Why a boring job might help your creative hustle

Juan Moyano / Stocksy

If you’re a writer, a designer, or are in a field traditionally deemed “creative,” it’s likely that you either have a part-time (or full-time) job to help pay the bills, or at least did at some point. Artists drive for Uber, pour cold brew at a cafe, or walk dogs. And while these, to some people, might seem like menial jobs, a strong case can be made that creatives should have a side hustle — especially one that has nothing to do with their art.

“Financial security, it frees up so much energy, creative energy,” says Kat Koh, a career coach who works with creative people. Koh characterizes non-artistic gigs as “bread-and-butter” jobs for artists, while soul-fulfilling work of creative expression is like “birthday cake.” Creatives shouldn’t shy away from a little bit of both to get by, Koh says. However, artists can also do themselves some favors by seeking day jobs or side hustles “that combine your skills [with] what people are looking for, and what they need help in.” Work like that typically pays better than a purely artistic endeavor, but it also “won’t make you totally just despondent,” Koh says.

This is a lesson that I — a freelance writer trying to survive in my hometown of New York, the country’s most expensive city — had to learn some time ago. As much as I love writing stuff where my creative gills get to breath deeply, I find myself even more excited when another, high-paying job — some marketing copywriting work, for example — slides into my inbox.

I’ve enough experience these days to where, sometimes, I can pay about a third of a month’s rent, or even half, after just a few hours of such work. Note: I’ve been a freelancer for more than seven years now, so this didn’t happen overnight, nor does that work necessarily arrive even weekly. One day I’ll tell you about the many, many times I wrote for very little or even no money.

There really is something to be said about not exploiting your creativity by relying on it completely in order to survive.

More often than not, these marketing-type gigs won’t be soul-sucking at all. I’ll profile a brewery that’s found new ways to conserve water for a Weather Channel campaign, for example, or I’ll write about how different sports bring people together for a campaign tied to the Olympic Games. Even if some of the more higher-paying gigs I get prove tedious and boring, they give me peace of mind that I can also pursue other more artistically fulfilling, probably lower-rate work — enhancing my performance when I get those opportunities, thanks to reduced stress over finances. There really is something to be said about not exploiting your creativity by relying on it completely in order to survive.

Still, I do sometimes feel like a sellout, and get frustrated that writing marketing copy takes time away from projects I’d much rather be doing, like bitching about movies and TV in print, for instance, which pays almost nothing. But, as Koh says, “We all gotta eat; we all gotta pay rent.”

Bruce And Rebecca Meissner / Stocksy

For now, I’m doing so strictly by writing, which is pretty cool. But not everyone is in such a palatable position. Maybe they’re just starting out in their artistic field, or they happen to be in an industry where their skill set is a little more specific and doesn’t afford them as many chances to show it off for more commercial purposes.

“Many, many people are extraordinary artists and they don’t give themselves enough credit because they think that if they don’t make enough money off their art that somehow that invalidates their talent,” says Sara Benincasa, author of a pointedly titled book on this topic, Real Artists Have Day Jobs (And Other Awesome Things They Don’t Tell You In School).

Benincasa was inspired to write her book because she noticed friends and colleagues becoming depressed about committing time to jobs that just helped pay their bills, while compromising energies they’d otherwise put toward artistic endeavors. “They didn’t seem to be proud of the fact that they were artists,” she says. “I wanted to write something that conveyed the message to people that as long as you do your art, you’re an artist.”

Benincasa has penned five books, been a performer, and hosted and produced radio shows among other artistic dalliances, and says that throughout her adult life she’s also taken many blue-collar jobs — including work as a janitor — and even some white-collar gigs. Instead of viewing such work as uninspiring, she says those alternative jobs keep her “grounded” and help ward off worries of poverty. “Some people think they should embody the myth of the starving artist,” Benincasa says, “[but] there’s nothing romantic or dreamy about that.”

Writer and spoken-word performer Olive Persimmon says that after years operating as a creative person, and teaching public speaking on a freelance basis, she’s now devoting more time these days to a job that is completely independent of her artistic work. “I had a corporate job, then I started freelancing. I was like, ‘I’m just gonna do art full time,’” she says. About a year after that, however, a recruiter called with an opportunity at a nonprofit that offers outreach to women with autism, and Persimmon changed course. “I just really wanted to stabilize my income and get some level of health insurance,” she says.

Even though she only worked for the nonprofit 21 hours a week, the organization provided health insurance. Today, Persimmon puts in about 30 hours a week there, as an event planner. But she still does a little public-speaking training, and makes time for writing and other creative work as well.

“If you want to create art and have enough money to buy sandwiches and stuff you need, a job that is going to allow you mental space to do that,” Persimmon says. At the foundation, “I get to help people; I love the people that I work with. I don’t want to say that it’s such an easy job, but it just doesn’t take up [an excessive amount of] mental space.”

When I first became a writer, after teaching for 11 years, I tended bar, and sometimes I think a part-time job that doesn’t take up as much “mental space” as writing does wouldn’t be so bad. I really don’t want to sound like I’m complaining — I’m not, I promise — but doing my art full-time makes it a career, a job. There’s an added weight to writing now, an importance that strips away some of the joy of it.

And, in my view, the only way to approach such a gig — with its inconsistent pay and the stress of constant uncertainty of new work — is with virulent passion. If I went back to the service industry for a few hours a week, maybe I’d be more excited about my art again or maybe I’d have more “creative energy” and “mental space” for it. I ain’t jumping ship yet. But I’m not diametrically opposed to it, either, fearing the infringement of some form of shame.