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In Pursuit of Art…and a Career that Pays

Kurt Vonnegut. Robert Frost. Charles Ives. These individuals, as well as many others, are remembered for their creative, thought-provoking art—things that we find beautiful even when we don’t understand them, sentences and measures and designs that haunt us, pieces of art that inform us while making us inquire about the world around us. These people had a creative genius that many of us only dream about.

But how did they do it—on a practical level, I mean? It turns out that some of the greatest creative and artistic figures—including Vonnegut, Frost, and Ives—had day jobs to support themselves. Though we remember them for their literary, artistic, and musical achievements, many of these individuals spent the majority of their time as tutors, insurance brokers, doctors, and plumbers.

It turns out that there’s a lot we can learn from these creative minds as we balance what we do during the day with some of the achievements we may aspire toward—the ones that we can’t be sure will ever make us any money. Here are a few tips in balancing your full-time position with other things you feel called to do.

Understand that Your Day Job Is an Opportunity

Your nine-to-five job might not be your dream job; in fact, you may have secured it just so that you could support yourself while pursuing your real passions on the side.

“Some of the greatest creative and artistic figures had day jobs to support themselves. ”

But frankly, sitting at a desk wishing you were somewhere else is a waste of life. You will be unhappy for 40+ hours per week and you will be passing up a great opportunity to really take ownership and influence culture through your full-time position. Whether you are in project management, event planning, or computer programming, you have the chance to shape the world for the better in a way that you never dreamed of.

Or perhaps the challenges and victories that you face at work will inform your creative pursuits. Poet William Carlos Williams said of his medical practice, “One occupation complements the other, they are two parts of a whole, it is not two jobs at all, one rests the man when the other fatigues him.” Composer Charles Ives’s position as an insurance clerk brought him the satisfaction of contributing to society outside the world of music—in addition to calming his mind and making it easier to compose during the off-hours. Wallace Stevens’ daily walks to and from his insurance firm were inspiration for his poetry.

If you really dislike your current job, there’s always the opportunity to move on and find a job that is more fulfilling. Perhaps you will be able to support yourself solely on your creative pursuits one day. In the meantime, look at your need to make money as just one more way to learn from and influence the world around you.

Be Committed and Focused

The tortured artist. The misunderstood poet. The moody composer. Many great minds sacrificed relationships and even happiness itself in pursuit of their work.

You don’t have to do that necessarily, but you should be aware of what you want to sacrifice to pursue a serious hobby or side profession. In high school, I could imagine myself as a writer, scholar, editor, singer, equestrian, backpacker, mountain biker… all while making a six-figure salary and having time for the people that mattered.

Realistically, there was potential for me to excel in all of those things, and there still is (minus the athletic pursuits, perhaps!). As I made my way through college and entered my early twenties, however, I realize that I had to make choices—choices that allowed me to realize some of my dreams and forced me to forget about others. These choices weren’t even always conscious decisions. The extracurriculars, the internships, the friends I hung out with—they all informed what I would achieve on a professional and personal level.

According to Malcom Gladwell’s book, “Outliers,” it takes 10,000 hours to really master something. To put that in perspective, that’s five years’ worth of full-time work, as there are 2,080 hours in a work year (assuming a 40-hour work week with weekends off).

Given that, if you are really serious about becoming exceptionally good at something, and perhaps even pursuing it as a second vocation, you are going to have to pick one thing and focus on it—especially when you don’t feel like focusing. Personally, I have realized that my commitment to my community and my personal well-being come before my desire to achieve perfection in any profession.

The fact that most of us have multiple passions and areas of creative potential is a huge gift, even though it might seem overwhelming at times. Of course, the reality that we have to make money to support ourselves often only complicates our desire to cultivate and contribute our artistic inclinations. But with the right attitude toward our day job and a healthy expectation of what we should accomplish outside of our full-time work, we can seize an opportunity to engage the world from many different angles—often, more than we could have imagined.

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