“Someday I’ll Pursue Higher Things. First, I Make Money.”

Joseph Epstein, in his book Ambition, which I will review tomorrow, writes:

There is a fantasy commonly held by many who have been given a liberal arts education but who lack either the talent or the opportunity to practice any of these arts. It runs something like this: Very well. I will spend the first fifteen or twenty years of my life striving in the canyons of Wall or La Salle streets, or in the law courts, or in the long halls of corporations, and during this time, through concentrated exertions, I will pile up enough money to free myself forever from such grubby pursuits, and devote the remainder of my days to the Higher Things: literature, philosophy, music, beautiful pictures. Alas, it is a fantasy seldom achieved.

Seldom achieved indeed: it’s hard to ever pile up enough money to free oneself entirely, it’s hard to get off the treadmill of a familiar activity, it’s hard to rekindle the Higher Thing passion that burned within long long ago.

Most people who have artistic interests aren’t talented enough to pursue them professionally full-time. So they do banking, consulting, law, medicine, business, and say to themselves, “Someday, once I’m set for life, I’ll do photography full-time.”

This is usually a wise economic call. I don’t look down on the hard headed photography enthusiast who decides to go into consulting since it’s a surer economic bet. I don’t automatically embrace the wannabe actress who blindly “follows her passion,” moves to Los Angeles, spends 10 years waiting tables, and wakes up at age 30 with zero real prospects.

As my friend Penelope Trunk put it in her post titled How to build a career as an artist, the starving artist routine is bullshit. Her points #4 and 5 are “you do not need to quit your day job” and “you are not a better artist if you can do it full time.”

Instead, you should try to find real jobs that allow you to put your artistic talent to use as much as possible, and also set aside time nights and weekends to paint, or write, or whatever.

What’s neat about the internet and blogging is it’s easier than ever to have an outlet to post your creative output and build a following that someday might even support your work full-time.

Bottom Line: If you have a passion for philosophy, literature, music, or photography, but can’t pursue these activities professionally full-time, find a day job for which you draw upon these passions as much as possible. And set aside Saturday mornings for them, too. That faraway day where you will be freed from money concerns and can sit on mountaintops writing romantic fiction will likely never come. But that doesn’t mean you have to drop it altogether.

9 comments on ““Someday I’ll Pursue Higher Things. First, I Make Money.”
  • Another way to look at it is that the emergence of the internet removes the most obvious excuses for not practicing “the Higher Things.” And I’ve encountered more than one person who seems to savor the sense of regret they claim to have. I don’t blame them (individual artistic efforts can be scary), but it’s less than entirely honest.

  • Well said Ben, while it’s true for me that settling is not something I am content with, I have to be realistic about the resources available to me. Do I have enough talent? Do I have enough time? Do I have enough money? These are all important questions to ask before deciding that you are settling. Working a 40 hour work week at a dull job and moonlighting as a piano player at a nice restaurant may not be settling if you don’t have the skills to earn a living as a musician.

  • Thanks for the link to Penelope’s article, that was really good.

    I think what you’re saying about people not having enough talent (usually) is harsh but spot on. Let’s be realistic instead of trying to stroke everyone’s ego, shall we?

    What’s interesting is that I come at it from a different perspective. I don’t work on Wall Street and don’t make a ton of money, but I often wish I did. I tell myself I “should” go into investment banking for a few years just to rake in some dough and then come back to my current life, which allows me to write at work and write at home.

    And yet, here I am. It seems I’m doing fine without the piles of money after all.

  • I have so many thoughts on this one.

    – First, I wouldn’t necessarily call these interests “higher” things – I’d call them passions or interests or preferred vocations. It’s about what you’d like to do vs. what will make money or earn a living.

    – You missed an important element of the fantasy you describe, which is that you may not have the talent or skill required to make a lot of money, and almost certainly lack the passion. People on Wall Street or in consulting or entrepreneurs work long hours, and when I say long hours I mean 80-100 hours a week, and the really big money is NOT guaranteed. The people who do well are those who really love doing THAT, not the ones who wish they could write poetry. It’s hard to make a lot of money, just like it’s hard to write great poetry.

    – There is another fantasy that you should “do what you love and find a way to make a living at it.” This is BS. It only makes sense if what you love doing has a fairly direct relationship to economic value (e.g., selling stuff to people), and furthermore the few economic niches that exist in avocations (e.g., if you love to hike, write guidebooks or design equipment) are quite saturated. Furthermore we all have other considerations – we might love do to X, but also we might want to live in a nice house, or have children and send them to college, and so forth. The two may not be compatible.

    – So in the end it is necessary for most people to compromise, exactly as you suggest. Pick a career that you like and find interesting, but makes sense for your economic objectives. Spend some of your spare time (evenings and weekends) on your passion as an avocation. Don’t wait – do it now.

    – Since we are exposing fantasies, another one is (sometimes) that the thing we “love” doing we would love as a vocational pursuit. This often isn’t true either: if you like to write or paint, you want to get it published or in a gallery, which means selling. If you want to help less fortunate people or the environment or some other cause, you typically have to work in a non-profit where there are horrific politics and never enough money. And even without some of these extraneous factors, doing anything *well* is *hard work* and can sap some of the joy out of just doing it casually.

  • If you are going to be an artist, you need to treat your art as a business venture. Otherwise, you are going to be one of those starving artists we’ve heard so much about.

    Unfortunately, the “treat it like a business” notion seems to be beneath the dignity of a lot of artist. So, they suffer.

  • This is an interesting post by a guy who answers a question about how to be a philosopher and also put food on the table:


    He advises:
    Another idea is to build a slave. You work hard from say ages 20 to 40 at some high-paying job. You live like a monk and save and invest most of what you make. Being married to a high-earner can’t hurt. When your ‘slave’ is good and healthy, you live the life of otium liberale from his return. Few will have the discipline for this approach. And postponing your ‘real life’ until later is obviously risky. But where there is a will there is a way.

  • On the other hand, an awful lot of artists, writers and other creative types who give advice say the opposite: that you should get a day job that is far-removed from whatever creative work you want to do, because otherwise those creative impulses get consumed by the day job, and never make it into an actual original work.

  • You don’t have to compromise on principle and “get a day job” or a “real job”. If every entrepreneur listened to people telling them to “get a real job” we wouldn’t have any entrepreneurs, we would have workforce of government drones. Those willing to compromise their principles end up with a day job and part time pursuits of interest.

    Personally I believe you can make money and pursue your passion at the same time. It is called being entrepreneurial and you succeed by making your own opportunities, setting goals, focusing, working hard and executing.

    The litmus test for “someday I’ll pursue higher goals” could be the test for Dharma. “If you had all the time and all the money in the world what would you be doing?” I suspect most entrepreneurs would answer “what I am doing right now” and those that settled or compromised would be wishing they were doing something else.

    We rarely regret what we DO, near as much as we regret what we wish we had done.

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