Twenty years ago, the idea of working for yourself was more a last resort, and the inclination of the unemployable. In the last few years however, there's more cachet attached to being an “entrepreneur”—being your own boss. More patterns—and more examples of this breed—have emerged of people who have all the right qualities, and find success as a self-employed personalities.
Artists are in the oldest class of “entrepreneurs.” The custom nature of an artist's work process guarantees that there is no one-size-fits-all formula to a career. Materials and media change, ideas are exhausted, new routines are developed and processes updated to build a set of work practices that ensure that the artist can do more of the same next year. A series of trial-and-error projects for making and selling things eventually becomes the way to conduct business. A lifestyle comes from it. It's hard to think of another profession that brings so much engagement and care to advancing cultural work, while simultaneously helping an individual be their authentic self.
Being an artist, however, is not for everyone. It is for a very specific temperament, a personality often in opposition to the culture that produced it. Consider that an artist typically started out as somebody raised to do as they're told by parents and school systems. If everything went according to plan, this course would last two decades and culminate in a reliance on a system of behaviors, skills, and customs. There was a clear understanding how someone might put food on the table and any efforts at authenticity or originality were gratuitous at best.
But an artist chooses to divorce herself from that "wheel of fortune" and instead chooses a path without assurances except for a few inspirational anecdotes to begin the journey. What kind of person is cut out for this? What kind of personality would take on such a trip? More importantly, what kind of person will succeed at this? There are a few common themes that artists and entrepreneurs share. To get at these ideas it's helpful to ask yourself a few questions:
Are you comfortable being your own boss?Entrepreneurs like the idea of sitting around on a beach with a laptop, telling virtual assistants what to do, while putting in a 4-hour work week and telling Facebook friends about “#livinthelife!” The truth about being your own boss is a little more complicated. Most people need a good reason to become a self-starter after spending most of their life being coached into doing new things. They need a reason to get up every day, get over their fear of the unknown, and put in the time to make more work. Motivation is self-generated or self-neglected.
Do you have a sense of purpose with your art?All the talent in the world will not save you if you have no idea why you're making things. Finding purpose is an every day practice, and some days are easier than others. And very often it is up to you to care about your work, when nobody else will or knows how to. You have to find your sources of support and encouragement.
Are you adaptable?Working as an artist means managing a significantly higher cognitive burden than the typical corporate worker, and about as much a typical entrepreneur. Unlike someone in corporate culture, you are not expected to be a specialist. You have to juggle making art—which has its own separate and expansive cognitive load —with doing the administrative, legal, and promotional activities for your galleries, networks and career.
Are you prepared to go the distance?As knowledge becomes more democratized, it is wisdom and a capacity to be selective that still remains elusive and rare. Wisdom remains the product of hard work, diligence, and exceptional curiosity. As we move from an Information economy and further along into an Attention economy, it is ultimately the artist's ability to engage that will nourish an audience in the long term.
Addressing some of these questions with honesty is a good starting point, and an artist with sufficient humility and perseverance will increase the probability of success in making a career in the arts.
PHOTO: "Power Station", East village, New York City, 2017.
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