When Greatness in Your Art Career Competes with Your Full-time Job

For certain, each of us comes to embrace a career in the arts in a unique way. For some, success seems to come almost too easy, for others achieving financial independence as an artist seems a distant pipe dream.

If you are able to successfully work full-time at your art career, you are to be commended. It is not an easy thing to do in the best economic circumstances, much less the pervasive difficult one we are experiencing now.

For certain, each of us comes to embrace a career in the arts in a unique way. For some, success seems to come almost too easy, for others achieving financial independence as an artist seems a distant pipe dream. There also seems to be no set pattern as to how these differences come about.

Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them. – William Shakespeare

The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.

From my perspective, you could line up the unsigned best works of both the most successful artists and other highly talented ones toiling in obscurity, and neither a majority of collectors nor critics would be able to tell you which work belong to either category. If you buy into that theory, then you also must accept that there are intangible, or extenuating factors that mitigate the outcome.

If you have read my book, How to Profit from the Art Print Market, you know I have studied the careers of successful artists in the art print market for years. A major point of the book was to try and distill some common traits that helped fuel their success. Things that were not in common were subject matter, and while all have undeniable artistic skills; none exhibited talent so rare that their work could not be easily replicated by other talented painters.

You see the same thing in music, too. That is, there are innumerable players who can pick up an instrument and play a song as well as the original artist. Just spend some time on YouTube to see what I mean. There are dozens of unknowns who can play and sound like Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and other iconic guitar players. However, the talent to emulate and replicate is not the same as to create. Therein lies a huge part of the difference between obscurity and success. Other factors, including ambition, timing, geography, and luck often play a part in the equation.

Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls. – Joseph Campbell

Creativity is more than innate talent. Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestselling book, Outliers: The Story of Success, talks about the 10,000 Hour Rule. He gives examples of The Beatles playing eight hours a day in a Hamburg nightclub, or Bill Gates whiling hours upon hours in a computer lab in his early teens, or Tiger Woods on the golf course from a very early age, or some 15-year old violinist appearing on stage at Carnegie Hall. In each of these cases, you find people who have devoted themselves to their passion in ways most of us don’t understand.

The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.

The example of the teen violinist brings to mind this well told joke:

A man on the streets of Manhattan approaches a stranger and asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

The stranger thinks for a moment and replies, “Practice, practice, practice.”

It is agreed then that success comes to those who take their innate talent and work very hard at improving what is already above average at the outset. Basically, combining a great work ethic with talent and desire is the key to climbing to the top of your profession. The reality for most of us is life gets in the way.

Making realistic and unselfish decisions that keep us from pursuing our dreams is not necessarily a bad thing.

The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.

Although we desire to have the success we feel is possible, we find ourselves strapped to some other reality, like having a growing family, or aging parents, or just needing a steady income to maintain a lifestyle wherein we are most comfortable. Or, maybe we just need the assurance of having affordable health care for us or other family members.

There is no shame in accommodating other needs in your life. It is just the way it is for many of us,  including me. It would be fabulous if this blog and a few more books and other projects I have in mind would pay all my bills. In fact, given the time to develop, I know they would. The problem comes from the immediate need for a steady income and good health benefits. I am neither able nor willing to trade those for the chance to grow my business faster.

All you need is ignorance and confidence and the success is sure. – Mark Twain

Often times, the ones who crawl to the top are able to ignore the worries of no health insurance or the fact that there is no guarantee of a check in the bank next week. Do you imagine The Beatles had health insurance while toiling away in Hamburg? I am sure they did not. A risk they took as young healthy men perhaps ignorant of the potential for disaster should a medical calamity come their way.

Gary Vaynerchuk, the social media sensation and bestselling author of Crush It!: Why NOW Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion, a book that offers a primer on how to become successful in your given field using social media as the basis for it, talks about what you need to do to get there when you are already stuck in a full-time job. He looks at a day and says if you are willing to give up the hours from 9 pm to 1 am, you have four hours every day to grow your second business.

I get that idea and resemble the concept. In many ways, it is the business model I have followed for some years. I work during the day and come home to have a meal, walk the dogs, and spend some time with my wife. Then I get to my other job. That is writing blog posts, editing my book, and working on the other projects at the top of my list.

Though your ambitions may be large, to be successful, keep your list short. – Barney Davey

The one thing I have found useful is I keep my list short for those things getting my attention. It is painful to have to let some things go, or to put them off longer than I wish, but it is the only way to move the dial toward completion on those things I have determined to matter the most to me.

That is not to say I don’t have other plans. I have a huge list of things I want to do. But, the reality of being constrained by time forces me to focus on just a few items. I liken it to triage. I work on those things that are both most likely to advance me towards independence and those things that are most easily achievable to do given my limited time to work on them.

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. – Stephen Covey

If you are a painter, it might mean working on those images that you know will get the fastest and best return on your time investment. That is not to deter you from the massive masterpiece lurking in your mind. You should keep sketches and ideas in a log to maintain your interest, but not give in to spending time on such a project at the expense of those things that have a more immediate need for you.

For those who have 12 – 16 hours in a day to work on the things they love to do, you can fit in churning out the work that will pay the bills and still have time to spend on the longer term projects. For the rest of us, we have to learn the patience and humility of biding our time even though we are chomping at the bit to throw ourselves into the projects that we know will propel us to independence and new levels of greatness in our careers.

He who fears being conquered is certain of defeat. – Napoleon Bonaparte

The one thing we cannot do is succumb to fear. We cannot fear failure, or just being mundane. We have to maintain the upbeat attitude that in the long term we will prevail. We have to accept we will get sidetracked, or completely derailed at times.

When we are down, we are not out. It will be in keeping the faith in our ability and creativity and staying in touch with our desire to succeed that will be what pulls us back online, syncs our actions with our goals, and drives us to our ultimate success. There is an oft-used cliche, “What the mind can conceive and believe, the body can achieve.” It applies as much here as in anywhere or in any other way it could be used.

With patience to pace ourselves, we can climb the highest peaks.  Welcome to the journey, I will see you at the top!

The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.


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  1. Barney, this is a great post. You covered a lot of the things that I think about – such as the 10,000 hour rule. I remind myself of this idea when I’m too hard on myself for not being the great writer that I pine to be. (I have about 8,000 more hours to put in!)

    My husband, Drew, and I have a full time art business based on his art. And though he gets to paint every day for a living, he still complains that he doesn’t have the time to paint the masterpieces that he wants to paint for HIM, not for clients! I suppose that’s a common problem for everyone, not just part-time artists!

    Thanks for, once again, writing a post that’s relevant and well thought out.

  2. well said. Having lived my life backward with multiple responsibilities early on, I am now determined to work toward my goals with the courage and focus I probably didn’t have in my youth. So sometimes what seems like a delay in our progress forward might be just the time it takes to get all the pieces into place.

    Thanks so much for reminding me of that with your post.

  3. Thanks to to those who have commented here. There is always more to things than meets the eye. Your insightful comments perfectly add to the gist of the post.

    Most collectors or art buyers haven’t any clue about what it takes for a visual artist to get a solid body of work created and then to market. Sure, they know about the “starving artist” syndrome. What is not apparent to them is the degree of difficulty faced every day by those driven to establish themselves as an artist while balancing the immediate needs to take of themselves and their family.

    I see no point in burdening art buyers with such knowledge about our existence. However, there are good reasons to seek solace, comfort and advice from among our community. The reaction to this post here, on Facebook, Twitter and direct email proves the point to me.

  4. Great article, I like your reference to the Beatles and having health insurance. If I remember right, at the end of the movie To Sir With Love, the students had to sign up for their health card as part of their graduation. This is about the same time the Beatles were emerging. So they probably had government health care. So…maybe they weren’t so concerned because they could walk into a clinic and get care. That style of health care as a U.S. citizen is not for me. But I really like the way you worked it into your article. It certainly something we artists have to be concerned about, if you are not healthy you can’t paint. If you can’t paint you are not going to be healthy.

  5. “better late than never”? to add my 2cents — Barney, you have a full time job?! You do all this on top of a full time job?! I’m going to faint. And thank you so very much. Art Print Issues is a treasure.
    early best wishes for a wildly prosperous New Year,

  6. Barney, you have soo placed things into persective for me! I have a full time job, 2 children & a very understanding & supportive husband…yet, I’m still trying to operate as a full time artist & getting stressed out!!! Thanks for the reality check & focus!

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