The 3 Things You Need To Know Before You Quit Your Day Job…

In Jan of 2008 I left my last ever regular job (rock climbing instructor – not kidding), screwed my courage to the sticking place, and began making my way as an independent artist.

I made art, and I put it out into the world.  I played live, and worked hard to find my community.  I tried a great many things; succeeding in some and failing miserably in others.  When I stumbled or fell (which was often) I got up, did my best to extract whatever learning I could from the misstep, and kept moving forward.

Over time, inching ever onward like a pathologically relentless turtle, and in amongst the constant hustle of making sure I had enough money to: eat, pay rent, and do other human things, I slowly, slowly, slowly learned how better to do this crazy job.

Recently I went for coffee with a friend who is thinking of making the leap into this kind of life and, during our conversation, she asked: ‘What are the most important things to know if you actually want to make a living from this?’

So I told her.

I told her the 3 things you have to be very clear on if you want to be a working independent artist in the world.

Afterwords, I realized that this was advice that would have saved me a lot of time and pain when I was starting out.  So I wrote it down for you.

Fair warning.  These 3 things may seem blindingly obvious, and/or kind of trivial at first glance but do not underestimate their power.  In my experience they are absolute principles of inviolate truth to which every single successful independent artist in the world adheres.

Ready?

#1 -To be a successful independent artist you must be regularly creating and finishing pieces of art that have value to the world.

Many artists make a lot of art but hardly ever finish things.  Which is totally fine if you are Arting as a hobby; but which is not fine at all if you want to do it professionally.

If your dream is to make records you must be making and finishing records.  If your dream is to write a film you must be writing and finishing screenplays.  If you want to be a professional novelist you must be finishing and submitting manuscripts.

Inspiration without execution and completion is basically worthless.

Furthermore: in order to work, the things that you are making must be of real value to the world.  This can be a very sticky area of discussion, primarily because the surest enemy of anything great is Ego.

The fact that you made it doesn’t automatically mean that it is of any value at all.  I have heard it said that ‘the greater part of any success is understanding what the world wants from you – and not the other way around’…

…and with this I do not disagree.

2 – To be a successful independent artist you must understand (and to some degree master) the art of business.

There is no getting around this.  Being a successful independent artist requires an understanding of business; which at it’s fundamental level, is really an understanding of how to facilitate a basic exchange of value (i.e. arrange things so that people can, and do, give you money for whatever it is you are making.)

Do not subscribe to the egregiously seductive ‘Field of Dreams’ fallacy that: ‘all you have to do is make something amazing and the world will beat a path to your door’.  For this is the most flagrant of bullshittery.

Yes, you must make the best thing you can make, but you must also do the work to bring it to people.  It is not enough to kill the bull, you must also carry it back to the village before anyone can eat. (There is a reason that the people who created the beautiful story that is ‘Field of Dreams’ also chose to employ a massive world-wide marketing campaign…)

And do not get this twisted.  Business and entrepreneurship is as much a skill and art as: playing your instrument / writing / or performing brain surgery.  And I think we can all agree that, when it comes to things like brain surgery…

…it’s best to know what you are doing before you pick up the knife.

3 – To make this work you have to work really, really hard.  In fact, you have to work at least twice as hard as you would in any other ‘regular job’.

If you want to be a successful independent artist you will have to take on the equivalent workload of (at least) 2 full time jobs.  You must be able to: devote yourself to your art full-time, whilst simultaneously building and running a successful business around it (a business which, by the way, will have exactly the same challenges as any other full-time entrepreneurial startup.)

So here (as the bard would say) is the rub.  The real reason that there aren’t more successful independent artists in the world isn’t that you have to be ultra-lucky, it isn’t that you have to be born a genius talent under a special star, and it isn’t that you need enough resources to rival Scrooge McDuck.

It is that: you have to work like an absolute motherfucker.

This is both: the Iron Price, and the Bottom Line.

These three things are the barriers of entry into this vocation.  The time to check whether these boxes are ticked would be before you make your run.  Honest self-evaluation may be tough but, if you can, it is infinitely more helpful to check your parachute before you actually leave the plane.

I wrote this because, at the end of the day, if you honestly have the fire then nothing is going to stop you from trying (and nor should it.)  And good information can make the difference between: trying and failing, and trying and succeeding.

I hope you found something of value here.  If you have any questions the comments box is just below.

Art well, and be cool to one another.

Adios.


Did you like this?

If you enjoyed this you may also like: my post about how my blog gained more than 15’000 followers in less than 3 years, my essay concerning the greatest book of advice ever written, or the post which reveals the real (and Taboo) secret behind my success.


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73 Comments

  1. Oh heavens–I really needed to read this today, because I am one of those people with half finished paintings and half-finished stories sitting around. I’m working on them now, but you do have to finish them and get them out in the world. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Extremely good advice! The first point was what held me back before. I had so many starts and nothing really finished, so I didn’t even want to think about venturing into the world as someone who was seriously a writer, career wise. Now that I’ve started finishing things, it’s like a constant high, but like you said, so much fucking work, never ends!

    Meno<3

  3. Wonderful post, James, especially the bit about “…and finishing” a work. And I’ve found another definition for the term: Writer’s Block, at least in my case – “bullshittery”!!!

    Will be doing a “dictionary definition” sign of this to stencil on the wall above my desk!!

    “Bullshittery: n. the tendency of an author to blame lack of production on such excuses as ‘writer’s block’

    Calligraphy, I think 😀

    1. Thanks a lot – really glad you like it.
      I know, right? I think a lot of the things that hold people back are simple, but that we sometimes cannot see the woods for the trees (so to speak).
      Writers block is definitely bullshittery 😉
      I am fully in favour of this. It is Radcliffe Approved. And I would love a picture if you do.
      Thanks for reading, and for reaching out. Have a great day, and Work Hard.
      – J

      1. Also – couple of points I can think of from experience … first probably falls under #2 and business relationships. Don’t expect that everyone in business will operate with the same ethics or goodwill as you! Do THOROUGH research on who you collaborate with (no matter how attractive/interesting something may appear) before engaging in work for/with someone. Point #3 … totally agree – that’s where if you have perfectionistic tendencies you need to learn quickly how to delegate what CAN be done by others and also search for people you respect to mentor you when you need guidance so you can use your already-stretched time efficiently.

          1. My pleasure … there’s so much more I could say but best I not procrastinate and get on with creating. 🙂 Have a good night too.

  4. Thank you for laying it out so succinctly. I’m one of those writers walking around with four books in my head that if I don’t follow some of what you say will remain in my head. My blog is fun but not where I want to be artistically. Again thank you for the advice.

  5. Wow! Thanks for the advice James. I’ve been reading a lot about entrepreneurship and totally agree with you. You must figure out what you can offer the world versus what you can get from it. This can be difficult for many people because their mindset is not in the right place. Many people do not even feel worthy or that they have anything of value to give. So, would you agree that there should be a lot of introspection beforehand, so you could get into the right mindset?

    1. You are most welcome, thanks a lot for reading and engaging with it.
      In response to your question, I would say that there should be equal parts introspection and iteration, meaning: you should be trying to make your thing at the same time as figuring out what that is. You cannot learn or get better unless you are physically doing the work.
      Hope that makes sense – let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with.
      Have a good evening,
      – J

      1. Very good answer. Exploration and experimentation is part of the process. I didn’t mean introspection as in sitting there in analysis paralysis. But you have to examine your values, strengths, weakness, and such before just jumping. Otherwise you risk falling for “the next best thing” every time it comes around.

  6. Yeah, finishing your work is pretty important – I’ve got boxes full of unfinished masterpieces. I think being a creative person means recognizing the necessity that you meed to make a lot of crap before you’re able to make stuff that isn’t crap.

  7. Such good advice. So many times people think if they make it the people will come. They forget there is a business side and that it takes a hellcat of a lot of work.

  8. Your first bit of advice is crucial. You can’t sell unfinished work. I finished my first novel but did not find a literary agent or publisher interested in putting it out into the world. I’m hoping that my second novel – completed and undergoing my final revision – is “what the world wants from [me].”

  9. Hi, James! Just wanted to say that. Today’s coffee is a light, sweet and instant one for me! It is yummy! It’s also Halloween. But instead of saying “Boo!”, I’m going all contrary and saying “Yay!” Nice texting to you!

      1. Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh! It’s French Roast Nescafe’ (this explains it…) Between the jonesing and your humor, I’m in a state of giggling hysterics right now! 🙂

          1. Heh-heh-heh-heh! Okay. Try a black coffee with cinnamon and cardamom…. and zehu (that’s it)!

            Second thought, I feel a big, bad “Boo!” coming up! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

  10. Very good post, James. I’ve owned my own consulting/coaching/training businesses for many year and your 3 truths succinctly stated what everyone — including corporate escapees as well as artists – must understand in order to succeed on their own. I would like to add one thing: be aware that many of your most well-meaning friends and family will try to steal your dream! It might be that they are trying to save you the pain of failing — but it is much better for your psyche if they are trying to help you experience of the joy of succeeding!
    I’m curious: did you experience any dream stealers when you made the leap?
    All the best,
    Dr. Geri Puleo

    1. First, thanks a lot for reading this, and for taking the time to leave such a lovely comment – it really means a lot to me.
      In answer to your question, not really. I am very lucky to have people around me who really believe in both who I am, and what I have chosen to do. In fact, now I think of it, I can’t actually remember any one time that someone told me I couldn’t do this.
      This probably makes me very lucky 😉
      Thanks again for your input, let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with.
      Have a good one,
      – J

      1. James – I agree that you have been VERY lucky to be surrounded by such supportive people! I’ve found many people whom I’ve trained and coached who had their dreams “stolen” by well-meaning friends. Because many people so identify their self-worth with what they do professionally, I’ve found that this also changes their relationships with others. It takes a great deal of courage to step out of the box and fully actualize what we know is our true destiny and purpose. Thank you for sharing!
        Dr. Geri Puleo

  11. First, the phrase flagrant bullshittery makes me want to be your friend. (which apparently translates to laughing, a hug and buying you a beverage of your choice.

    Secondly, I now have many questions. But I think I might have to answer them for myself.

    Thank you for sharing. I always love reading your posts. =)

    1. We can totally be friends. I like your translation.
      If you have questions that I can help with, feel free to ask. I am all about the help, and the transparency.
      Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to write,
      – J

      1. Huzzah!
        How many albums did you finish before deciding to make the leap?
        Did you feel at all prepared before you did?
        If you could go back and do it over with the knowledge you have now, would you and if so what would you do differently?
        What is your favorite beverage?
        Do you miss being an instructor?
        Do you still have time to do things you enjoy without hurting your financial situation?

        I could go on, and quite possibly will, but here seems like a good spot to stop for now.

        =)

        1. Zero – I built a studio then saved enough money for a years living expenses. I used that year to record my first album.
          Yes and no. I have been making music for a long time, but I don’t think you ever feel ready, as that would imply an endpoint and the whole point of music is that it’s a process.
          Nothing. I am very happy with where I am now.
          Water. Or coffee.
          I miss teaching the kids club – there were some kids I’d been teaching for 2+ years.
          Sometimes, it can be a tough balance. Luckily, the thing I love to do most is my work.
          – J

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