Saturday, December 13, 2014

Should You Bother With A Backup Plan?


This week Sicily and I managed to get ourselves out of the house after dark THREE TIMES. This is huge. Even though darkness comes obscenely early these days, once The Child is home and dinner is done, all I want to do is curl up on the couch and go to sleep.

However, I bought a Living Social deal for a restaurant in Fell's Point back in August, and it was about to expire, plus The Child had a painting in an art exhibit at UMBC, so we went to dinner before the show and then to UMBC.

The Child's piece of art (photographed poorly by me, see above) was based on the work of Tom Scott, and the curator of the Tom Scott exhibit spoke to the assembled group to talk a little about Scott and to give some life advice. Namely, that artists shouldn't plan on making a living from their art and that they need to have a Plan B, and "probably a Plan C."

As he spoke, I got more irritated.

He talked about how it's not possible to live simply these days, but it was easier to live simply back in the 50s and 60s, so artists didn't need as much money to survive. He said that art can be a profitable hobby, and parents should support their kids and let them go to art school if they want to but to make sure that they are prepared to do something else and leave art to the weekends and evenings.

I will concede: very few artists of any stripe will achieve international fame and exorbitant monetary success. An artist who subsists off the proceeds from his or her art (and here I mean painting, writing, music, etc) will generally not live in a mansion and drive a fancy car.

And to this I ask: so what?

So what if you don't have a mansion? So what if your car isn't fancy?

This obsession with gadgetry and new everything and what things look like on the outside (brand-name clothing, etc) are cyanide to anyone with artistic inclinations. The message being delivered by the curator and people of his ilk is this: you have to choose between eating and art. Which is patently untrue.

One of my favorite quotes that I will butcher here and not attribute to anyone because I cannot remember who wrote it (but it's not plagiarism if you make sure to say you didn't write it, yes?): Don't be so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.

If you are an artist, ART. Paint. Write. Make music. Sing your song. Having a Plan B, or god help you, a Plan C, makes it too easy to fall back on that plan. If you are hungry and you are working on it you will succeed. How you measure success is up to you. If you measure it by the size of your house, then perhaps art isn't the right place for you. Maybe you like the IDEA of being an artist, the trappings, more than the act of art.

But if you measure it in terms of granting yourself the freedom to find your voice and express it, or by dedicating yourself to getting better at your art and doing it every day, then toss out the Plan B, and just ART.

This panic over money and the Plan B cushion is why I didn't become a writer when that's what I wanted to be from a very young age. I drank the middle-class Kool-Aid that said I had to have a career and go to college, so I did, and I became a teacher, which I loved, but in the back of my mind was this idea of writing. I am 100% sure that the reason my school got off the ground at all is because a donor backed out at the last minute and I had no money to work with. I had to make it successful because for a time, that was all the money we had coming in. So I put in the work and ended up with a fully accredited, non-profit private school that I built myself from nothing. Had I fallen back on the cushion that a donor would have provided, I am not sure that I would have worked as hard. If I am being honest (which I always try to be).

When Dane died I decided that life is too uncertain to put off doing what I wanted to do. As much as I loved the school, and even though it was beginning to turn a profit in the sense that I could actually give myself a paycheck, it was time to put that work into something for me. Teaching and education is my heart, but writing is my soul. Or vice versa, depending on the day.

There is definitely a certain level of anxiety surrounding the money I am bringing in (or not). But if I am being honest, which I always try to be, there has always been a certain level of anxiety surrounding money for me. So much so that I can remember coming up with a mantra in my mid-twenties self-help period that clearly reflected this anxiety: I have everything I need.

So if I am going to be anxious about money, why not be anxious while doing something I love? Why not finally throw myself into learning more about who I am as a writer? Why not prioritize time over money?

Thankfully, The Child was just as irritated as I was by the curator's speech. She felt like he was saying that art was good, but be okay with spreading yourself thin with a day job. Some would argue that I am handicapping her by encouraging her to throw herself into what she does with no thought of the practical, but to that I will simply say this: she built a house and has given two TEDTalks. She can certainly be as unmotivated as any adolescent, but when she is determined, she is persistent. Persistence is a better Plan B than any day job, and she is working hard to cultivate that (with some "motivational help" from me, I'll warrant).

Final thought is this: if you are prepared to throw yourself into learning and doing and creating, if you are determined and persistent, if you have focused on what's important to you and not followed the sheeple who preach material goods and the almighty dollar, if you have a path that you believe in an are willing to do what it takes to make it work, then a backup plan is unnecessary. Go out and ART.

What do you think? Should you have a backup plan?

Edited to add: I should also say that, after reading this blog again, some might interpret this post as being judgmental of those who take day jobs. This couldn't be farther from the truth; I was one of those people, too. We do what we have to do based on where we are and what we think we can do. There is no shame in providing for yourself and your family. I just hated to hear this guy telling a group of enthusiastic students that they can't be artists as a job. He was killing the dream before they could even dream it. The point is to think differently about what really matters in this life and act on that.


  1. just reading this now. :)

    wow, YES, i totally disagree — especially with the idea that you cannot live simply anymore.

    both of my sons plan on artistic careers and they both know that keeping a low overhead is absolutely key to their life plans. it is NOT impossible to live simply. you DO have to make choices that, perhaps, a lot of people don’t want to make — but that isn’t the same as impossible!

    recently my 18yo said he doesn’t have a plan B because that would mean he was leaving himself an out to not make his plan A happen. it’s A all the way. :)

    i remember a friend in college (8,000 years ago) telling me that her plan was to work “for a few years” and save money and THEN she would pursue her art. well, you can guess what happened. and i think a lot of people go down that path.

    i think it’s a path of accommodation — trying to accommodate what your parents want, what your friends want (for you to have money and go out with them!), what you want to represent on facebook, and so on. it’s very hard to balance a path toward what you want with *also* doing all these other things that impress/comfort other people.

    adam grant interviewed malcolm gladwell and they talked about how one of the big five traits of entrepreneurs is being “disagreeable” — because people who are going to innovate can’t simultaneously desire social approval. you have to be willing to swim against the current.

    since both of my boys are teens now, i have gotten a bit of the reaction “oh but don’t you want them to go to college?!” and “oh but don’t you worry about their future?!” re: their plans. this always surprises me because i cannot possibly be the only person who knows a LOT of people who ended up in careers they didn’t really like (pressured by parents, simply ending up there through inertia, etc.), who pined after the work they really wanted to do (frustrated artists, writers, designers, etc.), and whose biggest regret was not believing in themselves and making different choices.

    even people who make all the “right” choices end up laid off .. sick .. divorced .. and so on. striving for society’s approval doesn’t guarantee anything. whereas pursuing your best life might not get you your fantasy — but at least you know you tried. :)

  2. I LOVE this reply. I think it is all about making choices that support the path you choose and realizing that you may have to say no to some things so you can fully say yes to others.

    The Child has been saying that she is not planning on going to college, and that has been raising some eyebrows. She wants to experience the world and her father dying has shown her like no other experience can that nothing is guaranteed. She may change her mind, and she even says she is keeping her options open.

    I think you have to throw your whole self into doing what you choose to do, no matter what that is. Art contributes just as much to the world as any other field, so why do we discourage our artists.