“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t.” – Fight Club, 1999
If you asked me when I was younger what I wanted to be, I’d have told you I wanted to be an animator at Disney. I was born in 1984 and lived in a small town in KwaZulu Natal, so I may as well have told my parents I wanted to be a giant pink elephant with wings and a trunk that could reach the sky. I did however draw a lot, until I hit Grade 8 and an art teacher completely gutted my passion for drawing. I never completely put aside my interest in art, which I kept alive by doing some 3d modeling.
I finished high school and my parents told me I was going to university. Being 17 at the time I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I ended up taking English (because it was one of my strongest subjects) and media (because it was at the top of the pile of pamphlets).
During university I casually picked up art again, mostly because I was horribly lonely when I got to campus early because my mom, a teacher, had to get to school way before my lectures started. I would doodle or write in my journal as a way to fill the time until my classes or someone I knew found me at our regular hangout spot. In my Honours year at the age of 23 I picked up some art books and seriously started trying to draw again.
But let’s be honest, at this point, it was too late. I deluded myself for years that I could somehow catch up to other people who’d been drawing all their lives and that I could make it as a professional, even though I was spending less time than they were working on my art, not to mention that they were already ahead of me in terms of pure technical skill.
Now you’re probably here thinking that the rest of the story is going to be “Oh woe is me, life not fair” (it isn’t, but if you reach your 30s and don’t realise this then you got bigger problems, or on the contrary, maybe no problems at all). Or maybe you think I’m here to tell you that “I’m reinvigorated and my passion hasn’t died and that I’m going to work twice as hard” (my passion hasn’t died but that isn’t why I’m here either).
I’m not going to talk about either of those things. While I still have a passion for art and still draw, what I’m here to tell you about an interesting perspective I stumbled upon a few months ago, courtesy of a man by the name of Mike Rowe. Here’s a couple of his (shorter) videos. Check them out, and then keep on reading.
I don’t know much about Mike’s past, but he strikes me as an undoubtedly pragmatic man, and he offers some well thought out advice other than the simple “don’t give up on your dreams/follow your heart” view that regularly does the rounds.
If I look at the people around me, I know a ton of extremely talented artists. Some of them are freaking amazing! As to why they became artists, maybe some of them were like me, and liked to draw. Maybe some of them wanted to be the artistic equivalent of rock stars. Maybe some of them found themselves at home in their art. Unfortunately, a lot of these people are hustling. What do I mean by that? Basically, in a nutshell, that their work is their life. Whether it’s networking, or securing jobs, or just making sure they’re better than the next guy in line who’s just gotten out of art school, a significant amount of their time is spent just making sure they break even. Not prosper. Not make it rich. A lot of these folks are just trying to get through the month. Again, I want to remind you, some of these people are artists that I would consider to be competitive on a global level. Some of them are not quite there, but are still extremely good.
A few of them are lucky enough to have secured regular art jobs (a very talented friend of mine recently got work designing art assets for a gambling company, and he’s loving that he’s not having to work like a slave, even if he’s not doing exactly what he set out to do). A couple of them are lucky enough to have safety nets and financial security to fall back on (“1 percenters”). A few of them have some form of semi-secure employment (I say semi because creative industry jobs tend to have a lot of short term employment gigs). But these people are the exception, rather than the rule.
If I look at my context, I have managed to find a reasonably healthy balance, but even my circumstances are not typical (I have found myself in a uniquely convenient housing situation that saves me some money). I work a few hours every day at a job I don’t love (when I first started the job I HATED it), but it gives me enough financial security to pursue the things I am passionate about.
Now I’m not writing this post to crush anyone’s hopes or dreams. Rather, I am writing this post to maybe re-frame how you view your work. Do you know the realities of the industry you are trying to get into? Is there room for growth? Who are you competing with? Does your job have to be your passion, or can it be something else? Can you find a way to be financially secure and still pursue your creative goals, even if it means that your work is only ever exhibited on Facebook, rather than in an art gallery?
Maybe more of us need to follow Mike’s advice: don’t follow your passion, but don’t give it up either. Just take it with you.
Here’s another of Mike Rowe’s longer videos, courtesy of Ted.