It seems like every artist, at one time or another, has been told, “Don’t give up your day job”. Sometimes this is good-natured banter, but sometimes, it’s advice delivered with serious intent and genuine concern. I’ve even seen columns and blog posts, aimed at artists, extolling the virtues of remaining in full time, paid employment, doing something else other than your art, while you pursue your creative endeavours out of working hours.
There is no doubt that there are many up-sides to working for a living, to allow you to fund creating the art you love after work. For one thing, you can afford your art materials. Secondly, you won’t starve. Unfortunately, there are also some significant down-sides, so if you intend to take the advice of hanging onto your job, while creating your artistic output whenever else you can, I think you need to take a balanced decision, with open eyes.
If you’re any good at your day job (and you have to be, these days, just to keep it and keep up with everybody else), then you might find that the stresses and strains of the job, the routinely expected unpaid overtime, the weekend interruptions, the endless commuting, the business travel, the expectations of a rapid, sustained working pace and the requirement to churn through a massive work load, ultimately eat into your creative time and energy. They might even eat into your sleeping time. An overtired artist and full time employee is going to struggle to do either very well, over the long term.
If you’re working to support your artistic endeavours and find, instead, that work devours your ability to conduct an artistic creation programme of your own, then work no longer serves your purpose. You need to think about that.
You might think that the odd business trip away from family and domestic duties might give you a little space, time, peace and quiet to create something, or at least write down some ideas, but I recently heard of a poet intending to write while holed up in a hotel room after her meetings, far away, being asked/told, “well, since you’re there, couldn’t you just write your reports in the evening after having dinner with the client?” It’s as if the work of travelling and meeting in that far, distant place was treated as some kind of recreation and that the real business, the day job, had to carry on in the evenings, when normally she would be at home; the assumption being she would have nothing to do in the hotel anyway, so she should be grateful that a considerate boss was making helpful suggestions about how to fight the ennui.
It’s the cost, you see. The firm will, if things go well, reimburse the cost of the ticket, the hotel and meals, so you owe them extra effort for spending all that money on you, or so the orthodox thinking goes. But they’re not spending money on you, they’re doing business in the only way possible and it’s a simple cost of business. They also don’t count the cost to your home life or to your creative programme and endeavours. Your pre-paid art lessons that you will have to miss are simple collateral damage.
This inconsideration to your artistic needs extends to flying. You see them on the plane with their iPads and laptops, wrestling with downloaded reports and spreadsheets. They’re at work even in the air. On a long haul flight, the best thing you can do to prepare yourself for the jet lag and to be fresh for your meetings when you land is to get as much sleep on the plane as you are able to achieve (I speak with some considerable experience, on this matter). But employers make no allowance for jet lag. You are also expected to be in the office when you return, fresh as a daisy, irrespective of travelling around the world and back. Any thoughts you had of some quiet time to write, contemplate or to plan, are out the window. Your coming weekend, back home, will also be spent sleeping, instead of creating, when the jet lag finally bites, making it impossible for you to function.
The working assumption, in regular jobs, is that you have no outside interests beyond the firm and further, that you should have none. You have no need of down time, creative time or family time. You’ve taken a full time salary, so you should be prepared to lay all of those things down and work like the ideal corporate machine. You should also be prepared to eschew the time needed to do domestic chores, run all of those inevitable, but important errands and to carry out basic maintenance on your home and vehicles. All of those things cut into your ability to put in extra effort at the office, don’t they?
This is the black hole of work effort that many full time employees stare into daily. It absorbs every waking moment of your life and many of your sleeping moments, as well. It can never be filled. It has no bottom. It is insatiable. No matter how much effort, energy, time, dedication and personal money you throw into the black hole, it will always want more. It will always forget what you gave yesterday, or last month, or last year. “What have you done for me lately?” It’s an abyss. And when you’re spent, you will be ejected, spat out and left for dead. There is no more juice in you, so the black hole moves on to devour somebody else.
If you are an artist holding down a full time job to fund your own artistic programme, are there any strategies to keep the black hole at bay? Well, there are, but they are not one hundred percent effective and they carry a cost.
The first thing to do is to opt out of the “Always On” mentality. Put the phone on “Do Not Disturb”. Step away from your email at strictly defined times. Make it known that you are unreachable at certain times.
You might have some of those little apps on your iPhone or Android that let you sketch out music, record found sounds, edit some audio, choose colours for your next painting, write synchronised memos back to your PC or even write a chapter or two of your book. Those are great, but unusable if you are constantly interrupted, even at lunch time. They’re all but useless in the car, because you’re driving. You might be able to record audio notes, hands free and even convert them to text, but you still have to edit the stuff when you get home. You might capture a brilliant idea, but you’re also creating work that you wouldn’t have to do at all, if you were at your usual creative place.
In fiercely protecting your commitments to your family, to exercising and keeping your body in good shape, to eating sensibly, to maintaining enough sleep hours and finally, to your creative time, you will lose Brownie points, within your firm. It will be noted that you are not prepared to drop absolutely everything to do the company’s bidding, at any time, any place. You will have been seen as unwilling to fill the black hole. You’re not, therefore, a “team player”.
There will be consequences at progress review time. Forget about advancement and any thoughts of career progression. Creatives, in day jobs, are punished for their “lack of commitment to company” so they find themselves cursed, bypassed, insulted, ostracised, damned and ill treated.
I’ve concluded that most companies completely misunderstand what a valuable resource they have, when a creative, innovative, artistic person takes a day job. The frenzy of the workplace is at odds with the tranquillity and serenity that characterises so many creative people. It’s a clash of cultures. Those that cannot create with the same facility as an artist fill that embarrassing void with noise, clatter, chaos, politics, memos, email missives and general “busy-ness”. That’s why they call it business. It’s a bunch of wild, senseless activity designed more to try to show how valuable these people are than to have an actual value-creating effect. What they are hiding, with the frenzy, is a lack of genuine value-creating skill.
Artists in a day job will find themselves competing with people whose lives and career are the job. These people are willing volunteers to feed the black hole. They have no other aspects to their lives. Their only purpose is to don the ceremonial robes and be lead passively to the altar of self sacrifice. The sad thing is that even these devotees and zealots will one day be disposed of; by the job they made their life. The firm will always look for a better, younger, cheaper, harder working, more willing sacrifice. It always does. The black hole demands unconditional fidelity and loyalty, but exceedingly rarely repays that in kind. The more you feed the black hole, the hungrier it gets.
In most corporate settings, reading, writing, communicating, thinking and creative ideation are not considered to be “real work”. These things are incidental. They are supposed to “just happen”. No specific time is allocated to these tasks. What is never recognised is that the quality of the reading, writing, storytelling, invention and innovation is critical to the firm’s bottom line and further, that artists working in a day job almost always produce the highest quality work of this type.
The work of providing clarity, aesthetic refinements, architecture, planning, design cohesion or of simply simplifying things is real work; far more significant to the firm’s business prospects than the frenzy and the blizzard of emails and PowerPoint decks. These are the things that day job artists produce with facility and alacrity. It’s because artists working in day jobs are so good at doing these things that it seems effortless and therefore worthless. However, to quote James Dyson, “Brilliance is bloody hard work. It isn’t effortless.”
When I worked as a programmer, our product had a serious bug in it. It was intermittent, but when it struck, it could destroy client work irretrievably – work that might have cost thousands to produce. There was no doubt people in the field were encountering the issue and even less doubt that we couldn’t find a way to reproduce the defect in the lab. There was also little doubt that the code in question was mine, so I was tasked with solving the problem urgently. The entire company’s future was riding on it.
I pawed over the reams of source code for days and nights. We didn’t even have a good theory about what was happening or any real clue about where to look, in the thousands of lines of code written. We knew what had been changed in the past six months, but the changes were extensive and a roll back point was hard to determine, since it could have been any of those changes. Eventually, I was in despair. I was tired. I could barely keep my eyes open. My head was pounding. I didn’t know how to solve the problem. Late in the evening, I went to my car to go home. I hadn’t eaten. I was spent. I was beaten.
The MD chased me into the car park explaining, in no uncertain terms, that I was to return to my desk until the issue was solved, or I wouldn’t have a job. I knew that was pointless. I wasn’t going to find the bug that way. Thinking I would probably be fired in the morning, I got into my car and drove home, leaving the MD behind in the car park, open-mouthed. There might not have even been a company next day, if no solution was found. We’d all be out of a job. That thought weighed heavily upon me, that night, and I didn’t really sleep.
In the morning, I took a hot bath, in an attempt to wake me up enough to function. It was then that I had my own personal Eureka moment. The solution came to me. It came out of my poor, overworked subconscious that had been processing the problem all night, while I had tried to sleep. The solution was now so clear and so obvious that I got dressed and drove to the office in a hurry, opened up the source code and typed in the single missing character “D” that was the source of the entire problem. I recompiled it and it worked! The problem was solved.
The point of the story is that the conventional, business approach or staying at the desk, doing the things that were proving utterly ineffective, until a miraculous answer appeared, simply didn’t work. The expectation that the MD had of me as a coding machine was not correct. I wasn’t a machine. I was a creative being. As a creative being, I had to trust my creative powers to do the work. My intuition took the steering wheel, when given the chance, and produced the answer over night. None of that was recognised, of course. The life lesson I learned was that my creative approach was a powerful tool, worth real money to a company.
It seems wrong, to me, that day job artists are disadvantaged for daring to be the way they are, instead of conforming to the desired corporate stereotype. We’re wired for creativity, but in corporate life, which you might rely on to pay your bills, so that you can carry on being creative after hours, you are considered to be a liability to the firm. Why?…because you are not a clone of the conventional image of the perfect corporate worker. I think that ignores and misunderstands the unique and valuable contribution that people with an artistic turn of thinking make in their corporate day jobs every day. We don’t have to feed the black hole to make the company a fortune. It’s shameful that companies have lost the ability to value this diversity.
So, maybe the day job isn’t a good solution for artists. It can take you too far from the things that you are, that are important to you and which are part of the fabric of your very being. You certainly need to consider these issues before you conclude that you prefer working for a living, to being a starving artist.
Too much work and no play do, indeed, make Jack into a very dull boy, but more importantly, it produces sub optimal outcomes. Business does not adequately recognise the value of artists working in their organisations as a day job. Maybe it’s time they did and worked harder to preserve that artistic talent, skill and value, instead of force-fitting every employee into the corporate stereotype and feeding them into the black hole.