This is a piece I wrote for Mabel Magazine last year. The editors have kindly allowed me to re-post it here, with some edits.
For the last six years, I’ve been a fairly successful working artist. And for the last five years, I’ve had a day job. (However, this piece isn’t about how I found my day job, because that involves connections, experience, luck, and an employment scene that is very particular to the San Francisco Bay Area.)
When I quit my last full-time, non-creative job in 2010 so I could develop my art career, I didn’t want to plunge into life as a full-time working artist. Because I knew I couldn’t support myself that way for the first few years, I took on part-time work as a human resources consultant. Two to three days per week, I work on-site with my consulting clients. The rest of the time, I work in my studio, ship orders, and participate in shows.
A few days in the studio each week may not seem like a lot to many, but it’s been enough for me to launch new collections every six months, work on annual projects (like my 2014 52 Weeks of Printmaking, and my 2015 Print, Pattern, Sew projects), prepare for shows, teach classes, and experiment with new media and new concepts.
Would I like more time? Certainly. But I also believe that having a day job has allowed me to get this far – and to keep on going. Why?
A day job pays the bills.
Yes, this is obvious. Money is why we keep our day jobs. It’s a whole lot easier to create when you don’t have to worry about paying your bills. In order to create, I need to be fed, have a roof over my head – and pay for supplies. All of my materials – ink, screens, film, fabric – cost money. And I have to pay for them first, before I can create much of the work that I sell.
A day job allows you to create work for work’s sake, rather than for the money.
Two years ago, I decided to launch my 52 Weeks of Printmaking project. Every week, I created a new print and shared it online. Some of my work was really good, some of it was fairly mediocre. But that didn’t matter. I wasn’t planning to sell most of the work, so there was no pressure to create things that I thought would sell.
That may sound counterintuitive to many, especially in a society in which our worth is often judged by how much money we make. But experimenting is an important part of any creative practice. And we need the freedom to experiment and fail, without having to worry about the financial repercussions. Experimenting means playing a long game, sacrificing potential, immediate rewards in favor of developing skills and growing a practice.
Which leads to…
Desperation doesn’t create great work.
My best work has come when I haven’t had to worry about the money. There have been times when, desperate for money (because I’d cut my consulting hours, or because my taxes were higher than expected), I quickly created work that I thought would sell. And, probably because that work was slapdash and not fleshed out, it did not sell well. Now, I spend three to five months working on each collection, which I release twice per year. And guess what? I regularly sell out of those collections.
A day job teaches you to show up over and over again.
If you don’t show up to your day job, or if you slack off regularly, what will happen? Well, if you work for one of my HR consulting clients, you’ll likely get fired. Being successful at your day job requires you to be somewhat disciplined. There are tasks to perform, people to interact with, deadlines to meet. If nothing else, a day job requires you to figuratively sit your butt in a chair and work, despite your mood or external circumstances. Today was crappy and unproductive? You still have to show up tomorrow, and the day after that.
People often seem to think that if they just had the right materials, or the right ideas, or a ton of talent, they’d make it. But in the end, it’s really about creating and sharing a lot of work. Is there a better way to create a lot of work than to treat your creative practice as a job, and show up, day after day? I don’t think there is.
A day job gives you perspective.
It took me fifteen years of experience to get to the point where I could leave my full-time job and consult. During those fifteen years, I had a couple of entry-level jobs, started (and closed) my own business, did a lot of grunt work, finally got to do some strategic work, worked on some cool projects, made a lot of mistakes, had a few big successes. I dreamed big, and then I put in a lot of work.
Someone once asked me how long I thought it would take for her creative business to make a million dollars. I responded, “maybe a couple of years, maybe never.” We live in a world that loves stories about overnight successes. Social media shows us pictures of pretty studios and finished collections without talking much about the work that goes into them. And that’s okay – like a glossy magazine, social media only presents a snapshot of the story. But working a day job reminds you that there is a path, that you have to put in the hours and develop your skills in order to make it to the next level. Being an artist is no different.
One day, my art income will regularly surpass my day job income. That’s when I’ll know that I can quit my day job. Until then, I’m happy that my two incomes give me the freedom to explore, make mistakes, and grow.
Photo by Stefanie Renee Lindeen
48 thoughts on “In Praise of the Day Job”
Great article, even better advice!
I always want to know the back story, because that is where the work is, where the pain, the scars and the healing scabs exist. I have a day job too as I work toward my place of being totally independent.
Thanks for the honesty.
This is wonderful, sage advice. Thanks for sharing your experience! It absolutely echos the recent book I read by Elizabeth Gilbert: Big Magic. :-)
I went part time with my job some years ago, and I wish I did it years ago! I tried to work in the arts when I left college but could not concentrate on my work and I was constantly worried about money, so I took better unrelated paid work and managed to save…. mortgage etc….. but when I went part time it was brilliant. All basic bills paid and covered and I got to settle into a making routine without worrying – it also keeps me a bit connected socially as I find sometimes that working on your own all the time is not great either, and finally it makes me really utilise those precious 4 days free…
Jen, I love your honestly! When I first started my blog mycreativeresolution.com I thought I would turn my drawing and painting into a business. Through the years I realized I loved being free to create what I wanted. I knew making it a business would change that and possibly take the fun out of it. It continues to be my “hobby” although I don’t love that word. And I continued with my Web design business which I’m passionate about growing.
I have been following you since my job in healthcare was eliminated in August of 2014. I wondered how you grew your business fast enough to support you. I REALLY appreciate your honest. I too work part-time, for a grant project, to have a steady income. My real passion is making quilts, which I fill as many hours in the week as I can making quilts. My business is growing, but like you I work at both jobs. My plan is to have steady income by the end of the grant project so that I can transition to quilt making full time. If not, I will find another part-time job. I have come to enjoy the freedom having 2 part-time jobs allows me. Besides that I never want to allow another full-time employer to have so much power in my life to pull the rug out from under me by eliminating my job. I’ve always told my children that “sewing is my therapy”. They are now grown and I’m an empty nester so they were happy that I could devote more time to sewing/quilting. I have saved your article and will reread often for the honest and encouraging words.
Thank you Jen for those true words! I am sure that there is a lot of Talent in this world, but only few can actually make it without a bit of economic Security.
Jen, this is so perfect and balanced and exactly what I needed to hear. TYxo
Absolutely amazing! I really needed to read this article, been following you for years and have seen you grow, I always assumed you were no longer working a day job, this gives me a better perspective on the real life as an artist. Like you have had a business, multiple collections, and trying to get my footing. I remeber when I first started and the freedom that I had because I did have a great day job, thanks for the reminder :)
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