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Why Being An Artist is Uncreative

I received an interesting message from a reader about my How to be Your Own Tiger Mother post.

Ronald asks:

I found myself surprised by the end of the article. I agreed with it all the way until the very end, when you said “that it’s not about picking the most creative field. It’s about being the most creative one in your field.”
To me, that sounds like justifying a less intrinsic life route. That makes me question, are you willing to negotiate your true passions to appease what society tells you? Or were your passions too flimsy to withstand the test of time (it doesn’t matter what your teacher said, if you love art, you love art; that’s the way my experiences have been at least).

My response:

“Creative” fields can be paradoxically uninventive. You might love fashion and want to pursue it… but find that the vast majority of all designers actually copy higher end brands who have done all the creative thinking beforehand. Working in film may seem creative, but chances are, you’ll be executing someone else’s vision down to the letter if you’re not the head honcho. And even if you are at the top, it’s not necessarily “creative” – the nature of creative fields is that they’re still businesses that need to be run profitably, and this means that risk taking if often cast aside in favor of another reality show or formulaic action flick. Yes, you might find smaller opportunities to be creative – a buckle here, a piece of a scene there – or the work fulfilling, but the point I’m trying to make is that the gross distinction between “creative” and “noncreative” fields is somewhat illusory.

For the record, I’m glad I never pursued a fine art degree. Yet, I still love to doodle on my iPad during class. (All the illustrations were drawn in iPad’s ArtStudio and Doodle whilst in computer science class.)

Let me relate a story: a friend of mine once wanted to be a novelist. He majored in literature, worked as a journalist for many years, published a biography, and even obtained a masters in creative writing. Finally, he had a novel he began shopping around with a top agent. The marketing people at publishing houses turned it down, saying it wouldn’t appeal to women (who buy 80% of books). Disillusioned, he got into a top law school and began practicing law, figuring he’d still write on the side. To his surprise, he loved it. It challenged him and fulfilled him. Maybe he’ll write that novel one day, but for now, he’s perfectly happy.

Which is why I don’t believe that just working in the field of your purest creative passion is necessarily the right career choice. I believe that you should always pursue that passion in some form or another, but for many, navigating the networking/marketing/financial realities of a creative field will distract or ruin a perfectly good thing.

And you know what? I’m now working as a web designer. I have freelance work up to the gills, and I love it.

I think my creativity is not in web design (which I don’t plan on doing in 30 years time), but in constructing empty spaces in my life for creative projects to grow. The future is awash in planned uncertainty, and I refuse to compromise on that point.



5 Responses to “Why Being An Artist is Uncreative”

  1. Word. This marriage of practical realities and the creative is the necessary backbone of more practical design disciplines (industrial, interaction design), much of software engineering, and all of entrepreneurship. Each requires operating within pretty incontrovertible constraints; creativity and innovation spring from accepting and uniquely utilizing them.

    Posted by Lia | April 12, 2011, 10:03 am
  2. That is great!.
    Thinking back, I love the day I stood up for myself so that I could read well and use both sides of my brain, my mother was a tiger. A North American version, she used to watch me play doodle with my plasticine when I was 4. She used to scorn me because, I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE HELPING OUT IN THE YARD!
    We were cold all of the time, but I remember being interrupted, exactly at the moment when I was creating a mini computer. It was purple and I had designed it just for the mini company that I had specifically designed when I was a child. I wanted to impress her- but she just wanted for to be a more practical child!

    Thinking back all of these years, I think that I am greatfull. I got into Harvard, I have a job now, I might just get married and never get divorced.

    Thank you
    The misery that is often thrown upon my face will not see me through to the end. But will always leave a lasting memory to play back and learn.

    Posted by ledonmonocoty | April 12, 2011, 10:34 am
  3. I love this! You perfectly captured what I think we all struggle to learn as we graduate college and move through careers. As an English/classical studies double major, it never occurred to me to pursue marketing, but that’s what I’ve fallen into for the past few years. Each new position helps clarify what I like and dislike about the industry and provides more perspective on “what I want to do when I grow up.” If you never take a step back from one passion, how can you discover new ones?

    Posted by Dre | April 12, 2011, 11:59 am

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Lana Lingbo Li

I'm a world traveler / enthusiastic eater who's now blogging and producing videos over at HelloLana.com. Visit me there!

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