Business advice for artsy-fartsy people

Why is it so hard to treat our work with the same professional attitude which seems to come naturally to other careers?

From The War of Art, Steven Pressfield:

A professional recognizes her limitations.

She gets an agent, she gets a lawyer, she gets an accountant. She knows she can only be a professional at one thing. She brings in other pros and treats them with respect.


The business of being a creative professional can be a tricky thing to manage.

For one thing, creative people tend to undervalue our work. A lot. So when people want to pay us nothing but “great exposure” for it, we’re tempted to say yes. Although mostly it just exposes us to more people who’d like to get something of value that costs them nothing.

Somewhat related to this is the idea that if we give the financial side of our work any attention, it will become “work” in the “boring, prosaic daily grind” sense. We fear being concerned with money matters will poison something that brings us joy and delight. We hold so tightly to the idea of doing something “for the love” that we don’t recognize that attitude keeps us stuck in the realm of the amateur, which literally means “for the love.”

(For me in particular, because I write whimsical adventure fantasy, I worry that too much authorial seriousness might infect my stories and drag them down. Which is dumb. I know.)

Another problem is that many of us (particularly writers) tend to not be fabulous with numbers. So we have to be diligent about either forcing ourselves to do the math in regards to payment we’re owed, or getting a someone with good bookkeeping skills whom we trust to do it for us. Creativity is great. “Creative accounting” is not, and usually the artist ends up on the wrong side of it.

(Sneaky secret: I used to work as a bookkeeper, eons ago. Which means I don’t lack the skills, I just DESPISE deploying them with the passion of a thousand fiery suns, even on my own behalf.) 

Finally, many of us grew up being social outcasts. So when we find ourselves achieving any level of acceptance and start making friends, we find it really difficult to make waves in those relationships. When something seems hinky, we don’t push to find out if someone is just having a brain fart or is deliberately being dishonest. Because we’re stuck in the double-bind of “if I try to avoid being taken advantage of, I risk this friendship I value.”

There’s another piece of it, more difficult to wrangle with, where a lot of artists have cultivated a victim mentality. We expect to be taken advantage of, we identify with being mistreated, and we don’t ask the questions we should because deep down, we embrace that narrative for ourselves. We secretly enjoy being beautifully tragic (or tragically beautiful) and are complicit, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unconsciously, in our own betrayal.

(Ugh. Yeah. I was worst about this in my 20s, but I’ll probably always struggle with it. I’ve written about this a lot in the past, since it relates pretty directly to my Enneagram 4 personality type.)

Here are a few things I’m trying to keep in mind lately.

  • True friends can handle your asking an honest question when something doesn’t seem quite right.
  • Honest business people don’t mind when you check their numbers, and if you find an error, they fix it.
  • People who really want to help you grow your career don’t expect you to put in hours of work for a “maybe we’ll pay you someday.”
  • Some people are honest, well-intentioned… and just not good at managing a business. Cut them some slack, but invest your talents wisely and with an eye towards the future return.

The thing is, when you don’t ask the question, you walk around with the niggling anxiety someone might be taking advantage of you. Which sucks. When you ask the question, either you get a satisfactory answer or you get waffling and hand-wringing (which is an equally conclusive answer, in its own way.) Either way, you know where you stand and your mind can be at ease.

When you don’t check the numbers, you can miss out on some pleasant surprises. Or you can miss out on information you could use to make better decisions. It’s information that can help make you more successful as an artist–but not if you don’t have it.

When you say yes to things you don’t really want to do, you might preserve a friendship. But you also lose the opportunity to pursue work you actually do want. You only have so many hours in a day. Ask yourself if you’re really okay with giving them to something which is meaningful to someone else, but not to you. Otherwise, you’re just going to end up resenting them. Which isn’t good for a friendship, either.

Finally, you’ll almost certainly make all these mistakes, if you’re blessed enough to actually have a lengthy creative career. You might make them more than once. It’s all part of the learning process. Just like you aren’t a master of your craft from your first painting or short story attempt, you’re not going to be Trump-level business savvy at the outset, either. Don’t beat yourself up, just try to do better next time.

You’re gonna need that energy you’d spend beating yourself up to finish that next project.

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