I recently gave talk at NYU to students in the Integrated Digital Media program. Tega Brain, the class’s instructor, told me her students were working on their “senior capstone, so they are all doing self directed work, some for the first time ever.” Tega hoped I could share insights on how the creative process can unfold, culled from my own practice and from what I've learned while working at The Creative Independent.

Tega’s prompt got me thinking: in the 10 years since I graduated from art school, what are the main pieces of wisdom I’ve gleaned from working alongside hundreds (maybe thousands) of different types of artists, and really internalizing the ups and downs of living a creative lifestyle?

Post-graduation, I was dead-set on becoming an “artist.” Looking back, the naive romanticism that surrounded my understanding of an artist’s life is astounding. I had no idea what “being an artist” actually meant, or how it would look in practice.

Back in 2009, I also didn’t know that it’d be possible for me to take my art education, and twist it into a way of working in other types of creative roles, and on other types of projects, that I’d end up finding far more rewarding than my art making had been.

Now, having spent over ten years working within art museums, cultural organizations, and artist-centric publications—in addition to spearheading many of my own side projects—I’ve learned a lot about the various ways a creative process can evolve into a sustainable practice, paid work, and ultimately, a holistically fulfilling creative life.

Below is a taste of what I’ve learned, which I hope might be helpful for anyone looking to find their footing as a creative human out there in the world.

1. The idea that you need to make art “full-time” to be a capital-A Artist is a lie.

In the past 10 years I've seen first-hand that the vast majority of artists don’t support themselves through their art alone. This is because the structures of the art world are unfortunately set up in ways that exploit artists and vastly undervalue creative labor.

A survey and subsequent report I led at The Creative Independent reported that only 12{088788eaa25b7c6b0dcfb5bf97edf1649e60296ca45d40c07f90bcac36bffe09} of visual artists include the sale of their art as one of their top three income sources. Most artists reported doing freelance work or having a day job as the primary way they supported themselves.

While making art is definitely work, agents of capitalism do not tend to value artistic production unless the art serves some specific purpose, or has some utilitarian value to another capitalistic system (think: advertising, luxury goods, etc).

Because artistic production does not squarely fit into capitalism, very few artists can afford to just make art. And, any artist choosing to pursue art-making as a full-time job must evolve their practice to function like a business. But when artists choose this path, art making can become a soul-crushing hustle—replete with administrative, non-art-making responsibilities—and often, this can quickly drain the passion out of a creative practice.

Because of this, many artists take other jobs, either full-time or part-time, so that they don’t need to put financial pressure on their creative practice. Artists work at restaurants, on construction sites, at book stores, in advertising, the list goes on. This is totally normal, and you can still be a capital-A Artist while working other types of jobs, either full- or part-time.

Let me repeat: If you consistently make creative work that you’d call “art,” you are an artist—even if you do other types of work, too.

Related resources: A study on the financial state of visual artists today (report), On making a living as an artist (zine), How to turn your art practice into a business (guide).

2. Work intuitively, and only make things you’re passionate about.

Because I left art school thinking I wanted to be a full-time artist, I thought I needed to evolve my work so that it would fit into other people’s definition of what was “good” or “interesting” or “novel.” I was so worried about what other people would think about my work that I had no idea what I actually wanted to make.

In this way, I became lost—the thread of my practice that had energized me vanished, and with it, so did my drive to make art. As I struggled to pay my rent and feed myself each month through a series of underpaid gigs, internships, and food stamps, I felt overworked; at the same time, because my practice wasn’t energizing me anymore, it fell to the wayside amidst my over-burdened, under-resourced life.

Many years later, I can finally say I’ve found my creative practice again—thanks in large part to releasing the pressure I was putting on my practice to be my career. Today my creative work doesn’t look anything like the creative practice of my art school years, but the spark that leads me to want to make things feels the same. And that spark is the thing to follow: that welling-up feeling of excitement you get when an idea pops into your head, and you can’t wait to try it.

When you find that spark of excitement, chase that feeling ruthlessly. It will show you what to make, and it becomes even more important when you’re supporting yourself through other hustles. This is because while having a job outside of your creative work frees you to make whatever you want to make on your own time—with no fear about how or if other people will perceive or value it—there is one major risk: taking on too many things, and eventually burning out.

When you’re forced to work under capitalism, you will be tired and you may be tempted to give up your creative practice because you “don’t have the time” or “don’t have the energy.”

But if you’re making things you’re truly passionate about, even when you’re overworked and tired, the passion will energize you, and you’ll come back to your practice. Maybe not consistently all the time, but it’ll be there for you when you need it.

3. Create your own opportunities.

For so long, I felt like I needed somebody to invite me to be part of a show in order to make new work. Or, I needed to be offered or awarded an opportunity to make something in order to validate my desire to make that thing. But now I know that this is totally backwards.

I wish that when I graduated from art school, I knew how important it is to create your own opportunities, rather than waiting for gatekeepers to come to you. 

The truth is, if you wait around for other people to give you opportunities, you could be waiting around forever.

There’s nothing stopping you from starting your own thing right now. You could start working on the creative direction for a new magazine project today. You could get together with a group of friends and make a film. You could email a bunch of other artists you know, and put together a group show in somebody’s garage.

If you’re passionate about the work, you can figure out how to make it happen. And things you launch on your own, when fueled by passion, can often be really, really good.

That magazine you launch the year after college might help you get your first real publishing job. That art exhibit you put together in somebody’s garage might get you noticed by a curator. 

Everything you make has a ripple effect. The more you create and put out into the world, the more opportunities come back to you. This is 100{088788eaa25b7c6b0dcfb5bf97edf1649e60296ca45d40c07f90bcac36bffe09} tried and true.

Everything you make is a signal, communicating who you are and what you’re all about. In that way, when you create your own opportunities and make things happen for yourself because you’re passionate about the work, you create opportunities for yourself that are right in line with what you want to be doing.

It can feel magical. Actually, it is magical.

Now you might be thinking, “If I want to create my own opportunities, where do I start? I’ve never launched something on my own!”

The trick is to just start. Don’t wait because you don’t know where to begin. When you don’t know what you’re doing, you start by chipping away at little projects—research, question-asking, idea gathering—until the momentum builds up, and the magic starts to happen. 

4. Understand the power of chipping away at things.

After college, I think I lost the thread of my creative practice in part because my ideas were always so big that they felt unmanageable and unattainable when I could only spend a few hours a week working on them.

It felt like, “Why bother. I’ll never have the time I need to make this happen.”

I had this mentality until a few years ago, when I started working at The Creative Independent. Before that, I wrongly assumed most artists and writers who had big, impressive shows or new books coming out were all able to work on their art for a few hours or more every day. I imagined them luxuriating in their ideas, and slowly building up these impressive creations through hundreds of undisturbed hours and days in the studio—something I’d never have, since I needed to work full-time to support myself.

But as I copyedited interview after interview with “successful” artists, writers, filmmakers, and others on The Creative Independent, I realized this assumption was completely wrong. This realization goes hand in hand with the lie about the “capital-A Artist” who makes work full-time. In truth, most creative practitioners are squeezing in time to work on their art whenever and wherever they can find it, because they too have some kind of other job to go to every day, or other responsibilities to fulfill.

Writers might be working on their next book by recording voice memos on their phones as they drive between meetings, or typing in Google Docs in their cubicle during their lunch break.

Artists might get up at 5am to spend just a couple early hours in the studio before slogging to their day job, or spend long weekends in the studio because that’s the only time they can reserve for their practice.

Parents might save 30 minutes after their child goes goes to bed and before doing the dishes just to get down a few more sentences, or sketches, or song ideas.

The list goes on.

The simplest way to say this is: You won’t have time unless you make time. And even if you only make a few minutes per day, over time, it adds up.

30 minutes of art-making every day for a month becomes 14 hours of creative time. What could you make in 14 hours?

In a year, you’d have 168 hours. That’s 21 eight-hour work sessions, or 21 days of full-time work that you could have invested in your art. This, just by putting in 30 minutes a day. Who can’t carve out 30 minutes a day to work on something that really, truly matters to you?

As an example of how I’ve put this approach to use: I got the idea to start a creative residency space and experimental artist foundation a few years back. At that point, I was living in an apartment in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, working long hours at a day job I didn’t love, and feeling physically and emotionally exhausted. I had no idea how to create the artist space I dreamed of, and furthermore, no idea how to transition from my current life into one where running that type of space would even be possible.

At some point, inaction was no longer an option. I started doing the only thing I could think of: getting up an hour earlier every day just to chip away at the idea. I’d drink coffee and sit on my couch and work on small tasks that I thought might (in some small way) contribute to eventually manifesting the space.

I didn’t know what I was doing, so I just tried things I thought might help give the idea momentum. I made word clouds and mood boards, I wrote rambling manifestos and endlessly retooled strategy docs trying to articulate the plan. I emailed people about my idea to set up coffee dates with them. Every day, I chipped away at these little tasks. They didn’t always lead anywhere, but each task I completed gave me new information, and gave my larger idea momentum.

Eventually, I built a website for the space I wanted to create—complete with a logo and mission statement—and I just started acting like it was real. At the office, I told people what I was working on every morning before coming in; at parties, I told friends and peers that I planned to have the space launched in less than a year. Sometimes I felt like a liar, and worried I’d never get there. But this anxiety further fueled my desire to make the damn thing. So I kept going.

Things materialized slowly over time, and today, just a couple years later, I run The Strange Foundation—an internet-infused creative space in the Catskill Mountains that’s already hosted over 50 artists for residencies and creative retreats. Pretty cool, huh?

5. Give yourself real deadlines.

When you’re working on a creative project and you’re the only one who cares about making it happen, you need a deadline. Otherwise you won’t know what to prioritize, and you’ll let things slide… and then they’ll never materialize. Trust me, I’ve been there.

There are lots of ways to give yourself a deadline. When I was getting started with The Strange Foundation, somebody told me about bullet journals. It looked a bit gimmicky to me, but I decided to try it. Honestly, it changed my life. The concept is that every day, you write a bulleted list of every task you need to accomplish. If you don’t get something done that day, you’re forced to re-write it in the next day’s list, and so on. Something about the shame of re-writing the same task over and over really motivates you to just get it over with, so suddenly you’re getting things done right and left.

When you apply this mentality to the creative work you’re passionate about—i.e. when you prioritize the work that matters to you, rather than what other people want you to do—it can be life changing.

Another way to give yourself a deadline is to work with a collaborator, or get together with a group of peers who are also making things. Then you can give each other deadlines, and check in on them every so often. Even this slight amount of peer pressure will help you focus on what you really want to make, and then actually make it.

You can also give yourself deadlines by taking a class, or working with a coach. You could sign up to give a reading or a presentation about your work. It might seem scary, but you need a little fear to make things happen.

If you have a deadline, you have a guarantee that you’ll have made something by that time. Then the making is so much easier. You just get up and get to it.

6. Who you know matters, so build yourself a strong network

I just mentioned how working with collaborators and talking to other people about your creative projects can light a fire under yourself to make things happen. But there are so many more reasons to bring other people into your creative work—from gaining new insights and perspectives, to finding out about opportunities, to learning new things and meeting more new people.

In order to invite people into your process, though, first you need to know them. But who should you know? And how might you meet them?

When I first graduated from art school, I wasn’t sure what a “network” was. I definitely didn’t have one, or know how to build one. But as I held different jobs, met new people at art events and parties, and simply participated as an active member of culture and society, I started to naturally build a network—and to understand its vast power.

But what are we talking about when we say “network?” As I’ve experienced it, a network is a community of people who you know on a personal level, who might share professional opportunities and creative ideas with you—just as you might share opportunities and ideas with them. When you want to learn more about something, or launch a new project, or find an opportunity, you will be far more successful if you have a solid network of people who know you and your work, and who will be willing to help you with whatever you’re doing.

So how do you create a strong network? It’s pretty simple: Meet people who are doing things you find interesting and exciting. Get familiar with their work. Go to their talk/exhibit/whatever, and show your support. Ask to buy them coffee, or better yet, a beer. Try to build relationships with these people. Find out what you can do to support their work before you ask them to support yours. Become their actual friend, and hang out with them!

Simply put: Pursue relationships that feed your creative energy. Don’t just chase relationships because you think someone could help you. Instead, find people who you vibe with, and who make you think and act more creatively.

Then, when you need some help launching a project or making a career pivot, you’ll have actual friends working in creative industries that are relevant to you, who can ask for support from. It’s really that simple.

7. Kill your inner perfectionist. 

In my current work as a mentor for NEW INC members and Strange Foundation residents, one common theme that comes into play is perfectionism. It’s this feeling of needing to get every last detail perfect before feeling satisfied with an artwork, piece of writing, product, etc.

This urge to come to the perfect version of something can often cause entire projects to lose momentum and die. Instead of finishing something that’s 90{088788eaa25b7c6b0dcfb5bf97edf1649e60296ca45d40c07f90bcac36bffe09} perfect, a lot of creative people waste time and energy running in circles about how to resolve that last 10{088788eaa25b7c6b0dcfb5bf97edf1649e60296ca45d40c07f90bcac36bffe09} so it’s all perfect. But truthfully, is 100{088788eaa25b7c6b0dcfb5bf97edf1649e60296ca45d40c07f90bcac36bffe09} perfection even achievable?

What I always remind people is that your audience probably won’t know the difference between 90{088788eaa25b7c6b0dcfb5bf97edf1649e60296ca45d40c07f90bcac36bffe09} perfect and 100{088788eaa25b7c6b0dcfb5bf97edf1649e60296ca45d40c07f90bcac36bffe09} perfect. Whatever detail you’re fretting over is usually not going to make or break your project.

Along these lines, I like to encourage my mentees to see all of their work as one ongoing experiment. Nothing you create needs to feel like the be-all, end-all of what you’re capable of; you can keep trying new things, evolving your ideas, and building up your experience.

When you’re not trying to make everything perfect all the time, you’re free to try new things, work intuitively, and share more of your ideas and outcomes with other people. You can enjoy the process, rather than worrying too much about the outcome.

Your work should feel rewarding and challenging to make, but it shouldn’t drain you and leave you riddled with anxiety. So if you need to, set the bar lower for yourself. Give yourself permission to make something shitty. Who cares? Once you make a few things that aren’t perfect, you’ll see how fun it can be—and how freeing.

To put this simply: Enjoy the process and don’t worry too much about the end result.

8. Prioritize yourself.

What makes you feel fulfilled? What matters most to you? If you could spend your time doing anything at all, what would it be?

Most people wouldn’t be able to answer these questions very coherently. This is because we spend so much time just trying to live up to other people’s expectations that we rarely (if ever) carve out time to think about, and experiment with, what fulfills us on a deeply personal level.

As you carve out your own path as a creative person, it’s easy to get derailed by the demands of your job, a too-busy social schedule, or any number of things that can drain your time and attention. It’s happened to me many times: I get sucked into a big project at work, or say yes to too many requests for my time, and suddenly I’ve lost the ability to think about what I actually want to be doing, because my entire life feels like an endless to-do list. In these instances, I become bitter, anxious, and resentful of any and all work thrust onto my plate.

But when you know what fulfills you, you know where to aim, and you have a filter through which to view your efforts. If something doesn’t fulfill you, you know not to give it too much of yourself. Then you can preserve more of your energy to channel towards what does fulfill you.

If you don’t know what fulfills you, that’s ok—it means you get to experiment to figure it out. As one exercise to try, sit down and make a long list of all the times you’ve felt really energized and excited by a project or type of work in the past few years. Specifically, what about it was energizing? How could you work on more projects, or do more work along those lines?

Chase that energy and excitement. Prioritize your creative self and set aside time, ideally every day, to write down one thing that fulfilled you, and one thing that didn’t. Then think of ways to get more of the former thing, and less of the latter. 

When you prioritize your time in favor of doing more of what fulfills you, you’ll incrementally evolve your life in the direction you need to go.

9. You have more time than you think.

A few weeks ago, a recent college grad asked if we could have a phone call. She wanted my advice on sussing out a career path, because she was feeling a little lost. However, she’d already held a few positions at well-known organizations, contributed writing to various publications, and overall seemed well on her way to a successful, fulfilling creative career.

When we talked, she expressed a genuine concern that she hadn’t “figured everything out” yet. I resisted the urge to laugh at the idea that she should have any true sense of how she should spend her life, since she was still in her very early twenties. I didn’t laugh because I knew how she felt: I remember that bursting-out-of-the-gates feeling, where after four years in school, you can’t wait to land your dream job and set off on your perfect creative career path with the perfect upwards trajectory.

The truth is, creative careers are never linear—they are winding and wobbly. But as I’ve experienced it, exploring different careers by taking on weird (and sometimes terrible) jobs and projects is one of the best parts of building a creative life.

You won’t know what you want until you know what you don’t want. I learned this by spending over five years as a museum employee. I loved the work I was doing, but eventually it dawned on me that if I stayed at the museum, my only path forward was to climb the bureaucratic ranks until I topped out at “Director of Marketing” or some other business-casual-wearing job I truly would have hated. 

This doesn’t mean my time spent in museums was a waste. On the contrary, I gained invaluable experience and connections over those five years, I learned a ton, and overall, the work helped catapult me into my next thing.

When you’re creative, every experience gives you more information, and more tools in your creative toolset.

Recent college grads are lucky. You’re now free to try so many different things! Even if you switched jobs every three years (these days, three years is a pretty long time to stay in any one job), over 20 years, you could try nearly seven different professions. And in your 40s, you’re still not too old to make a bold career change. 

What I’m getting at here is that you will probably always still be figuring things out. I’m definitely still deciding what to “do” with my life, and I’m 32. My mom is in her mid-sixties, semi-retired, and she’s definitely still figuring things out.

What this means: Don’t stress about finding the perfect job right away, and don’t feel boxed in if you spend a few years going down a career path that you later discover isn’t for you. You can always change what you’re doing. The trick is to try things that interest you, and see where they lead.

Trust the process, because the process of finding what you love to do literally is your life. There’s no “end” point where you’ll have found the one job or pursuit that perfectly combines your creative talents and passion, and pays you. 

You’ll always be evolving. And that’s what’s fun about being a creative person, so you might as well not worry too much.

So over all, good luck following your passion and experimenting with all sorts of creative pursuits. Have fun, make great friends, and chase what makes you happy. That’s all you can do ❤