Archives for the month of: July, 2015

The genesis of this entry was a simple question:

“Ten years from now, what will I most regret not having started today?”

In order to live well as an artist, the art itself is one part of a far larger context called “your life”.

What about the distorted positive-thinking mythology of the superhuman “genius” overcoming all odds?

That actually makes life harder. Instead of focusing on the positive (and ignoring the other half of reality), the whole picture will show you how to anticipate problems while reaching for success.

Here is an outline for a creative life that goes farther than starvation-wage “survival jobs” and the “work hard, work harder, become a genius, get lucky and strike it rich” idea that so rarely [if ever] works out in the real world.

A person with an entreprenuerial mindset is always looking for new opportunities.

At the core of this mindset is a practical consideration that’s so obvious, it’s hidden from view — much like the sky being so vast above us that we rarely think about it.

1. The 25% Rule

Never allow any one source to provide more than twenty-five percent (25%) of your income.

Immediately you see the mistake that the typical person makes. The typical worker has one client — called “the boss” — and is perpetually scrambling in fear of being fired by The Boss.

By contrast, the entrepreneur thinks about streams of revenue. It’s needlessly risky to allow any one client to control your ability to eat nutritious food and have a decent place to sleep. If you want to ensure that you can survive the next global “Great Recession” in good shape, make sure that you can lose at least two of your largest clients without causing any undue difficulty.

This means that you keep track of your cash flow — how much is coming in and how much flows out.

2. Live far, far below your means.

Who are you trying to impress?

Hopefully, the answer is “nobody. I live for my art.”
Right?

Well, if that’s not your answer, you may have considerations like young children or old parents or other dependents who need your financial help.

They all need to be factored into the basic amount required per month.

Remember above where the “25% Rule” was introduced? This is where it becomes real.

If you can’t live on fifty percent of your current income, you’re over-spending and under-saving.

Note that this is a ratio, not a law of nature. It’s a place to start from — find four sources of revenue, none of which is individually responsible for more than 25% of your income.

From there, you can find more sources. This means that if you have ten clients who bring in steady monthly revenue, you can afford to lose five clients.

This all depends on first knowing how much money you’ve decided that you “need” in order to finance your lifestyle. Look at the basic needs of life and work — not the “need” for a new phone every six months or the desire for fine dining and an evening at the theatre at least three times per week.

What are your bare essentials? This is what you need to know. Food, housing, transportation, utilities, materials, communications. Start from there. When your total income is at least double what you need to survive, you can weather a tough economic time as long as you save and stick to your financial plans.

3. Basic Financial Intelligence

You do know the difference between “gross” and “net”, right?

If not, you need to learn.

Financial intelligence is a survival skill. If you buy a car or mortgage without realizing that those are liabilities (not assets), you quite likely will regret it later. If you don’t know to never invest your retirement savings in the stock market unless you’re willing to lose the money, then you’ll likely die broke.

The world runs on money. I know, all us artists were fed a fine line of bologna as kids, and as adults. A consumerist society demands that we spend more and buy more, and think very little about anything else. You have to fight the urge to impress your friends and feel like a “winner” because you bought the new shiny toys that will become disposable trash in a few months or years.

Much of this knowledge is not taught in school. Find it and learn it.

4. Sources of Income: Skills, Products, Services

“How do I find _four_ sources of income?”, you ask. “It’s hard enough to find one job. Now I need four?!”

First, remember this shift in thinking: revenue streams, not “jobs”.

This is the M-word comes in: Marketing.

Very briefly, you can think of income revenue streams in terms of three categories.

Skills: do you have four skills that you can use to make at least twenty-five percent (25%) of your income? Are you a writer, musician, illustrator, and graphic designer? You can use each skill to generate revenue by creating products and services.

Products: you can create four products to sell. For example: this can mean different types of art, writing a self-published book about art, or using different media to reach different audiences (galleries, blogs, films, etc.).

Services: services here mean expertise that is intangible. Public speaking is a service. Monthly webinar classes are services. Mentoring is a service.

Figure out how you can help people do what they want to do, and you’ll be on track to creating valuable services.

There can be overlap between products and services as well, for example if you give a talk, record it and then sell that as part of a web series on art.

The key underpinning all of this is to do your homework first.

4. Do Your Homework: Research Your Market

Many artists start with a passion and go from there.

The hard truth is that some forms of art are rarely (if ever) profitable. Writing novels, illustrating comic books, and creating fine-art paintings will generally not provide a liveable income in the early years — if ever.

Don’t take anyone’s word for it. Do your own homework. Research your target market.

You may find that some of your work occupies a profitable niche. If you started out writing erotic short stories, you might find that romance novels are massively profitable compared to mainstream fiction. From there, you can research the structure of the romance novel and take a pseudonym for experimentation in that form.

Or you could find that you art is better pursued in the nights and evenings, at which point your life might need a bit of redesign from “starving artist” to “person with a second job that is an avocation and pays in life satisfaction rather than money — for now.”

Tip: Never think of your art as a “hobby”. Hobbyists end up saying things like “life got in the way” and de-prioritizing what they love to do. After survival, make art your top priority if you truly are passionate for it.

One day, if you work on your craft for at least two hours daily, you will find yourself near the top of your field. Why? Because most people are too disorganized to do _anything_ on a regular basis. This is why the average person needs a Boss to tell them what to do.

If you’ll have to spend at least nine hours of every day working for someone, you might as well work for yourself. Learn the skills and be willing to make mistakes. We’re all going to die, sooner than you might think. Life is too short to wait for retirement before pursuing your passions. Start now with a mindset of practical, flexible resilience, and you’ll never regret a single moment for the rest of your days.

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On the Internet, many people seem to take literally the old saying, “sharing is caring”.

The more you share, the more you care.

Online, that can mean essentially anything: from artistic works in progress to prettily filtered selfies to disarmingly candid thoughts and sometimes shockingly personal stories.

Is all this “authenticity” really a good idea in a technological environment where such voluntary disclosure ultimately amounts to self-surveillance?

Sometimes, as a marketing tactic, the “authenticity” ploy works amazingly well. Readers react as if the writer is the star of a reality show, and often chime in with commentary as if the writer’s life were some kind of team sport.

(“Writer” here means anyone posting text and/or imagery to a social networking site. The writer could be a visual designer, sci-fi author, comic book artist or indie filmmaker, for example.)

The main problem with “sharing” is that real authenticity is mostly boring, whereas the fake kind is at the same time compelling and soul-crushingly cynical.

Before you go searching for your “best self” to present to potential new fans, take the following caveats into consideration:

Does anyone really care about your awesomely fascinating life, or would your time be better spent focusing on the art instead?

Oftentimes, self-presentation online has the sense of what some call the Curated Self. As a museum intentionally selects pieces for exhibit on its walls, so do Internet users with varying degrees of care. A rule of thumb might be that with each step away from the work itself, the more likely you are to alienate those who might like your art — but aren’t necessarily so inclined to get to know you as a person.

This is completely fine. If a creative person tries to convert online followers into simulated Internet Friends, it may be time to think twice about why that may be the case.

Is “sharing” an attempt at attaining self-validation or seeking instant popularity?

There is a particular tone that practically bleats, “Hello? I’m here. Please like me!” For an independent artist without specific skills in marketing, it can be difficult to craft a voice that sounds confident without snark or arrogance, and friendly without self-deprecation or appearing overly eager to please.

It can be easy to feel as if social media is a form of competition for “relevance”, where each item has to receive heaps of likes and comments and shares in order for it to be worthwhile at all. This can have the effect of subtly directing the types of items posted, in order to satisfy demand rather than express something real.

Is it ethical to use friends and family members as part of the self-marketing game show called “Your So-Called Life?”

A large contingent of creative Internet users seem to think nothing of sharing information about their friends, family and even young children, almost certainly without prior consent.

Funnily embarrassing anecdotes about your kids are fine at Sunday brunches with other moms who live in the neighborhood. Remember, though, that on the Internet, information never dies, and children have just as much of a right to shape their personal narrative as their parents (and aunts and uncles, etc.) do. The same is true of everyone else in your life who may not want to be used as fodder for gambits toward illusory Internet relevance and popularity.

And yes, quite a few Internet people are creepy weirdos who are using every personal detail as a kind of voyeuristic peep show. If you wouldn’t invite random people to stare into your living room window, why give them the same level of access via Internet for the sake of “building your brand”?

The line between self-expression and self-exploitation can be a tricky tightrope to walk. It only takes one sleepily cringeworthy after-midnight tweet or emotionally overwrought blog post to write something that, once screenshot and saved, can never be unsaid. Share carefully.

Have you ever wondered why creative people always seem to come with the label “crazy” attached?
Isn’t it a little weird how “sanity” seems to entail the bland sameness of conformity to social norms?
Is it possible to for a human mind to be both creative _and_ sane, preferably at the same time?

We can deal with practical considerations first: how to do more creative work in less time.

According to Pareto’s Law or the “80/20” rule, most people obtain eighty percent of their results from twenty percent of their time and effort. I like this idea and have probably mentioned it before. Pareto’s Law (or “Pareto Principle”) describes the amount of “wasted” time that an artist spends daydreaming. Daydreams are the invisible generative work of sketching out new ideas.

That eighty percent also includes time misspent following ineffective advice.

If twenty percent of creativity is visible, how can the other eighty percent be used more effectively?

The Inverse 80/20 Rule

Metacognition means “thinking about thinking”. Someone who designs a school curriculum is thinking _about_ the best way for students to think about a given subject, with the purpose of learning that subject. It may sound confusing because most people rarely question their own ways of doing things. Lack of metacognition may be the largest blind spot slowing your creative development and abilities. Most people blunder about taking advice from authority figures and popular icons rather than learning to evaluate the (possibly flawed) thinking that led to the advice.

Solution: spend eighty percent of your time on the metacognitive skill of learning how to reach better results in the other twenty percent of your time.

Example:
The average writer is often told that to be a better writer requires you to write a certain quota of words per day.

Using a metacognitive approach, you might ask, “instead of just writing more, how do I learn to write better stories?” The task would then be a deliberate, daily study and refinement of the question itself.

Further questions: Do I need to write better stories, or do I need to learn what stories are made of? Are there different types of stories? If so, which types to I want to learn to write? Are there any role models for me to learn from? How do they learn to write? How are those role models similar and different to me in my journey as a writer? How do the parts of their skillsets fit into my approach? If I alter my approach in one way, what effects will that have on my prior ways of doing things?

You will discover masters of the craft. You will find the first principles of your art, and every word you write will stand on that foundation. Look back in a few years and you may no longer recognize those old works as your own.

You may only spend twenty percent of your time writing. Instead of pouring the other eighty percent into the abyss of “consistent hard work”, you can rest assured that every finished piece will echo forward from the greatest sources that you have been able to find.

The real skill development is not the skill itself, but continual improvement of the learning process.

This is true in engineering as well as the arts, and especially in areas where there are no established best practices. Many artistic fields have no obvious blueprint for what’s “good” and how to create works of high quality. You will have to create and continually refine your own set of best practices, and hold yourself to them with each new effort.

Sanity for artists: what your therapist won’t tell you (and why artistry is not a direct route to psychotherapy at all)

In the world of psychotherapy, great emphasis is placed on psychological “abnormality”.

In the non-therapeutic world, the idea of “normal” is a social control tactic used to shame those who deviate from the majority’s consensus on how a “sane” person “should” (or really, _must_) act.

From the time of Sigmund Freud onward (actually, Aristotle), it has become fashionable to psychopathologize creativity as a form of madness. Hollywood further nurtures the “crazy artist” stereotype because it makes for a cheap dramatic thrill and easy comedic punchlines. This closely tracks the fallacy that successful artists and scientists are “geniuses”, and all geniuses are also crazy.

There is some truth to the idea — a disproportionate number of great artists have been manic-depressive (and perhaps some familial association with schizophrenia), for example.

The number of mentally ill artists is miniscule compared to those who simply love art and want to create it.

So how can you keep sane in a world where any hint of being “artsy” will prompt the manipulative idiots in your life to whisper, scream and howl about how “crazy” you must be?

Simple answer: realize that they are simply acting in a normal, socially manipulative way, and that’s how people are when there’s more than one human in a room.

Vital Contact

Artistry — and science, and engineering — often requires turning away from the world for extended periods of time. In order to acquire skill in a domain, this “introversion” must be enacted for hours every day, over a period of years. Some estimate that roughly a decade is required to rise from novice to attain practical mastery.

Psychojargon regards this intensive introversion as a “loss of vital contact will reality”. Expert armchair psychoanalysts (like your parents, perhaps) may mis-diagnose an artist’s mentality as a form of psychosis or dissociative disorder.

Many, perhaps most, creatively successful and prolific people have learned to turn inward. This is often due to some involuntary form of isolation from the outside world in their youth or young adulthood.

“Normal” people find other, more ordinary external stimuli: aimless socializing in desperate need of others’ love and approval; materialistic greed for status objects and money; and normal human obsession for sex and reproduction. Creative people somehow re-route that time and energy into artistic and/or scientific pursuits.

In other words, all successful artists, scientists and engineers are at heart, a bunch of hardcore geeks and nerds.

Social Butterflies and Inner Demons

Collaboration is often essential, yet a supremely well-socialized person will be inevitably be constrained by the collective opinions of those in his or her peer group. It’s harder to be creative when you’re balancing other people’s expectations against your own creative impulses. Creative isolation provides oxygen for the spark of an idea to ignite within a well-prepared mind.

The average person recoils at the prospect of being alone with their own thoughts, in no small part because their own minds are foreign resonance chambers of unfounded fears and imaginary enemies. A creative person, however, can choose not to be self-destructive — the abuse of drugs or other people, for example — in favor of accepting all of those “voices in my head” (although if the voices feel as though they are not yours, please seek professional help). Acceptance frees the mind from self-censorship and internal persecution regarding any strange or unexpected thought. This is a separate skillset that I may tell you more about later.

The Perfect Passion Project

The process of rising to a level of creativity where others care about your work may, paradoxically, require you to stop caring so much about what others think of your work.

Re-route the passion for approval, money and sex into the creation of a world that must first become more than real in your own mind.

A science fiction filmmaker doesn’t stare wishfully at the moon or sit on the couch getting high and drunk with friends while watching movies. The filmmaker spends years working on the skills (perhaps using the “Inverse 80/20 rule” above) to make real his or her own vision of Moon, Mars, Pluto and beyond.

A writer doesn’t fret about not having the “right” friends or sit on dating sites wishing for Prince or Princess Charming to magically appear. The writer learns to build fascinating character relationships and construct story worlds so compelling that the reader will never want to leave.

A visual artist or illustrator doesn’t fall into the typical consumer’s traps. Consumerist traps include trying to find mass-produced beauty in fashion magazines and engaging in the endless fool’s errand of shopping in boutique stores. The artist learns to take even simple objects and discover the perfection of what can be seen within them. This requires a re-wiring of the mind from demanding perfection outside, to creating perfection inside and learning to express it in visual form.

“Perfection” here can be the perfect tension of asymmetry or a marvel of the immaculately grotesque. The work itself does not attempt perfection. Perfectionism is perhaps the only truly debilitating illness to afflict creative people. Perfection here is the embodiment of the question: “how close is this work to the vision that compelled me to create it?” and that is the essence of a lifelong pursuit. Perfection is infinite, in that it always lies one step down the path; at the next step and then the next. This is a life in art. If that is madness, why would anyone settle for the consensual hallucination of creativity-deprived “sanity”?

Further Reading:

1. Bipolar Disorder and Creativity. Written by Neel Burton for Psychology Today.
2. Do Creativity And Schizophrenia Share A Small Genetic Link? Maybe. Written by Angus Chen for NPR.
3. Secrets of the Creative Brain. Written by Nancy C. Andreasen for The Atlantic.