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One of my clients, M, had a lot of things going for her.  She was smart, talented, passionate, and naturally curious.

But at the moment, she had a problem: she was very nearly out of money.

M had committed to living a life of passion long ago.  She left a comfortable job, started reading career books and hiring coaches, and figured she’d be on her way to a career she loved in no time.

It was 10 years and many temp jobs later when she joined my No Regrets Career Academy.

When people warn you about “follow your passion” advice, this is the kind of scenario they’re talking about.  As M will tell you, it’s not necessarily fun.

But it also doesn’t mean that passion is unimportant.

As a result of my course, M came to the conclusion that she really wanted to be an artist, utilizing her skills in writing, drawing, music, or performance.

But she worried that kind of career didn’t translate into a livable wage.  She was tired of just scraping by.  And if she didn’t make money soon, she was going to have to move back in with her parents, something she felt would erode her already fragile self-confidence.

What should she do?

The myth of the starving artist

Jon Morrow wrote one of my favorite posts about the crippling beliefs that keep writers (and artists in general) penniless and mired in mediocrity.

But I think the issue is more than just mindset.

Artists, for all their creative abilities, have a hard time imagining their role as anything other than the standard creator.  They’ve been dreaming of becoming the next Picasso or Ansel Adams for a very long time.  They imagine hosting trendy gallery parties while art collectors bang down their door.

The truth is, for most artists, debt collectors are far more likely than art collectors.  There’s just not enough of that dream to go around.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a decent living as an artist.  In fact, one of my favorite roles as a career advisor is helping people expand their sense of the possible.

As a fun exercise, I created 10 possible careers for M utilizing just her visual arts skill set, to include painting, drawing, or photography/film.

Not all of these are unexpected careers for artistic types, but it’s worth noting that some have changed radically in the last few years due to technology.  At least one I just made up (as far as I know).

  1. Graphic facilitator – More and more people have something to say, and they need a visual artist to make it come alive.  Some graphic facilitators attend business meetings and capture the conversation in pictures. Others might work with bloggers or speakers to create a more dynamic video that spreads ideas visually.  Pat Flynn describes low cost ways of getting started as a videoscribe.  I predict this field will grow by leaps and bounds.
  2. Graphic designer – The proliferation of websites and small businesses means there’s a lot of people needing the skills of a designer.  Is the field competitive?  You bet.  Instead of targeting website owners directly, try pitching coders or business card manufacturers.  For example, Moo business cards offer a range of designs from different artists.  You could be one of them.
  3. Book illustrator – Most traditional publishers have a team of illustrators they work with exclusively.  With the explosion of self-published authors, however, this a great time to break into the business and cut out the middle man.  And don’t just think children’s books.  For example, Chris Guillebeau details his experience finding an illustrator for his book The $100 Start-up.
  4. App/game animator – Again, you can either think freelance or getting hired by companies who do this on a large scale.  I’d argue that the former will help lead you to the latter, if that’s your desire.
  5. Mural artist – I came across a mural on a random wall in my neighborhood recently and it reminded me how powerful this art form is transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.  Whether you’re talking nurseries, businesses, or neighborhood revitalization, there’s a lot of potential here.
  6. Travel or adventure photographer – I recently read in a Lindblad Expeditions catalog that they employ a professional photographer for each and every expedition.  This role can work in two ways: either capturing an adventure (so the travelers can be present in the moment), or teaching others how to make the most of their own equipment.  As everyone seems keen to check off their “bucket list” these days, there could be a lot of demand for this kind of service.
  7. Transformation chronicler – Personal development is hot, which means nearly everyone is on a journey to lose weight, learn yoga, declutter their house … you name it.  What better way to help people stay motivated and celebrate the journey than chronicling their progress with pictures or videos along the way?
  8. Data visualization – In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath tell the story of an intern who helped her boss champion the reduction of corporate waste by documenting the different kinds of work gloves purchased.  The average intern would have made a powerpoint slide with the data.  This intern tagged a representative pair with their respective price and piled 424 pairs of gloves into the conference room for the company’s executives.  Find a way to make the abstract concrete, and you could get paid a lot more for your services.
  9. Souvenir maker – Another great mention in The $100 Start-up was Jen Adrion and Omar Noory, designers who wanted a souvenir from their travels.  They had a map made and friends loved it so much, they asked for one too.  Now they create what they call “cartographic goods” and even better, regularly sell out.  Art that creatively captures a place has a market with folks like tourists, expats, diplomats, etc.
  10. Filmmaker – Gone are the days of solely relying on art grants to fund your work.  You could follow in Adam Baker’s footsteps and raise more than $100K on Kickstarter.  Or you could bring a much needed creative edge to the development of corporate or “viral” videos.  You could capture testimonials.  Or create book trailers for authors.  If your head isn’t spinning right now, you’re not thinking hard enough.

Getting creative with your own career

Once you get going, you realize this is just the tip of the iceberg.

You could draw on other passions or strengths, creating a list of 10 creative careers for outdoor enthusiasts, animal lovers, or people with amazing manual dexterity.

But most career changers don’t.

Not because they aren’t creative enough or willing to “think outside the box,” so to speak.

It’s because most career changers are (understandably) scared out of their minds.  Fear focuses on fight or flight, both of which lead you down pretty traditional paths.  It makes you think you have only two choices: either you keep fighting for your original, but relatively narrow dream of becoming a fine artist, or you go back to that hum-drum, stable career you hate.

My job is to help people find another option.  Or another ten options.  Whatever it takes.

M did get her happy ending.  Just in the nick of time, she landed a dream job: writing for a nonprofit children’s hospital.  She gets paid good money and makes the world a better place at the same time.  Once she gets comfortable with the new job, she plans to add a side hustle that actually lets her start saving for the future while continuing to explore her other creative passions.

The best part?  She says her career feels a lot more like playing instead of working. She realized she has the ability to mold and shape it over time.  For an artist, a career can be its own perfect medium.

The No Regrets Career Academy re-opens in just a few weeks.  If you’d like to start playing with your options, I hope you’ll consider joining us.

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23 Responses to 10 Creative Careers to Change the Fortunes of Starving Artists

    • On
    • September 25, 2012 at 11:14 am
    • cheryl
    • Said...

    Concur with your take on visual facilitation and data visualization! In this world of Too Much Information, we are often paralyzed by data and information. The talent of creating a picture out of endless bits and pieces of information carries with it the power of the ancient scribes – to translate and create the story suggested by the numbers, to capture and document decisions, and to align a group around a shared vision…

    • Cheryl,

      Yes! Helping people deal with information overload is a big opportunity for career changers who like that sort of thing. And one of my goals in this post was to show that you don’t necessarily have to be a computer geek to be successful at it. Love your connection with ancient scribes. So true!

    • On
    • September 25, 2012 at 11:51 am
    • Carmelo
    • Said...

    Wow, what a good story. And your list makes one realize that with some brainstorming there are nearly endless ideas for probably most of our interests and talents.

    So, which one did you make up? Was it number 7?

    • Yes, number 7 was my creative contribution to the list. It’s one I’ve recommended to a number of artistically inclined clients because there’s just so many potential variations. Plus, I’d like one myself… :)

    • On
    • September 25, 2012 at 12:01 pm
    • Masha
    • Said...

    Jen, reading this made me feel so inspired and reminded me of how far I’ve come. Many more things are possible than even *I* could imagine… Thanks for sharing this story with the world and helping me tap into a very different, and fun, way of thinking about career and livelihood.

    • Thanks for letting me help you. To say it’s been a pleasure is an understatement. Keep shining!

    • On
    • September 25, 2012 at 2:07 pm
    • Natalie
    • Said...

    Some great ideas here!

    I can really identify with your clients story at the moment – though I do know exactly what I want to do, trouble is I’m having a difficult time figuring out how to translate my dream into a pay check before finances force me back to the corporate world, which I hate.

    I feel like I have a great foundation, with many small successes but I still definitely suffer from Jon’s 2nd crippling belief.

    I definitely understand being creative with my own career, I have narrowed it down, I love love what I do. Now I just have to figure out how to get paid.

    • Yep, getting paid is a necessary and important part of career design. Good luck and don’t be afraid to get help!

  1. Nice story, and who doesn’t love a happy ending! It is so true that passion is only part of what you need to land your dream job – albeit an important part – but your passion needs to intersect with a need in the marketplace as well. I was lucky enough to turn my passion (sewing) into a marketplace opportunity (private sewing lessons) when I left the corporate world.

    Love the creativity in the list of potential options Jen! I also thought about licensing – licensing the use of designs for fabric, wallpapers, etc. Definitely ties into the graphic designer role, but as a freelancer who sells the rights to a design to a company or individual.

    Thanks for the interesting read!

    • Ah yes, licensing is a good addition. Thanks for bringing that up!

  2. You really need to add some “click to tweet” option to highlight these little gems of soundbites I keep finding like the job of an artist is ” transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary”

    Glad M had her happy ending.

    Also, I want to tell people who are afraid to get into graphic design because of all of the competition… especially since the creation of fiverr where people are giving away their souls for $5….. Quality always wins out in the long run. Know your worth and expect to be paid for the value you provide. There are people out there dying for more visionaries like artists!

    • You’re right, I really do need to start using the “click to tweet” option. It’s on the to-do list, but sadly behind lots of other things. :)

      I agree–quality does win. Along with good marketing and outreach. It’s a lot of things. But competition alone shouldn’t scare off the passionate.

  3. What a helpful post – it’s always good to remember that there are myriad ways to make a living from any art. And having had the opportunity to connect with M myself, I have a feeling that, thanks in part to the NRCA, she’s entering a new, richer chapter in her artistic career. :)

    • You of all people know this is my favorite thing to do–imagine possibility. The fact I get paid to do it is still a wonder to me. And yes, watching M’s progression is inspiring, isn’t it? Wait. So is yours! :)

    • On
    • September 26, 2012 at 3:59 pm
    • Janet
    • Said...

    I’ve been a souvenir maker in a previous dayjob! I actually would love to be that in my own terms. I’m still thinking of logistically how to print/sell the products :) i want to break the starving artist myth, for people and especially for myself.

    • You can absolutely do it. Once you figure out what kind of souvenirs you want to make and who you want to sell them to, the rest is really pretty easy. Do it! Your previous experience will be invaluable.

    • On
    • September 26, 2012 at 9:06 pm
    • Marta DeGraw
    • Said...

    What a fantastic story, Jen. I’m always impressed with your ability to brainstorm career ideas as part of your NRCA coaching. The list you provided M is such a great start, and I’m inspired by the options you’ve highlighted that are available to her. And to M: Best wishes as you continue your test drives!

  4. Hey, Jennifer,

    I wrote a similar post for musicians recently. (http://muz4now.com/2012/what-happened-to-selling-my-music/) It also got some good dialogue going. Great to see such a similar conversation going on in the visual art world.

    Great ideas and awesome to connect with your blog.

    Playful blessings,

  5. Pingback: 10 Creative Careers to Change the Fortunes of Starving Artists | Everyday Bright | Stan Stewart's Blog

    • On
    • October 17, 2012 at 3:56 pm
    • Karen
    • Said...

    I love love love what you are doing. Very needed. I hope you are wondrously successful!

    • Thanks, Karen. Please let me know if there are specific topics you’d like to see covered. I can make that happen!

    • On
    • November 29, 2014 at 9:45 am
    • Barbara
    • Said...

    Great ideas, Jen! Funny, I just wrote a post about being an artist/ creative type. Art and photography are my strengths, writing is a constant learning experience. I love that part, though. I was never able to give the arts my full attention until a few years ago. However, having a creative mind can be so helpful in sales and marketing and that is mostly what my ‘real jobs’ were. And, as you point out, the creative fields have increased dramatically thank to technology.
    Great job!

    • Yes, it’s hard to imagine that the “starving artist” stereotype still exists these days. Creativity is the crux of so many jobs these days!