Making art your career
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Making art your career

So you want to make it as a creative.

There’s a reason why they call us “starving artists.”  You might not make enough money doing art or being creative. Almost everyone I know is trying to make it as an artist, so you should really just quit now. Go and work for the man. Give up. Because if you don’t you’ll probably hate everyone and live in a bus by the river.

If you’re still reading, you’re probably serious about this. Yes, being a creative can be filled with long hours, late nights, and a lot of hair pulling. But it can also be a fun, rewarding, and flexible career path. Here is some advice I wish I had early on when I started out.

How to work successfully doing what you love:

1. Shift your mindset

An artist is someone who creates something from nothing. That’s not so different from what an entrepreneur does. If you are going be successful, you need to think of yourself as an entrepreneur as well as an artist.

Most artists exchange emotions, sometimes without payment. So take the emotion you are trying to create and give it a price.

2. Don’t give it away for free

That’s the biggest mistake I made. I gave too much away, especially to friends and family. Stop doing that right now.

The problem with offering free or cheap work is it actually prevents you from doing the thing you most want to be doing. Which is being creative.

Don’t be afraid to ask for more than you think your work is worth. Sure, you might lose the odd client, but if you double your rates and lose half your clients, you’re still making the same amount of money. And you’re working half the amount of time.

3. Resell your stuff over and over

When you design a logo that gets rejected (which is likely the best one you did anyways) resell it on Envato or Creative Market. All those photos you take are also worth something to someone. Sell them on iStockphoto or create your own site to sell them. The website you’ve just created can be changed slightly, made into a template and sold on or the song you didn’t include in your album can be used in an indie film or in a commercial.

My friend who was a set designer for commercials told me of how his director would often use left over film to shoot stock footage. Which they later resold.

In their book Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson talk about reselling your stuff two or three times over in different formats. Turn your best blog posts into a paid training series or a book.

4. Rejection and failure are part of the process

Almost every artist I know could be described as sensitive and emotional. This makes great art, but it doesn’t exactly help when you’re trying to make a living. Or when everything fails and your ideas are rejected.  You can’t take things personally.

Earnest Hemmingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”  If your idea is rejected, make it better. Ask why they didn’t like it.  Art isn’t art if no one likes it. If you take offense to the rejection, you will never improve. Instead, try to apply the advice and think objectively about the criticism they give you.

5. Prove your art has value

I believe everything we create should bring value to people.  The art hanging on my wall has value. The song I listen to has value. The software I use has value. The keyboard I’m typing on has value. And they were all created for a purpose. The more value you give people, the more you will make.

If people don’t find worth in what you do, change what you do.  Keep records of what works and doesn’t work. Clients need to know that what they are investing in will bring value — whether it’s a painting on the wall or website they need to make money from. Make sure you have data, testimonies and case studies to show that your ideas work.

6. Focus on what’s important

You’re never going to make it if you’re not serious about what you do. It’s hard to be focused, stay on task, and get to the important things. But you have to do the important work first. Don’t check emails. Don’t constantly post on Facebook, check your Twitter or look at the latest Instagram.

Seth Godin says you always need to be creating and doing the work that is making you money. Otherwise it’s just a hobby. And you should go work for someone else.

7. Just do it

The reality is you can make it as a creative person. So stop playing and do the work.

My own story has been more about failure than success, about good ideas that should have worked, but didn’t. I’ve had more accidental successes than strategic ones. The only difference between me and those who haven’t been as successful as me? I haven’t given up. I’ve done the work and I’ve gotten better. I’ve made so many mistakes it’s laughable. But I’m still here. Still creating. Still providing for my wife and soon to be five kids. And still doing what I love.

Flickr photo (cc) by chrisbreitenbach