It’s strange, to be able to recall one tiny snippet of the internet with such detail, but about a year ago, I saw a tweet by one of my favourite writers which broke my heart;
‘Bloggers encouraging us all to quit our day jobs and travel the world need to be stopped’
She didn’t know me, but in a case of ‘if the shoe fits…’ it was as good as a personally-directed slam. It stung both because I knew how much she’d dislike my writing, and also because I just could not understand why she’d ever be against what I regarded as positivity.
The reason it didn’t make sense to me was because I believed there were only two options in life. You do, or you make do. And I never wanted to settle. Living through perpetual rose-tinted glasses, I was always certain that to proclaim yourself an artist, you were required to throw caution to the wind, become the rebel, take risks and be reckless. Then you couldn’t go wrong, and your passion, drive and talent would be the final component to ‘make it happen’. Dropping out of University was my first declaration of independence, the first symbol of my dedication to ARTLIFE, and this spiralled into the extreme when I ran away to New York and made an (albeit pitiful) living off of selling my art and writing.
The bohemian dream, right?
As a writer I live for synonyms and the power of phrasing, and so on paper, it looked glorious. Daily I’d state my title and status aloud and languish in the brief warmth of romanticism it gave me, even reconciling that my impoverished suffering was ‘part of the package’ and would only serve to add context, worth and depth to my creations. But the thing about artistry is, everyone glamorises this Kurt Cobain life of living for the art, but neglects to mention he was working as a janitor to make it happen. A young Kanye West folded sweaters at the GAP to fund his burgeoning music career. Madonna worked at Dunkin Donuts in Times Square.
And there I was, believing I’d made the right and necessary kind of sacrifice, but was now left inspiration-parched and motivation-bereft, having quit my job and university and run half way across the world, only to hold a pen above paper and wonder why this didn’t feel much like living the dream.
Because the truth is, that nagging frustration that spurred me on to continue to take these risks was not drive or dedication at all. It was something far more sinister, a characteristic which I can’t avoid acknowledging stemmed from the instant gratification of today’s cyber world.
Because a virtue I believe I’d lost - perhaps we’ve all lost - to social media, is the true meaning of what it means to earn something. We’re losing the word progress, and instead, we have gained entitlement. We have quite genuinely become a population of Verruca Salt’s, twirling around in Willy Wonka’s factory singing ‘I want the world, I want the whole world…’ because online, the whole world is at our fingertips. We’re becoming prima donna’s. And I was one of those people who wanted it, whilst putting in very little effort to actually earn it, and was getting frustrated when I couldn’t get it. Yet because I’d made such a huge sacrifice for it, I thought I deserved it.
A few days ago I found a vlog of a youtuber explaining why she’d quit her job to ‘follow her dream’ of making a career from her youtube channel. “This life is your incarnation and you get to do what you want with it, so don’t let anybody that you can’t pursue your passions.” She says. “Anyone can work for themselves on the internet, there are no excuses. Laziness is the root of all evil.”
And ironically, she’s right – laziness is the problem, and a key component to the bigger problem of entitlement. But this laziness is the way we’re starting to believe we can get what we want without even trying. The web is the true land of opportunity, and ultimately we’ve become convinced that with the power of the internet, if you want anything enough, not only can you get it, but you deserve it too.
We preach ‘the dream’ of ‘sticking it to the man’ and quitting our jobs to be the bosses of our own destinies. We can blog our thoughts for a living, sell our art on etsy, get paid to travel the world and talk about it online, become popstars from our bedrooms - all incredible opportunities which have risen from social media. But this is a dangerous lifestyle to preach, simply because we love to make it look so simple. We glamorise the story and omit the reality. Just like we love the idea that we can pick up a guitar for the first time and shred greater than Hendrix. That we can quit our boring day jobs in a blaze of glory like Bridget Jones and fall right into a book deal. That we can start a youtube channel and be verified on Twitter within the month.
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘sacrifice for your art’, using it to reinforce the romantic idea we have of an artist, the tormented soul - he who sacrifices normality, defies reality, and produces the divine. But only recently, after coming back miserable from New York, did I discover the source of the phrase, and the truth of the full quote I’d been basing my life’s philosophies on.
It was Oscar Wilde who had said, “The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread, and the highest form of literature, poetry, brings no wealth to the singer. Make some sacrifice for your art and you will be repaid, but ask of art to sacrifice herself for you and a bitter disappointment may come.”
The epiphany hit me like a sledgehammer. I’d gone to New York and asked art to sacrifice herself for me because I believed I’d done enough for her. After quitting my job I never wanted to work again, partly because I wanted to spend my energy focusing on my art, but also secretly because I thought I was better than that, and I’d done enough to prove it.
What I thought I was doing was reclaiming my destiny, standing up like a defiant beacon in a storm, waiting for the universe to spot me, reach down and scoop me up. But that wasn’t the case at all. I had done nothing except thrown my life away and ask Lady Fate to pick up the pieces and assemble it into something rich and beautiful. I wasn’t just deluded, unworthy or naïve – obscured by the smoky veil of romanticism, I’d been a goddamn fool.
And so after three months I returned home, jaded.
I’d sacrificed everything on an ill-informed assumption and it hadn’t worked out. And so a month after that, I did what I said I never would, and started a full-time Proper Job in the city. I felt like such a traitor to myself, but all I could ask myself was what’s the alternative? You tried, and it failed. Plan B is better than no plan.
But my pride still shook her head. Running away had meant a sacrifice of normality, but was coming back to a full time job in an industry sacrificing my artistic integrity? I bet Joan Jett would’ve never had to sign up for Linkedin.
That’s when something really remarkable happened. Working a full-time corporate city job which went against all my fiercely-held morals… was amazing. From day one, the people I met were passionate, inspiring, innovative and driven by love over anything else to make good things happen.
Each conversation was like an individual education, and only then did I realise how thirsty my mind had been this whole time. I’d exiled myself to the dustbowl to face the relentless sun and make my case, and it had bought me to my knees among the sand. But here, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the cool breeze of intellectuality and humility soothed my scorched mind like liquid peace, and all of my internal processes destroyed by the detonation of my ego began to slowly and surely reboot.
And I realised, for the first time in a very long time, I was being taught. After taking control of my own life, I’d been learning from the good and bad of my experiences, but it was just trial and error. I had no-one wiser who could teach me.
Studying at an unfulfilling university then dropping out of said university was the right thing to do, but it had just left me feeling undereducated and uncultured. I’d grown to despise the academia I’d always loved, and felt suffocated within its’ confines. I remember once writing a letter to a professor who’d informed he was disappointed that I was wasting my potential; I resent that you infer I am unintelligent because I do not fit your standard of measurement. I wrote. Maybe my kind of smart is like a cloud, and you’re asking me to try and shove it in a box.
So I’d taken my life in my own hands and sought to educate myself. But I was both student and teacher and you can only do so much work on yourself before you need outside stimulus to further grow. And it was only after my experience of going it alone, expecting it to work out and ending up failing that showed me that. I didn’t deserve it, because I was incomplete and I knew it. Except I thought I was sneaky enough and dedicated enough to hide that from the universe I was pleading my case to.
Now I’m not saying only the educated can be creatively successful, (I live to preach the opposite of that), nor you must stay in a job that you hate, but what I’ve finally learned is that for me: I can’t be inspired unless I’m learning and I’m growing. Perhaps it doesn’t affect my ability to create, but I’ve discovered the key to unlocking and utilising the full potential of my passion, is a beautiful combination of purpose, and progress – something I just could not gain from trying to go it alone.
A part of me still frets that I’ve ‘sold my soul’ or ‘made my choice for good’, and she will never go quiet, because that’s just a part that cares so much about her art, that nothing else will suffice. But choosing an education, choosing a job, choosing industry, does not have to mean you must sacrifice your artistry. It’s not do, or make do like I’d previously thought.
Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her new book ‘Big Magic:Creative Living Beyond Fear’ – ‘The Universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them’, but she also writes ‘Creativity is a path for the brave, yes, but it is not a path for the fearless, and it’s important to recognize the distinction.’ And that sure as hell was news to someone like me.
I’ll never ever regret New York, and besides, that wasn’t the sole reason I went, but the creative lesson I learned there was a small part of a life-changing and profound alteration in the part of my perspective which controls the way I treat the pursuit of my future.
Everything I had done was to follow my dream. But that’s all I was doing. Following what I thought was the right thing to do. And doing that had not only achieved nothing, but without steady income it was actually further away than ever, and my creativity was suffering exponentially under the pressure of my undivided attention. In fact, I wasn’t chasing my destiny or pursuing my calling at all, because I had no plan - I was simply following in the turbulent contrails of that tiny speck of what I wanted, glittering like a pinprick on the horizon, hoping that just by wanting it enough, it would all work out for me.
Only by failing, did I realise that the only way to establish a plan was to learn more, absorb the knowledge and expertise of others and start building a solid foundation for my future under the creative guidance of those with decades more experience and understanding than I. The only way I could stop following my dream and starting pursuing it, was to become wiser in how I was actually going to get it, and deserve it when I did.
And in a secret that totally shocked me, that meant getting a full-time, ‘proper job’ in the creative industry.
Now, I am by no means trying to discourage anyone from choosing the artists’ path. I’d actually recommend it, because you’ll either succeed and be happy, fail and give up (in which case it was never meant for you), or fail and learn the life-changing lesson that I did – there is more than one way to go about getting to the same destination. Indeed, being brave means taking the risk and choosing the alternative path, but having courage is being wise enough about it to ensure that you can’t – and won’t fail, when you do.
Don’t just idle along following what you truly want, pursue it. Hunt it down with ruthless determination, backed by an infallible platoon of wisdom and preparation. Spy your dream through the that long-range sight and align it perfectly in those crosshairs, because otherwise all you’ll ever be doing is chasing after something that will continue to evade you like a game of cat and mouse.
And perhaps then, the universe will look down on your little beacon standing defiantly against the storm, not waiting to be saved, but getting ready to fight, and then, she will scoop you up, because finally, you’ve earned it.
And you know how it works? Because in New York, I could barely find the heart to string a half dozen sentences together. And after my first week of working my new full time job, I’ve just poured over two thousand of them into what I believe is perhaps the greatest thing I’ve ever written.