The other day my phone rang, and it was a dear friend I haven’t heard from for a long time. We exchanged the pleasantries for a couple of minutes, until I asked how come he decided to call me right now.
“A friend came over and he showed me some videos on YouTube of this artist guy with an afro...”
“You know about him?”
“Of course I know about him. My ex K. was a big fan. He tried his techniques, too.”
“And they really work?”
“Yep, once he made like 3 or 4 landscape paintings in a single day.”
“Cool, anyway, he reminded me of you, and I got some ideas for you so I decided to call you. You could earn some real money doing this, sitting on the beach and just painting trashy landscapes to sell to tourists...”
(This is where he launches into a whole business plan for my kitsch landscape artist career.)
I laughed and did the telephone version of smiling and nodding as he wrapped up his story, and then we agreed to get together one afternoon to play same tabletop games, and hung up.
This conversation reminded me of a blog post I had sitting in my drafts folder for 3 years that I never got around to publishing.
At any rate, I get a lot of career advice from friends. Everyone who knows I can draw and paint seems to have a million dollar idea for me that’s just ready for the taking, and they’re eager to share it with me, probably thinking that it has never occurred to me before.
(Trust me, it probably did, and there’s a reason I’m not doing it. I’ll tell you in a minute.)
Most of these people are not artists themselves. Maybe once or twice a fellow artist suggested I do what they’re doing, but usually it’s the people who have never done art that are the most passionate about telling me what I should do with my talent. I’m not sure why that is, and I’m not going to try to get behind their motivations, but I’m going to focus on being on the receiving end of such advice, since you probably get a lot of that as well.
The multi-passionate curse
If you’re a multi-passionate person, then it’s already hard enough to pick a career to stick with, out of all the possibilities out there.
One thing that many people miss is that the idea of doing something is very different from actually doing it. The idea is always glamorous and focuses on the end result: beautiful art, fame, magazine features, exhibitions or concerts, money, fans...
Doing the work on the other hand usually consists of:
- working hard all day long
- practicing boring fundamentals
- making mistakes
- starting over
- studying the masters
- getting our of your comfort zone
- sacrificing socializing, reading and video games
- being a nobody for years until someone finally notices you...
We expect to feel every day as we would feel the day when our work got featured on Juxtapoz Magazine, or The Rolling Stone, or Vogue, or Wired, or the New York Times bestseller list, which just isn’t realistic. The moments of having achieved success are rare, and the moments of working hard with no reward (apart from the pleasure of doing the work itself) are abundant.
If you don’t like the doing, and are only doing it for the promise of money and fame, then you just aren’t going to be very good at it.
This is something that well-meaning friends and strangers often don’t understand, or they project their own ideas of what pleasurable work is on others. If someone enjoys a certain thing, they expect other artists would enjoy it as well, which isn’t always the case.
The idea of doing creative work is very different from actually doing creative work, day in and day out.
The problem with multi-passionate people is that we tend to go through life doubting that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, and other people’s comments can steer us away from our path.
Throughout your life, people have probably told you “You're so good at X, you should be a [something].” If you’ve heard the same thing over and over again, maybe you’ve ended up believing that was what you should do.
But what if you are good at multiple things, and every person told you a different story? Stories like...
- You're so good at explaining math to your friends, you should be a math teacher.
- You love computers so much, you should fix computers.
- You're so good at art, you should be a painter.
- You’re good at languages, you should be a translator.
And so on. With every new skill you’ve learned, you had people on your tail telling you that this is what you should do with your life.
Maybe when the time came to decide, you had no idea what to do, and likely picked the most reasonable possible solution. Maybe later you realized it was the wrong decision.
I went through this process so many times that it seems like the only constant in my life is that I have no idea what to do with my life. Because every time I make a choice, I feel like I shut the door on something greater and more expansive.
The problem with well-meaning advice
I'm not saying advice is necessarily bad (it shows that people care about you), but you have to realize that the advice people give you is based on their unique viewpoint, which may or may not be aligned with your unique viewpoint.
People don't see the entire world and all its possibilities, they only see a tiny fraction that corresponds with their point of view. It's a mechanism designed to save us from cognitive overload. Your brain learns to tune out the "noise", and call for your attention only when what’s important to you is in sight.
This is where listening to other people's opinions gets problematic.
Each person you ask for advice is like a blind man from the elephant parable (if you haven't heard of that story before, here it is).
In the story, it turns out all the blind men were correct, in a way. But neither of them knew the whole story, and in the end neither of them really knew what an elephant was. They had their own partial experience, and they had other people's words to rely on.
Each one of us is a bit like that elephant – we have a unique set of skills, talents and experiences. No one else knows your own life better than you do (not even your mother, no matter what she tells you). When people give us advice, they focus on one aspect of us that they’re attached to, and disregard all the other aspects that are equally important to us.
I’ve heard a quote about advice that goes something like this:
“You should only listen to advice from the people who have achieved what you want.”
I believe that’s a good rule of thumb. If somebody hasn’t achieved what you want in life, how can they even comprehend what your goals are, and what the path to achieving them is?
(I guess I knew this on some level all the time, so when my parents gave me career advice, I concluded I should do the absolute opposite, since I didn’t want to end up doing what they’re doing.)
It’s not just about hating “doing what you’re told”. There are benefits of seeing the problem from another person’s perspective, and when asked for advice, I’m willing to provide it. However, I get a lot of unsolicited advice, from people who don’t even know what I want. Advice from those people, no matter how well they mean it, doesn’t necessarily work for you.
To illustrate my point, I’ll mention just a few things that people have told me over the years, and why that wasn’t good advice for me in that situation.
"You should graduate."
When I was voicing my decision to leave university, everyone had a mouthful of advice. “You’ll regret it when you’re older”, they said. “It’s important to have a degree, you’ll be eligible for better jobs and higher pay”.
My best friends didn’t say that. They knew I didn’t want a good job. I didn’t look forward to climbing the corporate ladder, in which owning a degree of any kind would be very useful.
Why bother being eligible for something I don’t even want to be doing?
I don’t regret my decision. I’m self-employed, and no one has asked me for a degree, ever. At the same time, many of my friends with university degrees are unemployed. A lot of my friends with degrees and jobs are still unhappy, and live only for the weekend and The Vacation. What a horrible way to grow old.
"You should start your own business."
Sometimes good advice comes at the wrong moment. While I was working at an agency, I was constantly asked why I don’t have my own business instead. (Of course, it’s the people who never owned a business that asked this question.)
People think owning a business equals more money, and don't see any of the drawbacks (you pay your own health care, taxes, vacation time, and actually spend only a fraction of your time doing creative work).
Owning a business means being responsible for a lot of things your employer used to take care of. You have to go out and find new clients. You have to make sure to add up all taxes and expenses on top of your hourly rate to make up prices that support you. If you have a slow month, your paycheck takes a hit.
It’s hard, and at the time I wasn’t ready for that. I wanted to enjoy a carefree life and having a reliable income every month, go to festivals and concerts, and buy anything I wanted.
Since I became a freelancer, my life has been very different, and I had to give up many things I used to take for granted – things that those folks who advised me to become self-employed will never have to give up.
It’s very easy to say things like that when it’s not your money on the line.
"You should become a tattoo artist."
There was a friend who was really pushy about the idea of me becoming a tattoo artist. He offered me to practice on his skin and threw all this information and videos at me without pausing to ask if it was something I was interested in.
I thought about this when I was younger and had a passion for body modification, since being a tattoo artist sounds like a badass job. But when I considered it more seriously, I realized I’d hate it.
The thought of doing my work around people every day, all day long sounds horrible. There would be people walking into my shop all the time asking for a quote. There would be smelly people, obnoxious people, ignorant people... (if you don’t believe that, you should talk to a few body modification artists).
And the reason I’d hate this job the most is that the majority of people would show up with a picture they've found on the internet, and I’d be spending most of my time copying other people’s stuff instead of drawing my own things.
If this guy knew me well, he’d have known how important my own ideas are to my work, and how I actually love working alone. He'd be aware this advice goes against everything I want.
"You should sell physical products."
Another friend suggested I should use my drawings for products like clocks, bags, boxes etc. and that I could even make them myself using a technique like decoupage.
My answer was that I don’t want to spend my time manufacturing things and then attending fairs to sell them, or listing on various sites, packing, shipping etc... It’s not fun and I’d rather have someone else do that for me. That’s why I’m using printing services such as Society6, where I supply the artwork, and they do the rest for me.
I’ve tried making prints myself, but I could never get the same quality for a good price in local shops, and I don’t have money to invest in a new expensive printer right now.
I enjoy painting, drawing, crafting unique jewelry, sewing... new and original things. Whenever I have to repeat the same thing twice, I lose interest.
Leaving an agency job just to get into a different set of repeated tasks every day in order to barely make a fraction of what I used to earn... Yeah, not really what I want from my life.
"You should take this management position."
I was offered a position that seemed like a step up from what I've been doing at the time to become an art director in an agency. When I read the job description I realized that’s actually the opposite of my goals. My job would be to oversee the work of several junior designers, and be the bridge between them and clients.
I never wanted to be a manager, I want to be a creator. I want to be making amazing stuff, not telling other people what to do.
I’m sure there are people who would tell me it was crazy to turn down such an opportunity, but those people don't know me. (Did you notice there's a theme to this?)
"You should get into [this niche] because there's good money to be made."
I occasionally take a side gig that is way different than what you might expect because I have an opening in my schedule, I could use the money, and the person offering the job is an acquaintance.
I got this gig which was nice and quick. The client then approached me with the idea that I get into this field and start doing jobs like this regularly. When people come at me so openly willing to help, I don't have the heart to just stop them right there and tell them I'm not interested.
[This niche] is not something I want to be doing the majority of my time. It's not something I want to be known for. It's not something I'd even put in my portfolio because gah, boring.
In each and every case I’ve described, the person giving the career advice was coming from their own experience, and genuinely thought it was a great career choice. When someone is coming from their experience, they have great conviction, and if you're feeling a little shaky, you might actually listen to them. Be careful not to fall into this trap.
People don't know you
They don't know your goals, values or preferences. They don't know what pushed you out of the regular job workforce to do your own thing.
They don't know you're actually dreaming of taking your career in a completely different direction, and that their well-meaning advice will take you away from it, not toward it.
Who can blame them? I don’t.
I don't tell people about my dreams. I don't plaster them all over my Facebook wall and speak about them to anyone who will listen. People wouldn't understand anyway, and I want to save myself from heartbreak of seeing their blank and suspicious faces, or worse, being outright told it's a dumb idea that won't work.
When they give me advice, I smile and thank them, and shove it straight into the drawer labeled "Not in a million years".
I wish I could be more honest, but this is where I'm currently at. Maybe this time next year, I will write about my big dreams on this very blog.
Or maybe by then, some of them will have come true. Who knows?