The pursuit of a passion is a longstanding idea in American culture. Media stories of those who have been successful in creative work tend to depict a plucky creative person, a talented underdog who succeeds, fueled by unending passion.
For artists and entrepreneurs, Passion is a key everyday ingredient in life and work: it drives them to do their best, find opportunities often invisible to others, perennially fine-tune skills and acquire new ones as they go.
But there are things that artists and entrepreneurs who are starting out often do not know. They feel comfortable filling that gap in knowledge with simplistic (and often overestimated) notions of Passion and its role in the journey. There persists the idea that if you build it, the people will come. The only problem there is that by the time you realize that nobody's coming, it's too late. So here is the short list of those actual circumstances that every creative worker faces, that will spring up as you move further into your independent career. These are scenes that get left behind on the cutting room floor because they can't sell a simplistic narrative of an artist's dream made real.
You’ll find yourself aloneThis doesn’t change much, or not for a while, at least. Your closest allies will be vendors and other people who help you keep the dream alive....as long they’re paid. There are mentors, advisors, business partners, and collaborators, and a good spouse if you’re lucky. They are all well-meaning supportive people, often proud of you, at best they are there for you. But they are not people who understand completely what you’re trying to accomplish, they can’t see how the pieces fit together or why the details have to be the way they are. And this will often leave you feeling different and alone in your journey. That's ok, as long as you remain open to the people who do understand.
You’ll learn to manage risk The “opportunity costs” add up as time passes: by foregoing a lucrative career path working on someone else’s vision, you’ve already taken incredible risk to pursue your dream instead. For many, there is no option to “fall back” on a secondary career or job if all else fails. We choose, instead, to move with incredible speed and, if necessary, fall forward instead: then we can see the pavement we hit. Most people can’t do that, or find themselves in a spot where they can't afford to risk everything like that. But risk—the kind that could alter the course of your life—is part of the journey. If you’re not careful enough, money, time, and health could eventually vaporize as a consequence of bad decisions or unfortunate events. Money and time are tradeable currencies: it's possible to exchange them for better services or conveniences and in some ways make up the difference elsewhere. Sure, you may be onlu one accountable for what sacrifice you’re willing to make, but risking your health should call into question your sense of priority—it's one thing that is not tradable. The prudent thing is to manage health with a long-term: put the processes in place to eat well, get rest, and exercise. That said, it wouldn't be the first time that someone risked their well-being for their work.
Timing is everything Pursuing your passion means understand that timing often means seizing opportunity, capitalizing on speed. It also means observing patience. Speed and patience play off each other, and you learn—from doing—how important it is to manage your patience and when it's your moment to to go go go. So where there is passion, it’s important to cultivate prudence. Prudence teaches you to spend the time on things that you can’t name yet. You trust if you do the homework, and allow invisible forces of intuition to align, you will eventually start out with something elementary, but it will be a good seed. You will develop the “slow hunch” of that idea over time to find the intersection between what you have to offer, and what is needed of you. You'll remain steady while people around you watch, wonder, dismiss, admonish, or hurry you up to make decisions “before it’s too late.” But it's your time, not theirs.
You’ll work harder than you'd expect The ability to follow your passion, to build the kind of life you want with your values intact is less a birthright, and more privilege. You're resisting the kind of conformity that people feel is right at their core—because they don't have the kind of imagination you might. Expect to fight for your choices, in a way that most people don’t have to because they’re not as invested in a self-defined lifestyle like you are. This fight will present itself to you right out of the gate when you realize that there’s more work than you expected. Whereas in a typical 9 to 5 job your role might be specialized and you work on the team, here things are more general and vague—you are the team. If you make products, you are a designer, production designer, photographer, bookkeeper, sales person, webmaster, and occasional intern. On the days you’re not any of the above, you are the founder or creative director who makes sure that the long-term strategy is sound and that all the planning and forecasting is done right. A typical employee at a job might work 45, or at most 50 hours a week. As a committed artist or entrepreneur, you will clock in about 60 to 70 hours a week without remorse and still be in a constant state of thought about the venture, beyond those hours. It will suck the life out of anyone who doesn't feel the autonomy that comes from this labor. Embrace the suck. That’s the price.
Purpose first, all else follows Passion drives more than just the impetus to make something and collect cash for it. It’s the need to put something of your purest self and ideas into the world. Where good business sense results in good execution and great service for your products, Passion is the high-octane fuel that adds another dimension and governs a much larger space: it awakens a sense of purpose and activates a your system of values to the world. It is medium-agnostic—a drawing, a dance, writing, vlog, or an app you make—the medium doesn’t matter. The important thing is that it connects with the right people and is designed to help them pursue a richer life.
In an empassioned journey to serve the right people, as an artist and entrepreneur you can expect to pick up a lesson at every turn. Humility, the ability to volunteer that you don’t know should stir you to take action, to go and find out. This is not just for the tactical aspects like the using software, handling marketing, or working the business side of things. It's for the really long-range, deep stuff: am I on the right journey today, does this align with my values? With Passion, you’ll learn to incrementally become the kind of person that serves your tribe—your people. Know that if your message is picked up well, that increase in numbers means a proportional increase in your responsibility.
It’s your duty to not settle for the simple story, of how someone started something on a whim, and ended up with an empire because they were just talented or because they had luck. Because that’s never exactly how that works. It's true that not all artists and entrepreneurs are doing something special, or even believe they are. But for those of us who do believe deeply in our life's work and bring passion to it, there’s a family of creative makers with people who have been at it longer. Behind every passionate person who has advanced further than you have is a wealth of knowledge and wisdom. Much of it gets crowded by the backwash of social media sound bytes and armchair criticism. But it’s there. And it’s important to look for these stories—biographies, interviews and when possible one-on-one conversations—to learn, to pick up the hints you need for your own journey. Working in service of people who understand you, and bring out the version of you—that's the perfect and most resonant hum in the feedback cycle of Passion, when you feel the gratitude of realizing you're right where you should be.
PHOTO: ICHIBANTEI mural by dragon76art2018, New York City.