They usually say it when they’re disagreeing with my advice. I work with artists and authors, and I tell them what they need to do to be more successful, to sell more books or paintings, to gain more followers, to look professional online and be taken seriously.
Most of them don’t want to listen.
The justification I hear when they call me an entrepreneur is “Yes, you’re good at business. But I’m an artist.”
They want their decisions to be emotional, and personally meaningful. They want to steer their online profile, website, and work in the direction they feel represents them.
I grumble and get frustrated because they are asking people to buy their work but they aren’t willing to meet them halfway and do something that appeals to others. They think I’m just a working stiff with no imagination. A number cruncher. A sell out. I think they’re throwing their money away, being stubborn, living in a fantasy.
But then I remember what I was like 10 years ago.
I was an ARTIST. I refused to compromise. I refused to paint or write what other people wanted. That was propaganda. That was commercialism.
If I wanted to produce something truly great and world-changing, I needed to follow my passion and make the things that brought me joy.
So I did that. I painted what made me happy. I wrote what made me happy.
I didn’t care about money, or society, or earning a living.
I didn’t care if people got it or liked it (obviously I did, because I showed it around, but their opinions didn’t matter enough to me to change what I was doing).
People got to know me and accept me as an artist, writer and creative.
They got to expect me to be that way – as if creativity was by definition some sort of non-practical defiance of society.
They humored me. Treated me to dinner. I was that creative artist friend (who was perpetually poor but doing cool stuff all the time).
The first book I self-published was a proud day. I carried the box of books that I’d had printed by a guy down the street into my place of work. I’d designed the cover myself (it was busy, garish, ugly, and it took me a month), and laid out the interior myself in Word (not too bad, definitely not great). I was beaming. I signed copies for my co-workers and they congratulated me on my success.
After several critical Amazon reviews, and a year or so of maturation, I realized it wasn’t so great a book after all.
So I began my Master’s in Literature. I learned how to do research and referencing. I rewrote the book and made it 10x longer (160,000 words).
This time I was less emotional, and more pragmatic. I did the cover myself again (I was getting pretty good at graphic design by then) but I paid someone to format the book in InDesign. I paid someone else to check all the references. I promoted the Hell out of it.
I still made a lot of mistakes. I offered prizes and contests to try and get book reviews. I hyped it up. I had a shiny website made. (These are all rookie mistakes by the way… a really good book doesn’t need much promotion. You shouldn’t try and convince anyone to take a look at your book. You need to project an image of professionalism and success… )
But I kept at it. I got a dozen reviews from major publications and bloggers. I sold the international rights to Russia’s biggest publisher.
I’m very proud of that book. It’s well written and did reasonably well for something self-published, by someone with almost zero platform.
But so what? I still get about $100 in sales a month. My Amazon rank is not bad. But what was I going to do with myself now that I was finished?
What do you do after you achieve your life’s passion?
Maybe the emotional, struggling, desperate artist is a phase every creative must get through. They have to give birth to their one big dream. They have to do it to the best of their ability, or keep trying again and again. They aren’t ready to listen to stuff about making it crowd-pleasing in order to sell. They aren’t ready to compromise. It’s only after the first big project is finished and behind them, that they realize it wasn’t such a big deal after all.
Sure they’re proud of it. It wasn’t about the money. It wasn’t about the success. It was about setting their mind to that one big hill on the horizon and summoning up the courage to mount it and plant their flag. So they climb the hill, staring at the ground, counting the rocks, panting and wheezing. They don’t care if there’s a trail for tourists just over there, they’re going to forge their own freaking path. They’re going to do it their way.
Then they get to the top, plant the flag, wipe off the sweat, drink some water, and finally, finally, lift their head and take a look around.
They see they are standing on a little hill, surrounded by huge mountains, endless plains, a thousand directions to choose from, and countless more peaks to climb.
Your first big success is the death of the artist and the birth of the entrepreneur
There’s a Zen story about a man who goes up to a cave for 10 years to find Enlightenment. When he has his Epiphany, he’s so excited, he races down the hill to share it with his master. But there’s a crowd of kids playing in the road and he gets angry – realizing he’s lost his inner peace, he goes back up to sit in the cave some more.
There’s another Zen story about a wise old master being stopped on the road by a student. The wise old master is carrying a bundle of firewood. The student says “Master, tell me, what is Enlightenment?” The Master says nothing, but takes the bundle of sticks off his shoulders and sets it down on the ground.
“Aha! I see!” cried the student. “But please tell me, what comes after Enlightenment?”
At this, the wise old man picks the sticks back up and walks away.
Both stories illustrate that life continues. There is no stopping point. There is no pinnacle.
After you complete your first big story, exhibition, self-published book, hook an agent – or whatever that thing is that you desperately want to do – after you get that, you need to do something else. You find yourself curiously free for the first time. You’ve lost that burning passion. The burning part goes away once you’re successful and have lost that desperate need. It just feels fun and exciting. When I’m working I feel… hyper. Bursting with creative energy. Thrilled. Tingling.
But also confident. I know I’ll succeed, because I’ve already done it. It gets faster, and easier. I do things smarter and with less effort. I hire things out. I’m not controlling or obsessive. I want to finish the next thing, get it out there, and start working on something else. Perhaps success is an addiction. You’re always looking for the next score. You’re always looking for a bigger hit.
I became an entrepreneur. Maybe that’s what artists and authors become, with experience, but they all have to get there on their own terms. From up on my mountain, I can see them wasting their time, climbing that little hill, planting their flag, doing it their way. But maybe they need to do it, to gain the confidence, the knowledge, that they are capable.
There’s probably somebody up on a higher mountain looking down at me, thinking, “He’s wasting his time, he’s doing it all wrong!”
Maybe Plato got it right; maybe nobody is able to believe in what’s outside the cave, unless they have the desire and the strength to go see for themselves.
Are you an artist or an entrepreneur? That’s something you’ll have to discover for yourself. All I can do is lighten your load, if you’ll let me. And if not, I can walk ahead and clear the rocks out of your path.