One of the most interesting things about writing this column on Muddy Colors, as well as doing the bootcamps with Drawn + Drafted, and now contributing to Dear AD, is realizing what advice people don't want to believe. I always expect it's going to be the complicated things. Maybe how convoluted accounting departments can be at big companies, or what the proper way to put together a portfolio is, or what the best way to contact an AD is...but it's the simplest advice that gets the most pushback. People have an easier time believing the hard things than the simple things. I think we have a natural tendency to distrust things that a) seem too simple (though I assure you that "simple" rarely means "easy") and b) many of us - artists especially - have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that sounds too much like a self-help platitude.
A good example is the 10,000 Hour Rule. People don't want to believe it's as simple as practice makes perfect, but I've seen it proven over and over again. There's always a new article trying to debunk Malcolm Gladwell's specific version of the 10,000 Hour rule, but forget quibbling over the details and look at the big picture - there's no way to attain mastery other than intense and focused practice of your specific craft. (Which we talked about in my last post as well.)
Then there's the piece of advice I get the MOST pushback on. The deceptively simple phrase "Do What You Love." Artists ask us ADs all the time what work they should do to get hired, what pieces they make for their portfolio, what personal piece they should do, what companies they should submit to, what trends are selling, what art ADs are hiring... and the big answer is sure, be aware of the trends and what companies are looking for, but more importantly Do What You Love. If you do what you love, really commit to it, and study it and research it and practice it, I absolutely believe you will find a career doing it, or something very nearly related that you didn't even know was an option when you set out. If you love drawing monsters, then do it. If you love drawing spaceships, then do it. If you love something completely unique and obscure then absolutely do that thing and do it great, and you will find work.
So, in reality, the title of this article is a false lure. You don't have to choose between making money and what you want to do. If you figure out what it is you love doing (which is your "talent") and then brainstorm and research how you can apply it to real world needs, then you can have both. As Aristotle said:
I say it frequently that I am impressed by and then hire more artists because of their personal projects than anything else. It's because they're passion projects, and passion brings some little bit of magic to a project that you can just feel coming through. And as an AD you say, damn, that's awesome and the person sticks in your head and you keep trying to find ways to get them on a project. Those are the projects that tend to tear up social media and blaze across the internet where everyone sees it, and it collects fans (and ADs) in its wake.
Here's a new venn diagram to add to the bunch cobbled together from a few sources that really nails this point home for me:
"Do What You Love" is really just Joseph Campbell's advice to "Follow Your Bliss". Campbell is one of my favorite thinkers and authors, and I've written about him on MC before. A lot of his ideas have been watered down into cheesy pinterest-ready quote blocks or have been bastardized into things like The Secret, but look back before all the woo-woo that has been layered on top of him and realize that he was a scholar who taught at Sarah Lawrence for over 30 years and he wrote over 25 books, if not more, on comparative mythology. He wasn't some crazy out-there hippie guru.
When asked what the one piece of advice he would give above everything else he said, "Follow your bliss" and in a famous interview series with Bill Moyers he explained further:
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever have the sense of... being helped by hidden hands?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time - namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be.
Look, I'm way too much of a skeptic New Yorker to put up with too much woo-woo craziness, but what Campbell is saying I have absolutely seen proven in my own life again and again. If you follow your passion, really commit to it, then set off on that path, and it soon feels like people and coincidences spring out of the woodwork to help you. That's the "hidden hands" that Moyers is asking about above. And it's absolutely how I am able to get as much done and as many projects off the ground as I do.
Say there's a project you want to do and there's 10 steps. Too many people wait at step 1 and don't start until they have all 10 steps figured out. You'll never get anything done that way. You just have to figure out the first 3 steps, then start. By the time you get to step 3 then 4, 5, & 6 will have laid themselves out for you, and by the time you get to 7 you'll find it took less steps than you thought it would after all and you're at your goal early. Passion attracts people - your love for what your doing will be infectious, and people will go out of their way to help you, to touch a little of the magic you are creating for your project by doing something you love.
So if you're asking me whether to follow what you want to do, or follow what you think is going to sell, then every time I'm going to say work on a project that you really want to do, and then find a way to apply that to what people need and want. That way you will be following your bliss, and the money will be following you. But it takes a lot of trust to get started.
I know it seems too simple, but don't take my word for it. Go find a successful professional artist who has "gotten away with" a career doing what they want most. Ask them how they got there. There's a long list of artists I can think of in this category — one that springs to mind immediately is Mike Mignola. He has a career revolving around his creation Hellboy - which by his own admission was a project he never thought he would get away with, and look where Hellboy is now, 20 years later.
ADDITION: it must be in the air today, because New York Magazine just posted the perfect companion piece to this post. After you read this, go read that immediately.
"There's a reason a lot of your successful friends are 'lovely odd ducks for whom you’d never predict bonkers mainstream success.' Those are people who do the work they love passionately, who bring the full force of their personalities to every project, and the world embraces them with equal passion. Those are not people who are trying to "connect" with some imagined audience. They're fucking weirdos who are foisting their weird creations on the world without apology."
"I need you to understand that when I write "Stop comparing yourself to everyone else and do the work you love!" I'm not saying "Keep powering up that hill, Sisyphus!" I'm saying shut out all the noise of Facebook and Twitter and Oprah and the best-seller lists and figure out what you really believe in and like to do every day."
"Instead of looking up at the best-selling writers climbing upward above you, look below, to the struggling, younger writers beneath you. Reach out a hand, and pull them up. Tell them what you know. Give them a little hope, a little focus, a few practical skills."
Holy crap, did I write that post too and not remember?