How to Make Art Without Worrying About Money

Image: Eddy Klaus/Unsplash 

In Toronto Life, Steve Kupferman writes of surviving an illegal rooming house in Kensington Market. I’ll leave the descriptive bits to him, but what’s notable is how he actually got out of that situation [emphasis added]:

My landlord patched up the bathroom, but he never fixed the roof. The leak spread to my bedroom, forcing me to set up a system of catch basins and cardboard shields to prevent tea-coloured ceiling water from dripping on my bed. The aura of neglect began to affect morale in the house, and our communal chore wheel fell into disuse. A layer of grime accumulated in the common areas, and I once watched two mice wrestle over a crumb of stale vegan cupcake on the kitchen floor.

As my graduation neared, I agonized over my next steps. Almost accidentally, I landed a decent job with a small tech company. I had started writing freelance for local news websites. Suddenly, a revelation: I could leave. Rather than continue paying into the landlord’s insane protection racket, I could get a place of my own, where the oven would never explode and I’d have an entire fridge to myself. The thought had never occurred to me before.

Another excerpt related to this, from this piece in Wired on outfoxing the gig economy, covering Jeffrey Fang, a Doordash/Lyft/Uber driver whose children were taken in a carjacking. A couple of his driver peers had taken full-time tech jobs, but he decided to stay independent:

One day that year, Fang had lunch with Vivanco. After he quit the driving life, Vivanco had learned basic coding and left Lyft for a job test-driving autonomous cars for Cruise, the startup acquired by GM. He had risen to coordinating the road-testing program, and he invited Fang to Cruise’s slick SoMa headquarters. Vivanco offered to refer his friend to his new bosses, but Fang wasn’t sure test-driving would be any better than ride-hail. Vivanco gave Fang a tour of the game rooms, and they peered in at the garage of cars. Fang thought, Wow, a full-blown techie. “I see the growth you’ve had,” Fang told him, “and I wonder if I’ve missed the boat.”

Around this time, out on the road, the loopholes that drivers had used to push up their earnings were all getting plugged. Uber continued upping its fees and changed the lucrative surge system to a flat dollar bonus in some cities. Fang saw his pay plunge. If he’d been working full-time, he now would make about $52,000 a year; with his trips to China, he was down to $32,000.

Indeed, a rising tide lifts all boats, and the companies we currently classify as “technology” are lifting many boats. In the World Economic Forum, Philippe Aghion summarizes his paper as finding “positive and significant correlations between innovativeness on the one hand, and top income shares or social mobility on the other hand.” This pairs well with the observation that family wealth is a strong predictor of a creative career; if you don’t have a wealthy family, go work in technology and be an artist during or after.

Having worked with technology for several years now, I do wonder if reliable advice for social mobility would be to direct a career path into a technology company and to learn how to operate it from the inside out. It’s reminiscent of Childish Gambino’s mantra in his 2014 tour, “Learn to code.” 

“But I don’t want to code!”

There’s plenty of space in technology for all sorts of functional roles—including sales, marketing, recruiting, finance, and so on. Artists, authors, and gamers are appreciated in technology. (In an extreme case, see David Choe cashing in on Facebook.) Better yet, new jobs are coming up all the time—see Gitcoin’s shitposter job posting. There’s a fair chance you could find a place for your skillset in technology’s chaos and wildness. 

Even if you don’t want to work inside the company, you can start a services company for tech companies. Or get into no code and become a Chief Notion Officer. And if you do work in tech, you want to keep your eye out for a stable salary, of course, as well as the benefits and non-salary compensation, and the equity compensation. When the company’s value grows, your share in it appreciates as well. 

There’s also a difference between programming and being technical. I appreciated this piece in Sarah Milstein’s piece:

But much more intriguing was the comment a friend in DevRel at Google made: ‘Being technical isn’t a thing, so don’t worry about that.’ She said it with such confidence, I had to reevaluate the common idea that there are categories of people, those technical and those non-technical. I’ve come to realize that what she meant is that technical expertise is a thing that people develop, not an inherent quality people have. Moreover, expertise is a spectrum – a non-linear one at that – and there isn’t a point at which you’re either technical or non-technical. (Not to mention that it’s counterproductive to discount other kinds of expertise in organizations that need a range of skills.)

Real talk: it’s one thing to understand that idea, and it’s another thing to internalize it. When I left that job for another engineering leadership role, I asked a lot of the people I’d been working with if they had advice for me in my new job. One principal, two mid-levels, and one early-career engineer all separately said to me, ‘You don’t need to worry about being technical enough. You’re plenty technical.’ I was taken aback.

These were people who’d reported to me and had to teach me very basic things, like how a monolith is different from service-oriented architecture, or what React is. And yet, they didn’t think my lack of technical depth was a problem. That didn’t mean it was time for me to stop learning. Instead, it meant that I could approach conversations confident that we could figure out software problems together, each bringing useful questions. It also meant I wasn’t personally lacking as a ‘non-technical’ leader, and it wasn’t helpful to broadcast any suggestion that I was.

Granted, it might take a while to find the specific role that really suits you. For example, even though my writing skills are well-suited to it, I generally abhor the term “content marketing.” In my experience, it’s never taken seriously and it cheapens the craft of writing. There’s no easier way to let your writing fall to a lower standard than to call what you do content marketing. That’s just my relationship with those two words.

But I have a bit more pride working as an editor for technology companies. I love that written culture and words are starting to be important to organizations, in no small part thanks to Stripe (exhibit #1, #2) and Slack. I also love that a publisher like Holloway exists, blending together technology platform capabilities with really great writing.

Different Roles for Different Needs

Like Derek Sivers writes, “Do something for love and something for money. Don’t try to make one thing satisfy your entire life.” I would suggest it’s best to apply your skill set to your tech job, but to keep your personal creative practice or art away from it. If you’re an artist moonlighting as a UI designer, that’s great—but don’t expect it to fulfill your artistic compulsions and needs. And absolutely think twice about joining a startup that you know a team regularly works more than 9AM–5PM on, because it’ll take away the energy you need to keep at your passion project or your creative process. Maybe try a daily challenge to stay creative.

Similarly, in Make Your Art No Matter What, Beth Pickens writes, “Your art is already doing a lot for you. Can you consider the radical proposal that even if your work never pays you, it will still be a valuable and integral part of your life, for the rest of your life? What if your art gives you life and your employment pays for that life?” The pressure to monetize your art isn’t a simple one, and can throw off the creative process. Conversely, doing your art outside of your day job doesn’t mean it’s any less serious or lesser. When your financial needs are met, you can really focus on whatever you want to do, even if it’s a long-term, years-long, project with uncertain feasibility like building a search engine.

This is the prequel to what’s happening now, which has been dubbed the YOLO economy: tech workers have saved enough money to quit their jobs. I wonder if it’s best to think of technology work as a tour of duty; at some point, you want to take a sabbatical and do the thing that you really want to do. Or, just to take a break, because you finally have the financial energy to do that. 

This is just something that’s been on my mind. There are plenty of money-making opportunities outside of technology, too. But in general, I think technology remains a rising tide, so it’s a somewhat reliable way to make the money you need to satisfy the other parts of your life. 

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