The Debunked Myth of the Starving Artist

We are accustomed to a certain story about artists, one that says they are barely getting by. But Michelangelo did not suffer or starve for his work. A multimillionaire and successful entrepreneur, he was in the words of one journalist a “pivotal figure in the transition of creative geniuses from people regarded, and paid, as craftsmen to people accorded a different level of treatment and compensation.”

It’s a cliche to think of that starving artist and at the same time we also idolize it in an unhealthy way. With online content we love reading our favourite writers, but lament any hint that there should be some sort of monetary exchange for the work. We hunt down “free” ways to get content and lament the fact that they “sold out” as if idealism should be paying the bills for those we look up to.

It’s this type of thinking that Jeff Goins wants to combat in Real Artists Don’t Starve. The thinking that artists don’t charge for their work, and if they do it’s a bad thing.

In this book, I want to offer a very simple but challenging argument: Real artists don’t starve. Making a living off your creative talent has never been easier, and to show you it’s possible I will share examples of well-known artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs who did not have to suffer to create their best work.

Goins isn’t trying to say that artists should be rich and this is the book to help you tap into the untold riches that come from being an artist. He wants artists to be recognized as providing something of value and to help artists realize that they are valuable.

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Goins uses two types of artists throughout his book. The first is the Starving Artist, which represents the faulty thinking that he sees in so many artists. The second is the Thriving Artist, which is the new type of artist he wants to help build with this book.

Before he dives into the big content of the book, Goins introduces us to his New Rules of the Renaissance. These rules are going to form the basis of the chapters that follow.

  1. The Starving Artist believes you must be born an artist. The Thriving Artist knows you must become one.
  2. The Starving Artist strives to be original. The Thriving Artist steals from his influences.
  3. The Starving Artist believes he has enough talent. The Thriving Artist apprentices under a master.
  4. The Starving Artist is stubborn about everything. The Thriving Artist is stubborn about the right things.
  5. The Starving Artist waits to be noticed. The Thriving Artist cultivates patrons.
  6. The Starving Artist believes he can be creative anywhere. The Thriving Artist goes where creative work is already happening.
  7. The Starving Artist always works alone. The Thriving Artist collaborates with others.
  8. The Starving Artist does his work in private. The Thriving Artist practices in public.
  9. The Starving Artist works for free. The Thriving Artist always works for something.
  10. The Starving Artist sells out too soon. The Thriving Artist owns his work.
  11. The Starving Artist masters one craft. The Thriving Artist masters many.
  12. The Starving Artist despises the need for money. The Thriving Artist makes money to make art.

Goins groups these 12 rules into thee major themes he calls mindset, market, and money. These three themes wrap the rules, so we have a book that has three major sections with a few chapters each which represent the rules.

While Goins sticks to more traditional creative pursuits like writing, painting, and sculpture as his examples of art we are all creatives. Programmers are creative, though in today’s climate it’s much easier to put value on code written and thus feel that it’s art worth paying for.

Now, let’s jump in to what the mindset of the thriving artist should be according to Jeff Goins.

The Mindset of a Thriving Artist

We all develop thought patterns and limiting beliefs that prohibit us from being where we want to be in life, and creative work is no exception.

The first thing Goins wants to address is the faulty beliefs that we have about art and being creative. It’s easy to let these limiting beliefs sabotage us as we start to see some success. In The Big Leap, Gay Hendricks calls this tendency to self-sabotage The Upper Limit Problem:

The Upper Limit Problem is our universal human tendency to sabotage ourselves when we have exceeded the artificial upper limit we have placed on ourselves. – The Big Leap

The first trap that we fall into around creativity is that artists are born not made. We fall into this narrative for more than just creative pursuits as we live out the dreams that others have built for us and then as we are to scared to break out of the narrative we are currently living.

Sometimes in life, the script we’re given no longer fits the story we want to live. We realize the rules we were following were assigned by someone who did not have our best interests in mind. And now, we must do something about it.

I’ve felt this as I write about freelance work and then have looked seriously at working more in the productivity space and coaching for someone else as an employee. It has meant some internal rewriting of my scripts and it was a struggle to get to the point where I could talk and write about that without feeling like I was turning my back on everything I ever stood for.

But we can rewrite our narrative at any point and we really don’t have to convince anyone else that it’s a good narrative. We don’t have to convince anyone that we are worthy of it.

That shouldn’t be giving us license to become whatever we want and just feel that the world owes it to us to support us. It should give us freedom to change where we are heading without worrying about letting others down.

Here Goins also looks at the old adage “fake it till you make it” and puts his twist on it.

Eventually, you have to decide who you are. You have to choose your role and own that identity. We don’t fake it till we make it. We believe it till we become it.

He pulls from his own life as he started to say that he was a writer and then started to believe in himself. No one needed to give him permission to be a writer. He needed no external governing body to punch his writer’s card. He needed to believe it and then work on being it.

The second big lie that we tell ourselves when it comes to creative work is that we must be entirely original.

Creativity is not about being original; it’s about learning to rearrange what has already been in a way that brings fresh insight to old material. Innovation is really iteration.

This idea of remixing is something I’ve internalized with my writing. Threading my ideas through the writing of others is writing, showing where they agree with each other, and contradict each other, is being creative.

The best artists steal, but they do so elegantly, borrowing ideas from many sources and arranging them in new and interesting ways. You have to know your craft so well that you can build on the work of your predecessors, adding to the body of existing work.

I’m not the first to say it by far, but we see further today because we stand on the shoulders of those that went before us. We should be leveraging those that went before us instead of trying to forge something entirely new without support of anything.

In fact, knowing what others do so well that you can be indistinguishable from their work is one of the keys to becoming a master. Out of this quest to mimic others your own style emerges as you blend the styles of multiple others and then make your own additions to it.

Out of this idea of copying and remixing an curating being okay, comes the idea that we need to apprentice under a master. Far from what so many portray, it’s a terrible idea to go it alone. Goins will come back to this idea later as he talks about a patron and how useful it is to have one in our creative journey.

Goins presents three things that make a good apprentice.

You are patient, because you realize that though your big moment may not come today, if you put the work in, you will eventually see the results.

and

You persevere, because you know this will not be easy and the odds are stacked against you. But if you keep going, you will outlast the majority who quit at the first few signs of trouble.

and

You are humble, because you know how far you still have to go, and this attitude will earn the attention of masters who will want to invest in you and see you succeed.

In many ways this reminds me of Ryan Holiday in Perennial Seller as he says that the harder we work the luckier we seem to get. The harder we work as an apprentice, the more we get noticed and thus, the more opportunities we get.

We unfortunately call these opportunities “luck” and thus make it out to be some mystical thing that is outside the control of many.

To become a good apprentice Goins says we must first find someone worth our apprenticeship.

The first step in an apprenticeship is to find a master worth studying. When you find such a person, consume as much of their work as possible. Read everything they’ve written, watch everything they do, and buy whatever they might be selling. Your goal is to familiarize yourself with their work.

Note that Goins says we must read everything they’ve written. Traditional apprenticeships are hard to come by in most fields now. They take the form of unpaid internships often, which really is more like slave labour and decreases the likelihood that you’ll get offered a job anyway.

Artists starve because they think they can make it on their own, ignoring the need for a teacher. Thriving Artists, on the other hand, are both humble enough to admit their need and audacious enough to seek it out. Great work is not a result of luck but of a willingness to become an apprentice.

The final stop in our look at the mindset of a thriving artist is stubbornness. This is the ability to keep going through the inevitable rejections that will come our way.

Starving Artists tend to be stubborn about all things. Imagine them slaving away in studios, pumping out piece after piece, growing angrier each time something doesn’t succeed. We say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results, and that’s the Starving Artist mentality embodied. Stubborn to a fault.

In The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, we meet one poet ghost who when confronted with criticism of his first book of poetry, writes more and has it buried with him. In theory the poetry will be only read when people demand he be exhumed so we can get the writing.

We meet this character hundreds of years later, and no one has asked for the work in the coffin. Even the child discovering this fact realizes how faulty the thinking is. This is the perfect example of the mindset that Goins is trying to break us of.

We should be stubborn on our vision, and take correction on the details. Be willing to rework your work to meet the needs of others and keep submitting work to see about getting it picked up.

How an Artist Deals with The Market

Face it, we all need money in some fashion. It’s what gets us the things we need and want. While it shouldn’t be the sole validation marker for our work, it is something that we need to earn to keep our kids in clothes.

Goins starts here by trying to break the assumption that one day we’ll catch a break. Instead he encourages us to cultivate patrons. A patron is someone that believes in our work and is willing to support us in it.

We saw a similar idea in H3 Leadership from the side of the patron as Brad Lomenick encouraged people to share their platform.

Use your platform to help others and put others on it. Loan your power and influence liberally. The more influence and power you have, the more responsibility you have to use it for the betterment of others. – H3 Leadership

Lomenick was encouraging us to be patrons. It’s why I link to the blogs of other people I think do good work. I’m sure it doesn’t bring in huge amounts of traffic to their site, but it will help some people find them and lets me help others get to at least the spot I’m at.

Far from just having one big patron, 100 smaller patrons can help us do great work. Kevin Kelly’s well known essay 1000 True Fans echoes this by saying that if you had 1000 true fans that would purchase everything you made then you’ve got a good business.

But just because we put out some work doesn’t mean that we automatically should be getting patronage. We need to be doing something worth supporting.

One of the ways that we can find a patron is to be where others are that are producing good creative work. Goins calls this The Scene, and encourages us to join the scene.

This is the Rule of the Scene, which says that places and people shape the success of our work far more than we realize. Location is not irrelevant. Place matters. As social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “Creativity is more likely in places where new ideas require less effort to be perceived.”

At least on the surface this feels like the exhortation to move to some place like Franklin Tennessee where so many writers live. Like Goins himself, and Michael Hyatt, and Donald Miller, and Dan Miller and Jeff Brown…

This isn’t exactly what Goins is saying though. He does admit that it might help, but that what he’s really saying is that you need to get on the radar of the influential people in your creative field. By getting to know these influencers, you will get opportunities. I’ve recently seen this in action as I was offered a regular column for a decent publisher via an influencer that I first started interacting with years ago.

The greater access you have to influential people in your field, the further your work will spread. Of course, you have to be good, but being good is not enough. Skill gets you in front of the right people, but network magnifies your reach. Creative success, then, is contingent on your ability to connect well with those who can vouch for your work. It doesn’t take a lot of people—just a few friends, as Hank said. You don’t need an army, but you do need a network.

Goins also gives us permission to create our own scene wherever we are. There are other creatives in your area working towards goals. Start meeting with them regularly and getting advice from each other. You’re creating your own scene which if done well, can help everyone increase their reach.

Along with this is the idea that we should be collaborating with others. This is similar to apprenticeship, in that we’re not going it alone, but different in that we’re not studying under someone. With collaboration we’re working alongside them.

To do this, we have to go back to one of the original things that Goins asked us to do, and break the traditional and false narrative of the lone creative genius.

Most of us prefer the image of the solitary genius alone in his studio, painting a masterpiece. This is what we have been conditioned to picture when we hear the term artist. An artist works alone. Right? But this picture of a man against the world is most often a myth; in fact, it wasn’t even true of Michelangelo, the stereotypical “lone genius.” What drove him was not just collaboration but competition.

Note the word competition there. I go running with a friend, and while I may be faster than him, even running together causes me to work just a bit harder. My running has me going longer than him so we have even split off where I add some distance and then try to catch him before he gets to his car. I’m adding speed at the end of a few hours of running and he is trying not to get caught.

Our collaboration makes us both faster.

Finally, Goins ties up this lone genius idea and the idea of stubbornness into the rule that we should be practicing in public.

We all need our work to resonate with someone; our art needs an audience. The way the Starving Artist attempts this is by working in private, secretly hoping to be discovered some day. She spurns the need for an audience and chooses to suffer for her work instead, holding out for that lucky moment when someone stumbles upon her genius. The Thriving Artist, on the other hand, chooses a different path: she shares her work by practicing in public. Not by being sleazy or self-promotional but by letting people simply watch her work.

For many this is your blog. I’m showing my writing work weekly on my site. If we want to gain influence, we need an audience and practicing in public is how we gain one. Without an audience you can have no impact or influence. Much like that ghost from The Graveyard Book, if we keep all our work to ourselves, no one will ever hear about us.

How Creatives Should Deal with Money

Even outside of creative circles, money is one of the most difficult items to have a discussion about. Yet, if we want to ever turn any part of our creative lives into a business, we have to talk about money.

I did this recently in a request for my writing. I didn’t ask if it paid at all, I asked what their budget was for the content. This took it from the implied thought that it might not be paid to the expectation that of course it would be paid.

I admit, this was the first time I’ve taken that stance with my writing despite having that firmly in place for any development work I’ve done for years. While I was a very comfortable developer, I am still a novice creative in the field of writing as a business.

Few of us, especially when we’re starting out, are comfortable asking for money to do something we enjoy. Creatives, in particular, get in the habit of doing free gigs in hopes of building a portfolio, and the world does little to dissuade us from such madness. We are told to offer our services at no charge in exchange for “exposure” or because “it’s a good opportunity.” But is this really the way to start a career?

Professionals get paid in every field. You must view yourself as a professional though if you want to get paid. A professional is really only someone that gets paid for their work. There is no board that certifies you as now a professional and thus worthy of pay. That’s on you.

Money is part of the process of becoming an artist, if for no other reason than it affirms you are a professional, but the decision to be taken seriously is yours alone. You set the tone for how people will treat you, which means you must believe your work is worth charging for.

So while we must practice in public to build an audience, we must also be very careful about giving all of our work away for free. Seed some with patrons sure, but make sure you’re charging for the value you provide.

I don’t feel that Goins made a clear distinction around when we should charge and when we should be seeding patrons with our work. He could certainly have made that more clear. For me it means I measure the return I get on any writing I don’t do for pay. That meant I cut off almost all guest blogging because when I looked at the numbers, there was little to no return.

Instead I looked at other free content I could produce and getting on podcasts was by far the most valuable to me in terms of sending some traffic back to my site.

Another key to being in the creative game for a long time is owning your work. I’ve seen this a few times with book contracts I’ve been offered. They all had clauses in them that essentially would have prohibited me from continuing to publish almost any content on my site. They all wanted to own my next 5 written books, which meant I would have to submit ideas and then if the publisher didn’t like it, submit another one until I had 5 books from them.

Because I would have no longer owned my creativity I said no to them. I certainly harmed my income levels with those decisions, and possibly my reach, but without ownership over how I publish my thoughts I can’t be a writer.

For any creative, the challenge of earning a living is formidable. We need to sell our work in order to live and eat, but if we sell off everything we create, we can end up starving again. The goal is to not live month to month, but to have enough margin to keep creating. The more you own of your work, the more creative control you have.

Had I signed these contracts, I would have been all but unable to accomplish Goins next call to action of diversifying my portfolio.

Goins starts this by telling us that we need to ignore the often quoted calls to stick with one thing. At least that’s what it seems like when he says:

For the past century, we have been told a story about work that says we must commit to a certain path in life, spend most our career doing that one thing, and not veer too far from our area of focus. This, we think, is what mastery is all about. But is that really what great artists do? Is mastery made of one craft or many?

I don’t think that Goins is saying we don’t niche though. Look at his career. He’s firmly in the market to help creatives do better creative work. He has courses for authors, and books, and a conference. All of these are about writing and doing better creative work.

He clearly has picked a niche, but he isn’t only serving that niche with the written word. This is why diversifying your portfolio is not a call to not pick a niche.

It’s about getting the skills you need to serve your industry well. For me that means not only writing books, but learning to write good marketing copy. Producing a decent podcast, doing video courses to help business owners run a business that matters. All of my work funnels back to my purpose of helping men run a business that matters without destroying the relationships they have. Helping them be good income earners, and good husbands and fathers.

The final Rule of the New Renaissance is a caution. It’s a caution to not let money become the purpose of what you do. Don’t just do more work for the sole purpose of earning more.

Yes, you must make money to make art. But don’t give income too much importance. Just give it its proper place. We need money to keep the lights on and buy supplies, but it’s not everything. As novelist Steven Pressfield wrote, “Money exists, in my world, to buy me another season.” Every season you create instead of scramble to find work is a win, and with time, those seasons add up. The more money you have, the more time you have; and the more time you have, the more art you can make.

Goins says that we may need to have another adjacent job to help finance our creativity. The painter teaches painting on the weekends to finance a week of painting. The writer teaches writing…

This doesn’t mean you’re not successful at your creative work. Falling into that trap is not rewriting your narrative, it’s falling into the prevailing falsehood that you must spend 100% of your time on your own writing to be a “writer”.

Every week you purchase for you to write is a win.

Should I Read Real Artists Don’t Starve?

My biggest issue with Real Artists Don’t Starve is that Goins doesn’t seem to give much guidance on when you should practice in public and seed patrons with your work, and when you should only be working for pay. I think that many a creative falls into a trap of waiting way to long to charge for anything and thus they vastly undervalue their work.

I would have liked to see more prescription around these ideas.

Outside of that, I enjoyed Real Artists Don’t Starve. Goins didn’t just fill pages to hit a count the publisher wanted. He provided a bunch of solid actionable advice for creatives so that they can do their work and get paid for it.

Purchase Real Artists Don’t Starve on Amazon

Photo by: susanbrandstudio

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