On Doing the Work

11/17/14

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I am often asked by people starting out in the business of selling art what are two or three things they can do to begin making an income from their work. Of course, since I wrote a book about making art for a living and offer an online class on it too, I have some opinions about the topic. But the thing that I also want people to know is that, most of the time, even when you are doing all the things I recommend and even when you are doing them well, success and opportunity take time. So in some ways my three pieces of advice are: 1) this could take awhile so get started now (ie: don’t wait!)  2) show up and do the work everyday 3) be patient.

In his new book, Things a Little Bird Told Me, Twitter founder Biz Stone says, “Timing, perseverance and 10 years of really hard work will eventually make you look like an overnight success.” This quote resonated for me, as I am sure it does for a lot of successful people. Before I continue, I want to give a big fat disclaimer here: I am in no way comparing myself to Biz Stone. While I make a steady and respectable income as an artist and work with a great set of clients, I am not a millionaire (or even remotely close), and I have not near the fame or financial success as Biz. What resonated for me is this notion that to people who don’t know me or who have just started following my work, it may appear as though I walked quickly, easily and swiftly into my successful career as an artist. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Recently I wrote this essay in which I spoke about my determination — and how that energy and resolve eventually led to my own tipping point — in which regular opportunities began to flow my way. That tipping point for successful people is often when others begin paying attention, and so it can often look like their success miraculously occurred. Who is this person I am now seeing everywhere on the Internets? He/she must have come out of nowhere! When, in fact, that person has been working hard for years and years to get where they are. Furthermore, those people just starting out (and we were all there once) may then infer that this same “overnight success” (albeit false) can happen for them. Fact is, only a very small portion of the artist population experiences overnight success. It’s so rare that it’s practically non-existent.

What gets artists and writers (and anyone) to success (however you define it) is usually a combination of lots of different factors and strategies, and pretty much always includes showing up and doing the work — all the work, and not just the stuff that’s fun or easy. Whenever I think about this notion of doing the work I think about Cheryl Strayed’s brilliant essay in Dear Sugar/The Rumpus called Write Like a Motherfucker. I’ll leave it to you to read it (and I highly recommend it), but essentially she’s telling a young female aspiring writer that if she wants to get anywhere as a writer she needs to get off her ass and write. To become a good writer, you must write. To become a good painter, you must paint. To become good at selling your work, you must do the work of putting your work into the world — not once or twice, but over and over and over. Success and opportunity never come to those who sit back and wish things were different. They come to those who do stuff.

Not to confuse the issue, but while doing the stuff (the work, the self promotion, all of it) is really important, I also believe that so are more “woo-woo” things like having positive intentions and envisioning yourself being successful. You must believe it’s possible in order to do the work. Simply envisioning yourself being successful without doing the work will get you nowhere. In the end, having positive intentions and showing up and doing the work go hand in hand.

For more nuts and bolts information about making a living from your art, order my book Art, Inc or take my online class Become a Working Artist.

Have a great week, friends!

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