The 11 "Commandments" of a Sustainable Creative Career

Each spring around graduation time, I am cornered by the anxious parents of highly creative kids. Their innovative offspring are graduating from high school, college, or art school and simply don’t have a clue about jobs, career prospects, who to talk to, or what to do next.

Generally, the inventive young folks seem pretty relaxed about their future. But appearances are deceptive. The cool hauteur is usually a mask for considerable youthful insecurity. They need and want specific guidance — not a lot of pious platitudes.

Their worldly parents, however, are often on the verge of a major meltdown. These worries are grounded in reality, but it is an old and increasingly obsolete reality. The economy is simply becoming a lot more hospitable to highly skilled, creative people.

The following observations are the products of much personal experience — some painful, some exhilarating. But most of all, they come from the careful observation of literally hundreds of creative people in many domains of creative endeavor.

My purpose in compiling this list is to help young people employ their talents to benefit both society and themselves. I hope the following will be a practical help in navigating the ever-mercurial creative marketplace.

The list is long and involved and requires real effort on the reader’s part. But it might very well spell the difference between success or failure in an emerging creative career.

Also, my voice shifts casually between talking to the parent and talking to the young adult. I did this on purpose — I want you to read and discuss the points together!

  1. There are no “Creative Commandments.” But there are mindsets, behaviors, skills, and role models that can enhance your chances of earning a reasonable living and finding a place for yourself in the brutally competitive creative economy. Go to the bottom of this column for a list of superb books that you should at least peruse. (Links to have been provided.)
  2. If you choose to “follow your bliss,” use common sense! Most of the blissed-out creative types that I have come across are broke, bewildered, and many times married and divorced. Bliss is a great way to choose a hobby, but not a great way to strategize a career. The gist of the matter is serving other people for money — not finding personal nirvana.
  3. Extroverts/optimists tend to thrive in American society; introverts/pessimists tend to have a fairly miserable time. But even if you are a born wallflower or have a pronounced dark side, you must learn to schmooze, i.e., make charming small talk. Basically, it is just a matter of practice and attending an improv workshop or two. If you take a sincere interest in other people’s stories and become a good listener, you can function socially. The other viable alternative is to get an agent or a socially adept mate, if the opportunity presents itself.
  4. Drugs and alcohol are no-nos. Although I was no fan of Nancy Reagan, she had a point with her “Just Say No” campaign. Dopers and drunks can be moderately amusing in small doses, but for the most part, they are pathetic and incorrigible. Even if they somehow manage to function on a high level professionally, the people around them usually suffer a lot. Learn to manage stress, depression, and anxiety in a more healthful manner. The Jackson Pollock–Ernest Hemingway–Edgar Allan Poe–Sylvia Plath–Britney Spears–Judy Garland lifestyle can be terribly painful and lonely.
  5. Say YES to broccoli and a brisk walk. It is often hard for young, time-pressured creative arts and design students to make time to eat sensibly and to exercise. The youthful body can function at a high level of sexuality, energy, and mental acuity with a doughnut, a cup of coffee, and a few Tic Tacs, but only for a few years. After the big 3-0, muscle tone, immunity, and looks go to hell fast without a balanced diet and regular exercise. So start a healthy regime in your early 20s.
  6. The slogan “The MFA is the new MBA” is the new BS. I am shocked that a guy as smart and decent as Dan Pink would coin such a misguided phrase. (It is the new "follow your bliss" for the new millennium.) The MFA permits you to stand in line for largely nonexistent tenure-track teaching jobs and to wait tables at trendy restaurants. There are circumstances that warrant the investment of time and effort in a graduate fine arts education, but proceed with great caution. Caveat emptor — let the buyer beware!
  7. Pay yourself first. Uncle Sam has finally done something that actually helps creative people of all ages and incomes. It is the IRA (individual retirement account, and various other tax-deferred saving schemes). It will literally keep you out of poverty in your later years. Check out the three books on personal finance on my suggested reading list at the bottom of this column or contact any large mutual fund company. Basically, the program is a snap — just take the first dime of every dollar you earn and save it. If you start in your 20s, you will develop a humongous nest egg by the time you are in your 60s!
  8. Own the roof over your head. I personally know at least six artists with real estate holdings of well over $1 million with next to no mortgages in Maine, Philly, and New York City. They do not have MBAs or any particular gift for financial speculation. They simply bought homes and studios in rundown but interesting cities in the early 1970s and made them beautiful with their sweat equity. None of us mere mortals knows the future of the housing market, but you will always need a place to live and work. If you can swing it, buy and rehabilitate a house or loft in an emerging neighborhood in a creative city that smart, young people (like yourself) would favor. The key point is to hold it for decades without trying to “flip it” for a fast buck. Time is on your side!
  9. Big success happens in big cities, but saner and more community-oriented creative lives are cultivated in smaller metro regions. If you want to hit it big in almost any creative endeavor, you must move to New York City or Los Angeles and join the Darwinian fight of the fittest and luckiest. It is just how the creative marketplace is structured; there is no getting around it. But if you are into friends, family, neighborhood, and letting your creative gifts unfold in a more relaxed way, a smaller and more laid-back metro area fits the bill. These regional hotspots have a lot going for them, and I suspect they will really blossom creatively over the next 20 years.
  10. If you want to be truly productive and fulfilled, find and unite with your soul mate. This is easier said than done, although two people can live more cheaply and more efficiently together than as two one-person households. Also, the emotional and financial wreckage associated with divorce severely saps the creative life for those of us who are not world-class dramatists. If one is not really the marrying kind — too independent and professionally focused — then be the “fascinating” aunt, uncle, or godparent. There are lots of ways under the sun to creatively express and receive love. The crucial thing is to truly connect with loved ones and make ties that bind. That is what any life, including the creative one, is ultimately about.
  11. I saved the most important “commandment” for last: GET A MENTOR. This indispensable and influential person will professionally groom you and help open doors for you. Every creative field has its hidden signals, rules, and power brokers. Without a trusted guide, a young creative person is essentially lost and can only move forward by trial and error (mostly the latter). Most long-term creative careers have a “defining moment” that happens between the ages of 20 and 27. Do yourself a favor and read the mentor section in The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Success by Achieving More with Less by Richard Koch.

Here are some links to books that can help you craft a sustainable creative career. Good luck!

The three most important books on the emerging creative economy:

The Creative Economy: How People Make Money from Ideas by John Howkins

A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age by Daniel Pink

The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life by Richard Florida

Three classic books on career strategies:

The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Success by Achieving More with Less by Richard Koch

Zen and the Art of Making a Living: A Practical Guide to Creative Career Design by Laurence Boldt

What Color Is Your Parachute? 2007: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers by Richard Bolles

My three favorite books on personal finance and investing:

The Four Pillars of Investing: Lessons for Building a Winning Portfolio by William Bernstein

A Random Walk Down Wall Street: The Time-Tested Strategy for Successful Investing, Ninth Edition by Burton Malkiel

The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know about America’s Economic Future by Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns

My favorite book on coping with stress:

Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn

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