Artists and Creatives: Should You Quit Your Day Job?

Most creative people dream of the day they can quit their day job and focus on their real passion. Writers want to write, painters paint, designers design, filmmakers make movies – all full time without having to work somewhere else to pay the bills. You have no idea how often I’ve dreamed of having the financial resources just to write books. But my banker and mortgage company don’t agree. They want me to keep doing my day job as well. But then, I started seeing plenty of evidence that actually keeping your day job can be a positive thing. After all, there’s a significant list of great creative artists who made a conscious decision to keep their regular jobs – even after they were successful at their dream.

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut managed a Saab dealership. Composer Philip Glass was a plumber, furniture mover, and drove a taxi. Poet T.S. Eliot was a banker. Writer Toni Morrison was a magazine editor and mom. The list goes on and on.

The Los Angeles Times reports this list:
William Faulkner worked as the postmaster at the University of Mississippi.
Franz Kafka was a bureaucrat.
Anthony Trollope was a postal surveyor, and it didn’t get in the way of him writing thousands and thousands of pages of fiction.
Charlotte Brontë was a governess. Lucky for us, her resentments surfaced in “Villette” and “Jane Eyre.”
The list goes on and on.

The Park Forum devotional tells the story that William Chatterton Dix was born in Bristol, England, on June 14, 1837. He became the manager of a marine insurance company in Glasgow, Scotland, and although this was his vocation until the end of his life, Dix was also a hymn writer. Over the course of his life, he wrote 40 hymns, including “The Manger Throne,” from which “What Child Is This?” is taken. A brilliant hymn writer – who wrote hymns that people would be singing almost 200 years later, spent his days managing an insurance agency.

The bottom line? Don’t feel undue pressure to make your creative passion pay for itself. Some of our greatest artists throughout history kept their day jobs, and for many, that day job was the catalyst that stoked their creative fire.

What do you think?  Does your day job help or hurt your creative ambitions?

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  1. Interesting point. I too wish I could give up the day job and exclusively write books, but I take heart from the fact that Tolkien was a Professor at Oxford University, as was CS Lewis, and they were responsible for the two greatest fantasy franchises in literary history.

  2. I can look back and see that every day job I have had (well, most) have gained me a skill set that can be applied towards my goals/dreams. However, the days can become years very quickly so don’t loose sight of what you want to achieve by floating through the daily routines that can easily distract.

  3. I may be one of the fortunate few who’s day job IS being creative. I manage the corporate (in-house) media department for an international non-profit organization. Which means I spend my days creating promotional media for our PR and fundraising efforts.

    1. Here’s the question Ken – does working in a creative job during the day wear you out, so the last thing you want to do at night is write or create? Or does a creative job during the day inspire you to work on your “passion” projects on your own time?

      1. Having a creative job can easily wear a creative person out. It takes a serious toll sometimes.
        Unless you’re also your own boss and have worked hard enough to have a steady flow of income. Then you’re on top of the world. Either way, nothing great comes without blood sweat and years.

  4. I am a writer who would love to have a day job! I have earned three college degrees and hope to be able to use at least one of them in a day job someday.
    However, I keep writing, hoping that someone will be interested in what I have written. I have so many rejection letters I could wallpaper a couple of houses, but I am not going to let that stop me from writing.

  5. Phil, I just finished OBT today. Thanks for making every page dense with meaningful material. I really enjoy your writing voice.

    On this subject, the hardest part for me is that my full-time work takes up the time I need to really immerse myself into and to hone my craft. I get up at 4:30 to get in a few hours, but it feels like swimming a few laps instead of a true training regime. Not sure how to breath through that limitation, but I’m going to keep swimming.

    1. First – thanks for the kind words about my book “One Big Thing” – I’m glad you found it helpful!
      Second – you’re right on the time issue. I came into work early like you’re doing and wrote my first two books between 6am and 8am. But for really sustained creative work, I find you need blocks of 4-5 hours. Research supports that. Some people move to a part time schedule, but that’s difficult if you’re the breadwinner.

  6. I have been ruminating over this subject for years asking the wrong question (I am 61 now). I am as artistic as they come. I took one of those tests when I was real young and scored off the charts in being an artistic personality and for me that meant being restless. After all these years, your article continues to strike that chord in my life where I finally have rested in the decision to be happy wherever I land. It was a conscious decision because it caused me to use events to strengthen a resolve, a discipline to persevere, and all the other lofty attributes of what we consider success. That’s really the challenge, not really when I should quit. You will know when the time is right (usually that means when one can afford to, financially, so that you remain a man of integrity taking care of commitments to family and shtuff…) If for a season that means I have to be in an office job—-or a perceived mundane task— it certainly doesn’t mean I am destined to be there forever as if I were serving a life sentence. From my continuing, maturing experience, I tell my daughter now as she considers on making a choice of one thing to do for her livelihood— that she can do all the things that she dreams of doing over the course of her life, just do it well. I was taught in my Asian culture and certainly in todays technology generation and economy, to specialize and focus on what can support your family. I did; and do, and then I do much more than that. It’s the “do” that supports the “much more than that” that will eventually make the latter, if I choose it to be, the last do-over in a life well lived.

    1. Thanks for posting that. I’m a “late bloomer” myself, so I understand exactly what you mean. It’s a challenge as we get older, but I believe it’s never too late. Robert Morse invented the telegraph after a career in painting. Raymond Chandler was a washed up drunk and was fired from Standard Oil in his 50’s, only to become the greatest detective fiction writer in history. But I would say that at your age it’s time to focus. Start taking a few risks and stepping out – even if you have to do it at odd hours, or downtime. Thanks very much for posting.

      1. This is my last comment because I tend to write long treatises. I apologize, but this subject is important for me… (^_^)

        Thank you for replying. And thanks for your encouragement. The advice I give my daughter is from the real life experience of working graveyard shifts, odd hours and downtimes; and in the in-between-times, pursuing a life and love in music – enjoying much success in music, both financially and artistically; yet balancing the reality of the up-and-down income that artists enjoy or endure – thus the day job (teletype operator, an IT computer support analyst job, etc….) Since the subject is “should we quit our day job”, I’m assuming that this “focus” you speak of hints toward quitting ones “day job”?

        I’m saying that’s not always possible and sometimes the grass is not always greener. I imagine some of these famous people you mention came to their creative and artistic pursuits fresher when they weren’t under pressures and deadlines to “pay the rent” for instance from ones skills in those pursuits. I hated playing bars and nightclubs because I needed the money even though I was using my artistic and creative skill. It was immaturity drove me to say, “I’ll do anything to be playing.” I was wrong.

        As late-bloomers we are not only dealing with ageism and economies, but a bell curve that is on the downside with that age (for most people I will say confidently – especially as a music performer). For me, the variety of a day job sometimes is the spice of life. At 61, I now enjoy a career as a voiceover actor where looks and ageism is not a factor and I don’t have to wear skinny jeans in order to stay commercially viable (case in point – Mick Jagger…yikes). Sorry for the long comment. I think I will be like Colonel Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, who made his wealth when he was in his sixties. I wish it could have been sooner. If you wrote your article sooner–maybe I would’ve made it SOONER!!! :>) God Bless you….

        1. Yes – that’s exactly what I mean by a “day job.” In my case, it’s not really a matter of trying to make money with my writing. I’d write for free if I had to (don’t tell my publisher). When it’s a real passion or calling, you just do whatever it takes to make it happen.
          Great thoughts and thanks for posting!

  7. Was fired, actually. This was over twelve years ago, and haven’t looked back. I’m taking work here and there, and finally understanding the path that God has put me on.

    1. I was fired as well! But looking back from 20 years, I can tell you it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m glad you’re understanding the path God has you on, and thanks for posting!

  8. I just got overlooked for a promotion at work and yet my true love isn’t with my day job. It’s with writing! And I did have the position before but got demoted when I couldn’t work with the person I was assisting (I work at a marketing firm). I’m having a bad time about it because I hate being overlooked. The thing is when I did have the position before, I wasn’t able to work on my writing because I came home exhausted. Now, I do have that time and I know things with my writing are improving. That balance is hard though. I’m hoping one day I can transition out of this type of day job and maybe write full time. That’s in the future and I will get there, but I will have days like this when I question whether or not I want the fancy promotion and big title (with same pay and high stress).

    1. Yes – that’s a tough balance for sure. The key is a job where you don’t come home exhausted or depressed. 🙂
      It’s good however to see that your writing is improving! Hang in there and keep us posted on your progress!

  9. My day job drains me and I dream of the day when I can get rid of all of my office clothes and use that space for art supplies. I wake up every morning dreading going to work, while I’m at work I wish I were at home painting. I have to stop painting in the middle of a creative rush to get ready for bed so I can get up on time for my job that I hate, and lay in bed unable to sleep because my job stresses me out so much. Herman Melville worked as a clerk in an office and hated it so much that he was inspired to write Barleby the Scrivener, who just plain out and out refuses to do the B.S. work he’s hired to do. I fear one day I will snap and become Bartleby. I have been selling here and there, but not enough to quit my day job. I also enjoy the benefits (healthcare, dental, insurance). I was hoping and hoping and hoping that once Universal Healthcare was passed I could ditch this job and work full time on my art. Insurance quotes that I have gotten tell me that that’s not going to be possible at this time. Maybe someday… Maybe someday. All that I hope for now is that possibility of working at a job where they treat their employees with a tiny bit of dignity and respect. Until then, I will continue to live my life completely stressed out and hoping to get small bits of joy in the 2 or 3 hours that I can after work.

    1. Sometimes those bits of joy are worth it….
      But your post also reminds me of the saying “Go where you are celebrated, not where you are tolerated.” Changing jobs isn’t always easy, but I would always be polishing my resume and looking for a place that appreciated the gifts you bring to the table.
      Thanks for sharing that!

    2. Dorkus Americanus, I just want you to know that you are not alone. As I read your comments out loud to my husband I was crying with laughter because you sound exactly like me. Absolutely, utterly miserable with my day job, treated beyond poorly, I’m only there for the bennies because I have a family to support. I couldn’t hate my job more, it’s not who I am. Soon I will quit, and like you, I fear it might be because I snap, I’m this close, and I fantasize about just packing up and walking out. I’ve done that once before and it was one of the most liberating moments of my entire life. Somebody once told me he thought artists were misplaced angels, I tend to agree. That said, it makes perfect sense that fitting into this life is difficult for us. We just need to keep striving for what we really believe in, and believe that someday soon happiness will find us.

  10. Phil, this is soooo good! I’m a music producer & musician, and my day job is a senior analyst for a university. Having a day job has allowed me to be able to choose exactly the kind of creative work I want to do, rather than be forced to take any gig just to pay the bills! I think we make the idea of “quitting the day job” way more glamorous than it really is. Thanks for posting this!

  11. …and 20th-Century composer Charles Ives was also an insurance agent. Taught himself music composition at the library in between sales calls. 😉

  12. I am just still figuring out this day job thing as I get bored so easily ….. not even to mention what my “passion” is!! LOL! If you ask me what I want to do with my life, my answer is usually I DON’T KNOW YET and I’m already 37, married and mother of 2. What is my passion? No clue. Once upon a time, many many moons ago I was enrolled as a dance student, doing drama and music as supplementary subjects. I wanted to be a choreographer, having my own studio. All the doors closed after I finished my studies. Started doing the first job I got: admin-office-sitting-at-your-desk-all-day. Doing it eversince….how old was Moses again when he led the Israelites out of Egypt? There’s hope for me and I know there are many people out there feeling just the same….

    1. You’re right Sanet. In my book “One Big Thing” I dedicate an entire chapter to the idea that “It’s not too late to find your one big thing.” The sooner the better (so you can accomplish more) but the truth is, it’s never to late to discover your focus.

      1. Thanks Phil…already decided to get your book first thing end of the month….also thank you so much for you wonderful presentation yesterday at “Community Radio Station of the Year” – remember? I work at Radio Pulpit (Client Services) so thanks again, realy realy realy enjoyed it!

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