Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, the online shoe (and-more-all-the-time) giant, said that if you’re really an entrepreneur, it’s something you know pretty much before you’re 12. You’re out there with the neighborhood lemonade stand, starting up your own dog-walking service, baby sitting, publishing your own newspaper–you know: figuring out ways to make money on your own.
I don’t know if this is true for everyone. I’m kind of the opposite of an entrepreneur, though, and this was the case even when I was a kid–I don’t think I ever earned any money. I didn’t baby sit, I never had a lemonade stand, I didn’t spend my time trying to figure out how to get rich. I spent my time writing stories and poems and trying to figure out how to make stuff out of empty paper towel rolls and pipe cleaners. So, in terms of being a budding entrepreneur, I wasn’t. I was a child slacker, if you look at it like that, way at the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’d like to join me in thinking here of this–artists and entrepreneurs–as one of those: a spectrum with art-makers at one end and business-starters at the other. Nothing is ever all one-or-the-other of course, but let’s entertain the idea for a while.
A pure artist would make art for the sake of making art, and a pure entrepreneur would start a business (or, likely, more than one over the course of a career) purely for the sake of starting and running a successful business. While some people may have the luxury of thinking only about their art, economic reality means that most artists have to slide at least a little toward the other end. How far do you slide? And, more important, why?
Most of the artists I’ve talked to have to think about earning money at what they do. Even the ones who are supported by a partner or by other income want to feel as if their art is successful, and the most common measure of success in our culture is the ability of something to support itself. While there are some people who make art purely for the sake of making art–often people who have a day job and make art in the hours they’re not at that day job–most fall somewhere else on the spectrum. And then there are those who came to art-making purely as a business and have been very successful at what they do. Their very public success has both inspired and intimidated legions of other artists, and that’s what I want to think about here.
If you’re an artist, and if making art is what you do, how important is it to you to also be an entrepreneur? We’re not talking here about being able to sell your work, although that can be a part of it. We’re talking translating your art-making into a career that may include teaching, lecturing, writing, creating online courses, coaching, tutoring and product development (I’d say “developing products,” to keep the structure parallel, but it’s just not the same, is it?). You know, branding yourself. Turning you and your art into a business entity. In our mixed media community, there are people doing all these things, sometimes simultaneously, and often doing them quite well. What does this mean for those of us who don’t? If all we want to do is make what we make and have no interest in writing about what we make or teaching what we make or doing public speaking about what we make–then what? Are we slackers? Are we less successful than those who do all these other things, who have created a business based on what they make?How are we measuring “success” here? We can all think of people who have turned what they do into a business–when you think of what they’ve accomplished, how do you feel about yourself and what you do? Do you feel comfortable in what you’re doing, or do you compare your work with theirs and feel like a failure, at least in part?
What’s important here is not in comparing yourself to anyone else or beating yourself up because you haven’t made a successful career out of what you do. What’s important is to sit down and think about why you do what you do. Do you paint or sculpt or sew or cast because you want to, or do you do it because it seems like a way you could make a living? Both ways are valid. Neither way is better or more valuable or more pure. What matters is getting clear in your own thinking: why do you do what you do? If it’s a combination of things–if you’re somewhere in the middle of that spectrum–that’s fine, too. It’s knowing why you do what you do that lets you figure out what’s important to you and what’s not. That’s the key, and that’s what will allow you to do whatever it is you do and without second-guessing yourself about what you think you *should* be doing.
Ricë also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.
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