Busting the myth of magical support for authors and artists
I’ve lived most of my life believing that love conquers all. Along with it came a related belief that if you just do what you love, everything will work out fine – or in a more popular phrasing, do what you love and the money will follow. Putting this into practice has been a grand experiment of 30 years, and now, looking back, I have to tell you I was wrong. Following your heart has nothing at all to do with money and having the means to continue doing what you love. The six-figure new-age money gurus who blithely tell you to just raise your frequency and trust that ‘things will just work out’ are peddling a dangerous half-truth that can sink your chances of truly living your passions and doing more of what you love. So if you are sacrificing dearly for your passions in the blind faith that the promised miracle of abundant sustenance is just around the corner, do yourself a favour and give this article a few minutes of your time. It may save you much heartache in future and give you a sporting chance of actually succeeding.
The trouble starts here
The popularity of the message that money follows passion can at least partially be traced back to Marsha Sinetar’s 1987 book Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow. She asserts that anyone with a talent needs to express this talent and can find a way to make it pay for itself. Beyond the catchiness of the book’s title, she quickly goes on to state that making the money flow is going to take dedication and a serious commitment to personal and professional growth. The money doesn’t just flow. But that’s not what we remember — what we hold onto is the belief that if we just follow our hearts and keep our vibrations high, we’ll be looked after.
At the heart of this is a new-age, law-of-attraction notion that there is a God or an underlying Universal system of fairness that will reward us for good deeds and right beliefs. It promises a heaven in exchange for our love and faith. It’s a seductive notion because it contains a partial truth — that love and goodness do indeed make for a more satisfying life in terms of relationships, personal growth, opportunities and general peace of mind. But in specific, they have very little to do with actual bankable rewards. It’s all too obvious that good people regularly get screwed by the system while money flows generously into the pockets of criminals. The universe is not inherently good or fair, at least not in the way we understand it to be.
But, you might argue, it still feels right that doing what one loves should bring with it the means for its own sustenance, otherwise, why would we be born with these talents and earnest desires? Surely, we must be meant to follow our hearts and do what we love and are good at. After all, didn’t the great Steve Jobs in that now-famous Stanford commencement lecture tell graduating students to follow their passions?
Well, let me offer two pieces of evidence against this.
Firstly, exhibit A: Sarah, a 23-year-old woman who absolutely loves being a mother to her one-year-old son. She feels born for the job of being a mother and a perfect marriage partner. Problem is, her douchebag partner has hit a run and left her to bring up the child on her own. Now she can’t finish her studies but must get a part-time job, which leads to frustration, resentment and stress as she battles to make rent and be the good mother she has the ability and desire to be. If it were true that doing what you love and are good at leads to wealth, then the Universe would be throwing money at Sarah and the millions of others just like her who have followed their hearts and had children and then found themselves alone. But last I heard, single parents aren’t finding random wodges of cash left for them in cookie jars and postboxes.
Exhibit B: Vincent van Gogh. Now here was a guy who followed his passion for art and yet died poor, having sold only one painting in his whole life. Was he crap at art? Clearly not. He gave the world incredible beauty and showed us how to look at ordinary subjects with wonder. And yet the Universe, God, whatever you call it, made no effort to throw money or opportunities at him so he could continue his work. I call this whole issue the Van Gogh paradox — the problem where people are given a fantastic talent that benefits the world but are not given the means or opportunities to continue offering that talent. The answer is what I’m working through here, and it’s got something to do with the fact that art, love, passion and talent are simply not enough. They’re only half what it takes to bring something of value into this world and keep on doing it while staying relatively sane, sober and solvent.
Your reason for being
So let’s talk about that missing piece of the puzzle.
And for that, I’ll refer to a neat framework that helped me really get the link between money, work and passion. It’s called ikigai, a Japanese concept meaning ‘a reason for being’.
The ikigai proposes four domains of action that combine to create a fulfilling life — doing what you’re good at, doing what you love, doing what the world needs, and doing what you can be paid for. Each of these domains intersects with its nearest neighbours, giving rise to four types of work: passion, mission, job and profession.
The relevant point to notice here is that passion — the ‘love’ work we are meant to follow — is the intersection between ‘What you’re good at’ and ‘What you love’. There’s absolutely nothing in there about money. If you want money, look at the bottom half and the areas that intersect with ‘What you can be paid for’. This means, at the very least, having a profession, a job or a profitable business. Even better is to find that mystical centre point — the ikigai itself — where you are doing what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs and what you can get paid for.
The problem comes in when the creative person gets so fired up by their passion and talent that they assume that this is what they are meant to do with their lives and that it’s all they’re meant to do. And it’s not their fault, because the psychological drive to develop a talent and fulfil a passionate vision is so strong it easily eclipses the other elements of the equation. This need to self-actualise through creative expression takes a huge investment of time and energy, and there’s not much left over for earning the money to make this possible. And that’s where we are left with what seems like the only way forward, which is to take a leap of faith and trust that if we just do what we love, the money will follow.
But mostly, it doesn’t.
It took me 10 years of disappointment and frustration to learn this about my life coaching work. I set out, like so many bright-eyed new coaches, with the absolute conviction that the world would be a better place if everyone got coaching and learned to overcome their negative beliefs and be more awesome. When the flow of coaching work dwindled to a mere trickle after a few years I had to face the hard truth that love, passion and skill weren’t enough – I had to make the coaching more of a business. And that meant spending more time on marketing and learning business skills than on coaching, and that was the point where I lost my mojo.
I thought it was just me who couldn’t make it by passion and talent alone but the more I studied successful coaches the more I realised that everyone was having to face the same truth, which is that coaching is marketing. If you don’t love marketing and business and can’t learn it fast enough, your brilliance is not going to be seen. But the catch for many is that if you’re using all available time to market while still holding down a day job, you’re not going to have time left for coaching or doing that thing you’re really magic at. The same goes for entrepreneurs who invent world-saving widgets – at some point, they have to switch from being inventors to being marketers and then to being fundraisers and members of boards. And not everybody has the heart for that.
Now some of you might be yelping and pointing out all the successful artists, entertainers and authors who are making pots of money doing what they love, but that’s actually very rare.
- Publishing authority Jane Friedman (author of The Business of Being a Writer) states that the majority of authors don’t earn a living from book sales alone. The rest is made up of side-hustles, part-time work and even full-time jobs.
- Here’s another very sobering article on author earnings, beginning with a finding from the New York Times that 98% of books released by publishers in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies: Writing books is not really a good idea.
- Similar daunting statistics hold true for anyone in the music profession, the visual arts, acting and even entrepreneurship (65% of businesses fail in the first 10 years).
Where to from here?
So that’s the hard, cold reality of living the creative life. It would all be very depressing if it weren’t for the fact that there is some light at the end of the tunnel. You see, I still believe that you should follow your heart and do more of what you love. The catch, though, is that you’ve got to view ‘doing what you love’ as a curriculum rather than as a neat promise of eventual wealth. The curriculum is that of the Hero’s Journey, a path of learning, compassion, courage, surrender, sacrifice, faith, determination and wisdom. The end result is self-actualization and self-realization. This may or may not involve wealth, and in a good many cases, the absence of wealth might be the very catalyst one needs to reach the next level of understanding and self-mastery.
If this is what you are after, then you have no choice but to follow your heart and do more of what you love. So let me share four guidelines or principles that you might find helpful along the way.
1. Embrace complexity
We need to acknowledge that life is complex and that any life rules or pithy motivational lines are likely to be both true and untrue at the same time. For starters, the advice to ‘do what you love and the money will follow’ does have a layer of truth to it. It is true that you should do more of what you love because when you do what you love you feel better and have more energy and enthusiasm. This better feeling and higher energy state may make you a whole lot nicer person, and nicer people do tend to be given more opportunities than horrible people. So you may end up having more money by doing what you love. The other side of this is the truth that doing what you love has nothing to do with earning money unless it specifically does have something to do with it. If you’re great at business, love business and have a product that everyone wants, you’ll make money. But for the rest of us, what we love might have little to do with money and might actually end up costing us a packet. So we need to deal with this complexity and face up to it like adults. Begin by doing a serious reflection on your passions and talents and assess what potential they have for earning.
2. Reconcile with the facts of existence
Part of a mature creative’s life purpose is to bravely reconcile with facts of existence. The facts of existence are about your circumstances, education, available funds, political situation, economy and what the world will pay for. If you want to be a world-champion tiddlywinks player and earn a fortune from it, this perhaps isn’t the planet for you. That’s just a fact of existence. Or if you want to write novels but you’re a single mom with a stressful job, and bills coming in that you can’t pay, that’s going to be a very hard dream to fulfil. Not impossible, just damn difficult. If your country suddenly gets bombed by its neighbour and you have to go out and fight, it’s going to be very difficult to maintain your status as national barista champion. Basically, shit happens, and sometimes your deepest and most noble desires are not going to be supported by your circumstances. You have to just deal with this and look at what you can do, not at what you can’t do. The flow of your creative spirit will be available in every situation. Your life purpose is often not what you think it is – it might simply be in how you face the facts of your existence. Maybe your art will be in life, not on a canvas.
3. It’s not one thing (most of the time)
The ikigai diagram has this nice, neat centre point where you’re doing what you’re good at and love and where you’re also getting paid for and making the world a better place. Now there are some people who manage to have that all sorted out into one fabulous occupation, but they’re not the ones likely to be reading an article like this. Most of us are saddled with more complexity and have talents, passions and earning potentials that cannot be brought together in a single occupation. The work for us is to separate out the passion skills from the money skills so we can make a living that supports our art. Don’t burden your novels or artworks with the duty of making money to live on – that’s not what they’re there for unless you’re skilled at writing to market and have a savvy business idea of what kind of writing or art sells really well. The advice here is to see which of the things you are good at can be modified so they reach a paying audience. For writers, you could consider copywriting or editing. Many artists do graphic design. Or you may have some bankable skill that’s completely unrelated to your art. If it can make money in an ethical way that is good for the world, go for it. If you have to prostitute your talents for money to support your true calling, then find a way to make peace with this. Accept the sacrifices required to do what is of most value. Let whatever is in the way of your calling become the way.
4. Redefine success and life purpose
Expand your concept of success so it encompasses living a balanced life of love and work, gain and sacrifice. Don’t model yourself on people like Van Gogh and Mozart. Their brilliance was limited to one small part of their lives. Rather make your life the work of art and embrace the complexity of being human where great works can be destroyed in seconds and most people are idiots who won’t pay for what’s truly good for them. This is just how it is. Do your work of brilliance anyway, and do the other crappy work that enables those moments of brilliance. You will change the world just by being one of those who labours at an art like the alchemists turning lead into gold. You are refining your soul and that will change the world.
And finally … follow your heart
Ultimately, if you are called by the heart, then you will have no choice but to follow it. Do what you love and the love will follow. So live with as much love and passion as you can, meet each moment with courage and be compassionate with yourself in the ups and downs of your journey. This will add up to a conscious, creative and unassumingly heroic life that will fulfil your true purpose for being here, even if it is not quite what you imagined.
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