Why Do You Do What You Do?

It’s important to be mindful of your motivation – because we are not all motivated by the same things. You need to know what fuels your fire, and seek out plentiful supplies.

What satisfies you more – recognition and financial reward, or the pure joy of creation? Or do you walk (like most of us) a bit of a tightrope between the two?  Do you find the rigour of working to commission, or mass producing ‘bread and butter’ artefacts exciting, or does this dull your senses and blunt your creative edge?

As a business mentor, I regularly meet with clients who are frustrated by their inability to earn all of their living from their creative activity, or what they do earn isn’t quite enough to fund the lifestyle they might aspire to.

People get round this in all sorts of ways – I met an artist the other day who worked as a full time fireman in the hope that the 4 days on, 4 days off rota might give both enough money and regular and useful slots of time to meet his creative goals. Traditionally creative people have always taught, run workshops and demonstrations or held other part time jobs in order to make up the shortfall. I’ve met many that have learned trades or taken up new skills like website design as a second string to the bow.

But when you come to weigh up the need for income versus job satisfaction, where does it leave you?

The inbuilt problem for creative people is that they are motivated more by intrinsic factors – the love of what they do, the creative muse, the magic of it all coming together – and less by extrinsic factors like money and material rewards. In fact, scientific surveys of creative activity show that whilst quality remains high when working on projects that have been commissioned by others, levels of creativity drop. The focus on monetary reward coupled with the external influence of the commissioner on the idea itself can suppress the magic.

There are also other issues in play – creative people choose the self-employed lifestyle because it also gives them autonomy – freedom to live as they wish, and the time to master, by constantly practising and improving, the craft of their choice. It’s a brave decision, often challenged at various points by parents, family or friends.  These challenges alone often make the difference between sticking with it, or not.

So how do you reconcile freedom of expression with the need to put food on the table? A large number of successful creative people get a large proportion of their income from secondary sources – which all sounds a bit bleak. But let’s think about the science again. If the creative edge is indeed dulled by monetary rewards, what’s so wrong with earning at least some of your income in other ways?

The clincher for me is this – the people who consistently do the work they love in an uncompromised way, and as a result create works of quality that are imbued with authenticity and passion, usually end up harvesting richer rewards than those who doggedly try to link the monetary reward directly to the creativity.

Clearly, one shouldn’t bankrupt oneself and one’s family creating and trying to sell work that doesn’t cut the mustard, and I acknowledge that it’s sometimes hard to see whether your work is or isn’t of sufficient quality to make the grade. However, I do regularly see great people with considerable potential giving up because of the money vs. creativity struggle – and that’s a shame.

So what am I really getting at?

The first thing, I think, is not to beat yourself up if your creative output doesn’t immediately create 100% of your desired income stream.

Second, in terms of personal satisfaction, having a clear purpose within your work is probably more important than the financial reward. People who choose to work towards those intrinsic, value laden goals are less stressed out and more satisfied than people who chase money all the time.

Third, having an occupation where, at least part of the time, you are master of your own destiny and where you get to work with and learn about what you truly love – and where you are in a state of flow more often than not – beats the hell out of working full time for someone else.

Fourth, the trickiest bit is finding and balancing the things that will earn you the money with the things that you really love to do but which may never earn you a fortune.

Fifth, if you are already able to combine all of these things and have the lifestyle you always dreamed of, you are lucky or gifted or have worked extremely hard – probably a bit of all three.

The truth is, most of the truly successful people I know have worked extremely hard. I knew someone who had worked for the Moscow State Circus who said this, ‘If you want to excel (in your chosen craft) you must work 25 hours a day – you must steal an hour each day from your death’. The subtlety of this, I’m sure, is lost in translation – but it didn’t stop the message hitting home.

I’m not going to try and provide an answer here – every single person I work with resolves this in different ways.  But the realisation that the work that you do for money and the work that you do for love can be separate things is healthy and can actually free you up in a quite significant way.

If you find yourself spending more time pondering on all this stuff than you feel is healthy, it pays to take some time out to compare notes. Find someone who is achieving the things you want to achieve and go and ask them how they have done it. It’s very rare that someone will refuse to share a bit of wisdom. I explore ways of doing this in more detail later in the book.