Twenty years ago, the idea of working for yourself was more a last resort, and the inclination of the unemployable. In the last few years however, there's more cachet attached to being an “entrepreneur”, “being your own boss”. This is apparently applicable for people of all ages. More patterns—and more examples of this breed—have emerged of people who have all the right qualities, and find success as a self-employed personalities.
Artists are among the oldest kinds of “entrepreneurs.” Unlike a typical entrepreneur today who spends a good amount of energy investigating a venture and then finding or creating the repeatable formula that creates profit, the custom nature of an artist's work process guarantees that there is no one-size-fits-all formula to a career. Materials and media change, ideas are exhausted, new routines are developed and processes updated.
A series of trial-and-error projects for making and selling things eventually becomes the way to conduct business. And a lifestyle comes from it. When I think of how impressive it is when done right, I'm hard-pressed to think of another profession that brings so much care to advancing cultural work, while simultaneously helping an artist to be their authentic self.
Being an artist, however, is not for everyone. It is for a very specific temperament—it's a personality often in opposition to the culture that produced it. Consider that an artist like you typically started out as somebody raised to do as you're told: from being parented to being instructed in school. Then for some of us would come college which, if you concluded with good results, landed you with an opportunity for further conditioning under supervision just so you could put food on your table, “bring home the bacon”.
If everything went according to plan from the kindergarten, this path of around 25 years would culminate in you eventually relying on a system of behaviors, skills, and customs to feed yourself, your habits and your expectations of a future. Any efforts at authenticity or originality were gratuitous at best and essentially pointless otherwise. Unless it somehow served the purpose of this larger plan to be “within the network”.
But an artist, however, divorces herself from that "wheel of fortune" and instead chooses a path with not so many assurances, maybe a faded road map, and a few inspirational anecdotes to begin the journey. And you should wonder (I did) what kind of person is cut out for this? What kind of personality would take on such a trip? More importantly, what kind of person will succeed at this?
As different as lifestyles may seem from the outside, there seem to be a few common themes in comparing the profiles of successful artists to those of successful entrepreneurs who work outside the arts. To get at these ideas it's helpful to ask yourself a few questions:
Are you comfortable being your own boss?
Of course you are, everyone is! Entrepreneurs like the idea of sitting around on a beach with a laptop, telling virtual assistants what to do, while putting in a 4-hour work week and telling Facebook friends about “#livinthelife!”
The truth about being your own boss is a little more complicated. Most people, even the most talented, need a good reason to become a self-starter after spending most of their life being coached into doing new things. They need a reason to get up every day, get over their fears of the unknown, and put in the time to make more work. Every single day your life and your motivation is generated by you—or neglected by you.
Do you have a sense of purpose in making your art?
All the talent in the world will not save you if you have no idea why you're making things. Finding purpose is an every day practice, some days are easier than others. And very often it is up to you to care about your work, when nobody else will or knows how to. You have to find your sources of support and encouragement.
Are you adaptable?
Working as an artist means managing a significantly higher cognitive burden than the typical corporate worker, and about as much (if not more than) a typical entrepreneur. Unlike a typical worker, you are not expected to be a specialist. You have to juggle making art—which has its own separate and expansive cognitive load—with doing the administrative, legal, and promotional activities for your galleries, networks and career.
How good is your family?
The other thing that is crucial to a productive path as an artist — or entrepreneur — or a combination of both, is building a good circle of people with whom you can have the important conversations. This is less about your biological family, and more about the group of people with whom you have cultivated a space for understanding and being understood. There is a considerable amount of searching involved in developing this, both internally to find out what your needs are, and externally to find the people that will share what they have. Often the most natural people to include will be those who value something unique that you have to offer.
Are you prepared to go the distance?
As knowledge becomes more democratized, it is wisdom that still remains elusive and rare. Wisdom remains the product of hard work, diligence, and exceptional curiosity.
As we move from an information economy to an attention economy, it is ultimately the quality of attention—the wisdom within the artist's work product—that will continue to nourish an audience in the long term.
Addressing some of these questions with honesty might help trace Wisdom's moving target, and any artist with sufficient humility and perseverance can only increase the probability of encountering it—and living to tell the tale.