series. It’s not enough just to live in the moment, enjoy your life and the people in it – no, you have to go out there and find your fortune, optimize your work routine, find ways to be more efficient with your time, start a blog and a Youtube channel, network network network. This is such an incredibly unfair and one size fits all approach to life, and if it’s not exactly what you need or want it can lead to anxiety and a general dissatisfaction with what you already have in your life. Sometimes the life that you’re living is already all you need to be happy. That’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
When The Dream Job Becomes The Cure
Do it knowing that the road will be impossible, do it understanding that you will get a thousand no’s for every yes, do it knowing that it probably won’t go anywhere, do it because your heart will break if you don’t do it.
Ok, so chasing a “dream job” is not necessarily for everyone. BUT, having said that, there’s just one important exception. If the person behind that 9-5 desk job feels a gaping hole inside her heart and knows that the only way she’ll fill it is to take that terrifying leap of faith, quit her day job and become a full-time writer, or painter, or photographer, or whatever. If this need comes from an authentic place inside her that makes personal and financial sacrifice worthwhile, then you need to do it. If being true to yourself means letting yourself do the work you were put on this earth to do, even if it never becomes more than a side-hustle, you have to do it. If you plan on being happy and living a life with no regrets, then you need to do it. But the point is that the reason for taking this path is very very personal.
It’s not about accomplishments, recognition or money. It’s about who you are. You’re not becoming a photographer or writer or painter for money and recognition, because realistically you know that may never happen. You should be mature enough and brave enough to face the possibility of that failure, know that the odds are stacked against you, and then you should go right ahead and follow your dreams anyway. Do it knowing that the road will be impossible, do it understanding that you will get a thousand no’s for every yes, do it knowing that it probably won’t go anywhere, do it because your heart will break if you don’t do it.
Do What You Love, Never Work a Day In Your Life
This quote makes sense in theory, if you truly love your job you don’t feel like you’re working…but there’s just one problem. It sets up an expectation that as long as you continue to feel like you’re working, you haven’t yet found your dream job yet. It creates an infinity loop of dissatisfaction because there’s no such thing as just doing what you love without also doing what you don’t love.
Love puppies? Do you also love picking up its waste on cold winter mornings? Love graphic design? Do you also love carpal tunnel? Love the idea of starting a business? Do you also love doing endless administrative work? Life is both night and day, both happiness and sadness, both triumph and defeat. Even the dreamiest dream job will involve doing things you really don’t want to do. And yeah, it’s going to feel like work.
Here’s what following your dreams looks like: You take a big scary leap of faith and quit your day job. You eat anxiety for breakfast, and insomnia for dinner. But you have all the momentum of the Big Bang and manage to push forward. You barely sleep, you eat, live and breathe your hustle. You build it up, polish it until you feel proud of what you’ve accomplished. And then you get your very first rejection. You drink a box-o-wine and cry into your pillow, then you try again. And once again you get rejected. You buy yourself one of those stress balls and tear it to shreds, then you try again. You get rejected again. So you grit your teeth, and try again. And again and again you get rejected. You log into you bank account and watch the numbers sink like the Titanic, but you get up and try again. And again. Rejection. Put this on repeat for about 1 – 10 years. But your’ve made a commitment to your creative work for better or for worse, so you keep going.
Eventually, it stops being about that acceptance letter. You no longer do it to be published, or to win any awards. You do it because every ounce of your soul yearns to do it. You do it because you can’t not do it. So you watch the rejections pour in and you just keep on creating…until one day, someone sees your potential. One day, long after you’ve stopped expecting it, someone finally says yes and your whole world transforms.
No One Cares About Your Work
Your Big Dream is a cruel mistress, she’s not going to settle for playing second fiddle to your ego, and she certainly won’t go easy on you just because you love her.
No one cares about your work. Not really. I know it hurts, but there’s also a stoic magic to that statement and, if you can open your arms and embrace the silver lining, it can transform your life. Think about it, as long as no one cares about what you’re doing, you have absolute freedom to make mistakes, learn from them, make some more, and become the best artist you can possibly be. No one cares about your work. Say it out loud to yourself in the mirror, and say it like you mean it. How does it feel? Do you suddenly find yourself not wanting to create anything? Does the fact that your work doesn’t matter to the world discourage you from doing it? If yes, then you have a lot of internal growing to do before you can dive into your dream project. You need to free yourself of the power others hold over you and your creativity. That’s the difficult thing about being an artist, unlike other careers this one is deeply personal. The output is intrinsically tied to how you feel inside your soul. Your Big Dream is a cruel mistress, she’s not going to settle for playing second fiddle to your ego, and she certainly won’t go easy on you just because you love her.
Your Best Won’t Necessarily Be The Best
We all want to believe that the immense amount of work we put into our craft will necessarily result in mastery and recognition. Sometimes it does, but not always. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, your work won’t be all that good.
Forget the fame and glory, you’re in this to create the greatest book, photograph, song, article, dress you can possibly make – even if the best you can do doesn’t turn out to be all that great objectively speaking. This is the hardest part of being any kind of artist or freelancer or entrepreneur. We all want to believe that the immense amount of work we put into our craft will necessarily result in mastery and recognition. Sometimes it does, but not always. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, your work won’t be all that good. Sometimes it’s because life get’s in the way, sometimes it’s because your taste doesn’t fall in line with what’s popular today or maybe your taste isn’t all that great to begin with, and other times it’s because you’re way ahead of your time. Who knows. Who cares. The faster you can accept that the work you produce won’t necessarily be “good” work the better, because at the end of the day, who are you doing this for anyway? Your creative work is your soul food – yours and yours alone. The best you can hope for is that if the stars align, it will be soul food for others too. But that should never be your starting point. This work is only for you, even if it is meant to serve or inspire others, you do it first and foremost for yourself. The more of yourself you pour into it, the less you think about the criticism, judgment or even approval of others, the better your work will be.
Success as Authenticity
There’s a purity to authenticity in art that just can’t be faked. You can always tell when an artist is just doing their thing without a care for what anyone else may think. Juergen Teller, Marina Abramovic, Bob Dylan, James Joyce, Jimi Hendrix, yes, even Terry Richardson – the one thing all these artists have in common is that they followed their bliss. It really doesn’t matter whether you like their work or not, that part of it was always secondary. Whether their work is actually any good is for the world to judge, these artists were going to do their thing no matter what the world eventually decided. It just so happens that most of the artists listed above were lucky and saw commercial success in their lifetime, but many truly authentic, insanely talented, pioneering artists didn’t. Vincent Van Gogh only managed to sell two paintings in his lifetime. Literary master Franz Kafka literally died of starvation. Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest poets in history, only managed to publish 10 poems in her lifetime and died penniless. Stieg Larsson, best-selling author of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” never got to enjoy his incredible success because his wildly popular books were only published after his death. You get the picture.
The point is, just because you have the talent and the drive, and just because you actually mustered up the courage to risk everything and chase after your Big Dream does not mean the world owes you success and recognition. Even if you work hard for it. Even if you want it more than anything else on this planet. The thing about working as an artist that makes it simultaneously so scary and so satisfying is that the work is born inside your heart. Being an artist isn’t about making money as an artist, sometimes it’s about being your truest self.