Within the past few weeks, I’ve read articles about the value of finding a career you love, finding a “vocation” versus a “career,” and choosing to love what you do instead of doing what you love. The contradictory advice is nothing new. (Coffee will change your life! Coffee will end your life!) But it is still enough to make your head spin.
So what in the world is a creative entrepreneur to do?
It turns out there is no magic path to creative fulfillment, nor is there a singular secret to building a sustainable creative career. One solution just doesn’t exist.
With plenty of options and plenty of potential solutions, we can all reflect upon exactly what it is we find most fulfilling and most motivating, and plan our careers accordingly. But that is more than a little petrifying.
Engaging in self-reflection means we might have to confront personal realities we’d rather ignore, like the fact that we enjoy having dinner with our children, or that we’d rather work less instead of more. It might mean we prioritize stability and predictability over spontaneity at certain points within our career. It might mean we value what a “day job” provides in terms of scheduling, benefits, and the chance to use a separate part of our brains.
We might realize those we hope to serve with our creative output aren’t those who can afford to pay for our creative output. We might realize that we have absolutely no desire to mix commerce with our creativity. We might realize we don’t mind networking so much.
Jackie Battenfield, author of The Artist’s Guide: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love, told me recently that a creative career always starts and ends with a person’s goals. I couldn’t agree more.
It would be considerably easier to outline a perfect path, a linear progression, through creativity. First, you pay your dues, then you meet someone magical, and then your secret work is discovered by the masses while you pretend to hate the attention. Then you win awards and accolades and never have to think about money again.
Except that dreamy – delusional – perfect path ignores what might really matter to you.
That’s why the goals matter. As long as you are making informed choices about your creative opportunities with intention, then you never have to apologize for your choices. You can explain why you made them and stand by them.
- “I love having a day job because otherwise, I wouldn’t leave my apartment.”
- “Actually, I prefer to do something unrelated to my creativity while my brain sorts out a creative problem in the background. Parking cars as a valet is actually better for my studio practice than teaching.”
- “Actually, I love teaching because I consider it new audience development; it helps me work out solutions to creative problems while it helps others learn.”
As long as you can figure out your goals, you can figure out how to mix and match the components of a creative portfolio career to reach those goals.
We like dividing the type of creative work we all do into three buckets: Starring Role, Supporting Cast Role, and Production Assistance work.
The Starring Role
Your starring role is your “thing.” It is what you would do if you had unlimited amounts of time and money. It is what you think about when you have nothing else to think about. It is how you choose to make a difference in the world.
You may define your starring role very broadly or very narrowly; that’s entirely up to you. But you know what your “thing” is. It is a close to your soul as you can get professionally.
Supporting Cast Roles
Supporting cast role work is related to your thing, but it isn’t the thing itself. This work might be in the same industry (which enables you to build a community), it might enhance your technical skill set (thus benefiting your starring role). It might help you build a complementary administrative skill that will benefit your starring role.
Your supporting cast roles are related to your starring role; they support your starring role with intangibles (networking, skill-building). But they aren’t exactly the starring role. Supporting cast roles might include teaching at the college or community level, serving as a gallery assistant, ghostwriting, editing, tutoring, working behind the scenes in a museum, illustrating anatomy textbooks, or anything else that is close to your starring role… but not exactly the same thing.
Production Assistance Work
Your production assistance work is the final category, and it is the least glamorous. But sometimes it is the most crucial. Production assistance work is temporary, repeatable, and stable, and you can return to it when and if you need to. Production assistance work doesn’t benefit your starring role, other than providing income, scheduling stability, or benefits. Work in this category is the classic “day job” work we think about when building a creative career: Bartending, valet parking, dog walking, babysitting, waiting tables, or temping at a law firm. It isn’t what we talk about when we talk about our work. (We focus instead on our starring role accomplishments.) But production assistance work can buy you time to let your starring role and supporting cast role work evolve organically. It can purchase you the freedom to pursue projects that move you toward your goals, rather than projects that will only help pay your bills.
Mixing and Matching
There are no rules about how to mix and match the types of work that may fall into any category, nor are there rules about which categories to include and which to exclude as you build your own sustainable creative career. There aren’t even bright-line distinctions between the categories in many cases. This is simply a framework to help organize your thoughts and weigh your own strengths and your own goals against opportunities that might exist in the world. It’s up to you to figure out what to do with that framework. Enjoy.