Welcome to the ‘real’ world, new batch of artists! It seems like not that long ago that I emerged from 25 years of structured education, clutching to my multiple fine arts degrees and a few vague dreams.
It was such a thrill. I had done it. I had finished. So much blood, sweat, and tears… but now it was done.
And then I just became terrified.
It wasn’t finished at all. I was staring at months and months of empty unscheduled space and I had no idea what I was going to do.
I was facing the need to be an adult, pay my bills, support myself… with what…. My opera school diploma????
If you’re in that place, I guarantee you’re not alone. I’m also not going to lie to you, it’s a tough go. The freelance arts gig is a strange life, and it can definitely be a struggle. I don’t know exactly how to help you, but here are 5 things I wish I would have known (or at least really believed in) when I graduated from my last degree and started my life as a freelance artist.
1. You don’t have to “prove” that you’re an artist
You’re already an artist. It’s done. Finito. Whether or not you “make it” has nothing to do with that fact.
A career in the arts is based on so many things… talent, hard work, a lot of luck, and also a whole lot of sacrifices. There’s a good chance that somewhere along the way you might figure out it’s just plain not for you. Not because you’re not good enough… but simply because you want something different from your life.
We whisper a lot in the arts about “failure”, talking about the people that left the business for different challenges. But the word ‘failure’ is wrong.
Making a living in the arts is not the thing that makes you an artist. What makes you an artist is far deeper than that, way beyond any “job”. You started this journey because you are an artist and you will be an artist no matter what you end up doing. You cannot fail at that. It cannot be taken away from you.
So pack away that insecurity. That fear that you don’t belong, that you couldn’t possibly speak up, or take that risk…
You are an artist. You have something interesting to say, to express. Whether you’re doing that in a church, a small studio, or in front of thousands… that will never change.
2. Control what you can control
I grew up on a farm. Which is basically the same thing as being a artist. Seriously. See… you can be the best farmer in the world, and never grow a decent crop. The weather could take it every year… You can’t control it, and there’s no point in yelling at the sky.
It’s the same thing for artists. There are a thousand things in this career path that are out of your control. Focusing on them can make you feel helpless and small.
You can choose to just get angry and sit around drinking and complaining about the industry (a popular artistic pastime)… or you can hone in on the things that are within your grasp: refining your craft, surrounding yourself with the right kind of people, and (the thing I’m most concerned with) learning how to handle the money that comes in.
3. Maximize your Resources
No matter what your bank account is saying, I would wager that you’re not poor… not even close. And now that you’re out of school, it’s time to make the most of every resource at your disposal.
People: The most valuable resource that you gained at school isn’t that piece of paper you’re clutching. Guess what, your degree doesn’t really matter… but the people you met, the contacts you made… they sure do. Use them! Collaborate with colleagues, and keep in touch with professors and other people you connected with. These connections will get you more work than anything else… especially in the beginning.
Money: You may not have a lot of it… but that makes maximizing every dollar even more important. I know that no one likes to talk about budgets, but for those of us living in the freelance world… it’s a great tool. You can’t afford to not be taking care of your money. Every cent should be going towards creating the life you want.
Time: Not having to go to class anymore can seem like a great thing, but you might find yourself missing some of that structure and direction that school offers. Months and months of empty days can seem pretty daunting, but time is one of your greatest resources at the beginning of your career. It goes so fast. Don’t wait!! Use it now for whatever it is you need. It’s one of the most valuable resources you have.
It’s easy to sit around waiting for someone to realize how brilliant you are but there’s a good chance that’s not going to happen. Don’t wait around for someone to notice you and give you a job. Make your own work. Fill your time, use your money efficiently, and maximize your community.
4. Getting a side job is not selling out
Ya… everyone has one (or two… or three). It’s essential, especially when you’re starting out. It’s a nice idea to just dive right into the arts and hack out a living. But it doesn’t usually work that way.
So instead of ‘lowering yourself’ to the possibility of a side job, really embrace it. Think about what kinds of jobs would be the best fit. The right blend of flexibility and monetary benefit… and maybe something that you actually enjoy.
Yes, you have to have enough time to focus on your art, and your business. But if you don’t have a dry place to sleep or a few meals a day there’s a good chance you’re not going to be making the best art … I don’t care what kind of bohemian pipe dream you’ve got in mind.
Hungry people think about sandwiches. Not art. (Unless that art involves sandwiches… in which case that art is gonna get eaten.)
5. Build the life you want
You’ve gone through years of training. There have been countless people supporting you, believing in you, investing in your potential. That can feel like a huge responsibility.
With all due respect to each one of them, it is not their life. It is yours.
The most important question you can continually ask yourself is: What do I want?
And then try to honestly live out that answer.
Your life is happening right now. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that I have to spending every waking minute working on my art. That’s what the career demands… apparently.
But that hasn’t been for me; It didn’t make me happy. I’ve needed to supplement my life in the arts with time on my family farm, traveling with my friends, and blogging about personal finance. These extra activities distract me from focusing on my art. They also make me feel happy and balanced, and I would argue… a far better artist.
Your own balance is up to you, but don’t wait to start building it. I fully believe that the best artists are healthy, happy, grounded artists (no matter what the old tortured artist image might otherwise imply).
And the truth is, no one is going to build that for you. You have to go get it for yourself.
It’s a major privilege for us to be able to pursue a career in the arts. Never forget that.
So, welcome to the “real” world. It’s a crazy place… sometimes scary and lonely, and sometimes so full of joy you can’t even stand it.
I hope you have a blast.