The Artist’s Life: An Argument for Lean Living

I’ve been wanting to write this article for some time because I think it’s important that I say what I want to say but I’ve also felt some conflict over potentially crossing a line. I’ve written a lot on business and craft but this may be perhaps a little invasive as I’m about to talk about how we financially manage our lives as artists who are trying to breakout of the corporate world and into the creative arts. I’m going to roll the dice, try and sell you the concept of lean living, and see if I get lynched.

First a little backstory, at the age of twenty-two I’d had a well paid job since leaving school. Money was coming in easy and it was going out easy too. In a new world of easy credit, I’d somehow secretly managed to accumulate around £20K ($25K USD) of personal debt. I was then made redundant and decided to go freelance, despite having monthly loan and credit card payments equivalent to a large mortgage and no actual clients. The following few years were incredibly tough and pretty scary but I eventually managed to swallow my pride, just about scrape by, and pay it all off in full.

I tell you this because I’m one of the lucky ones. Growing up in a middle-class lifestyle can really insulate you from the realities of making ends meet. Combine that with modern neoliberal culture and you have a recipe for materialism, conspicuous consumption, and status anxiety. Many of us enter the workplace as spoilt brats believing we are indispensable and our earnings disposable. It is a recipe for disaster and, if you don’t get your ass kicked early on, a self-destructive mindset that can linger long into adulthood.

I also tell you this because I’ve noticed this little trend in the conversations I have with other fellow creatives who are managing to break in. I often ask if they’ve embraced lean living to survive so long and their eyes almost always light up; they’ve finally been given permission to talk about it.

Lean living isn’t really a new concept but it couldn’t be further opposed to how we perceive progress and success in todays’s age. In fact, if lean living is associated with anything, it’s the concept of quitting the game of society and retreating to live in a remote cabin where you eat squirrels and knit your beard hair into socks until you die from hypothermia. It is not the cliche artist’s journey where the hero works three jobs and writes music twelve hours a night until someone hears them humming on the bus and awards them a record deal. It is something a lot less heroic sounding than that but takes an enormous amount of willpower and humility to go through with.

When we discover our artistic calling, it can really take us by surprise just how passionate we are to answer it. I was thirty-three when I discovered I loved creative writing and my commitment to it made my giddy. That sounds romantic but the reality can be suddenly realising very little around you has any real value and find yourself willing to walk away from all of it to pursue your art. It is a very strange and discomforting revelation to go through and perhaps a key sign that you’ve stumbled upon what you truly love doing.

Of course, what you also learn here is that art typically doesn’t pay and, that in fact, tends to pay worse than crime.

Now the naive artist, like a newborn deer rising to its feet on its spindly shaking legs, is forgiven for believing that they will simply break into their chosen industry by picking up some side gigs and demonstrating their natural talent until they are inevitably spotted by an agent and thrown in the spotlight. I mean, what’s it gonna take, three years tops, right? I’m not saying that doesn’t happen. Some creative industries are easier to break into than others but pretty much every open mic night has those bands, those poets, those comedians who are phoning it in once a week and giving it a year to see if they have what it takes. This isn’t a strategy. This isn’t progress.

That sounds harsh but we need to start talking openly about the reality of building an artistic career, particularly if someone is a complete outsider. In many industries such as screenwriting, you are looking at making it into the top 0.5% before earning a penny. That takes years of honing your craft, bolstering your knowledge, building a portfolio, establishing your voice, and nurturing your network. Years that you’re going to struggle to squeeze around your 9–5, social life, and basic needs.

What a lot of people don’t want to tell you is that breaking into a career in the arts is a full-time unpaid job with a lot of free overtime.

It took me five years from having the epiphany that I liked writing screenplays to getting my first paid Hollywood feature film gig (which was also my first paid gig full stop). It takes a daunting amount of patience and perseverance to break in. During that time, I did little else besides write, discover more about the craft, learn more about the business, or network. The good news is that the energy needed flows freely with the passion and motivation. The bad news is that life easily gets in the way.

The reality is, unless you have a full time job with a remarkable amount of freedom, it’s going to be fundamentally opposed with your desire to break in. Ouch. That’s before we even get into social commitments and home life.

Lean living revolves around a simple philosophy; how little do I need to live, thus how little do I need to work to pay the bills and pursue my art?

There is a good chance that you are addicted to consumerism and that this consumerism also forms the basis of your social life. It’s also likely that you suffer from materialism and that dictates how you perceive your social status. Both of these add up to your feeling of self worth. You probably work hard to fund all this and have found yourself in a vicious cycle of using the money you earn to try and ease the pain of working a job you hate and a life you need distraction from. You, like countless others, are on the treadmill, and while you’re running faster and faster, true happiness and personal fulfilment seems just out of your reach.

Rather than asking yourself what you need to be happy, you can ask yourself what you don’t need to stay unhappy. If you look at your lifestyle objectively, you will probably realise you’re bankrolling a facade of success and short-term pleasure. Lean living is all about investing in long-term gains by focusing on freedom and personal fulfilment over being a slave to the system.

It takes a while to get there but, if you gradually try giving up more and more of the objects and pastimes that prey on your wallet, you will eventually come to realise how little you need to be happy and may in fact become significantly happier as a result of having less. Paying off any debt as fast as possible is an incredibly powerful way to teach ourselves this lesson as we consume less for a period of time while feeling increasingly financially liberated as a result.

The ultimate goal is to translate the lowered financial dependency into less dependancy on a full-time job. Yep, we’re talking about reducing hours, days, or even quitting the weekly grind and finding something new so we can cover the bills and have the time needed to pursue an artistic career. Note that last part, this is the time needed and not an indulgence. We are treating ourselves less so we can invest in our future. It’s easy to paint this as taking an easier road and even being lazy but it’s taking a calculated risk and pouring ourselves into something more important. The result is hopefully not just more time to put in the hours but also a reduced level of ongoing stress that holds back our creativity. It’s crucial that we are able to reflect and dream.

The artist’s life isn’t the corporate life and it’s essential we understand and respect that. Both are completely valid but only one suits a born creative.

And here’s the kicker; embracing lean living doesn’t just potentially help us break in, it helps us once we have broken in because it means those early gig payments go a lot further, keeps us in the game, and allows us to carefully pick and choose the future projects we take on.

So, the question you really have to ask yourself is this; if this artistic pursuit is your dream, and your life goal is to get paid to do it as a career, what are you willing to sacrifice right now to maximise your opportunities?