Career Advice for Creative People

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Ask my adult son how he makes lifestyle decisions and he will often respond with: I ask myself what my dad would do and then I do the opposite. That response makes a lot of sense considering how I’ve lived my life (almost seventy years now), and many of my less than stellar decisions. To make good decisions about your life it’s implicit that you know yourself, and how many of us have that crucial knowledge early on (not many I suspect). So maybe we old dinosaurs have a modicum of wisdom to impart, but most of us (in our youthful exuberance) take the harder road to self-knowledge by reinventing the wheel. 

I won’t rehash all of my poor lifestyle decisions in this post (and by no means were they all bad), but I will touch on one aspect of my life—that of career choices. I am a creative person and in this day and age it even has a label: Creative (apropos of the description itself). In these modern times, through common usage, an adjective has morphed into a noun. When I was young you could be a creative person (artist, writer, musician, dancer, or even a photographer)  but you would never be called a Creative (I like the new label and wear it proudly).

Creatives are often creative in many genres because their worldview is different, they march to the beat of a different drummer (I like that the label Creative is more inclusive and not genre specific). Coming of age in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s  a Creative was not encouraged to follow their creativity as a career path. To pursue a livelihood in the arts was a copout and indicative of antisocial behavior. If you wished to disappoint your family you simply had to challenge the status quo by announcing that you intended to become a full-time artist, writer, musician, dancer, or actor.

Families could accept creativity as a hobby but not as a profession; there were notable exceptions of course but as a general rule that was the mindset of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the time (and unfortunately that mindset still exists in most families). The family wants you to be safe, secure, successful (within societal norms and constraints), and above all to conform. Corporations are no different and the bigger they are the more they insist on conformity. The double bind is a Creative doesn’t like to conform, a Creative is always pushing the limits.

My first questionable decision, relative to my career path, was to join the Marine Corps at seventeen. The Marine Corps is arguably the strictest of the military services and demands conformity (not the ideal situation for a Creative). I am still amazed that I did so well in the first few years, but eventually the discipline, rules, and the war in Vietnam beat me down. I enlisted with a career in mind, but after four years of active service (and another two years of reserve duty ahead of me) I knew it wasn’t a good fit (better to get out before I got into trouble).

When I left the Marines I tried to integrate back into the civilian world and its workforce, but it wasn’t an easy transition for me (Vietnam had matured me beyond my years and my civilian counterparts). I accepted a number of lacklustre jobs to support my wife and young son, and gave no thought to what I really wanted to do with my life—life intruded and set its own rules. That set the stage for the next forty years: do what it took to be a so-called success in life; stifle passion for safety, security, success, and conformity (money and social status).

I tried a few times over the years to break free of the pattern but by that time it was a deeply ingrained way of life. I blamed others for my life of quiet desperation (paraphrased from Henry David Thoreau), when I should have looked within for the definitive answers. Depending on others for happiness when you are so unhappy with yourself is futile, and totally unfair to all involved parties. It’s unfortunate that it often takes a lifetime to figure things out (and many never do) and become proactive instead of reactive. Life doesn’t just happen, you let it happen.

If I were to offer advice to my younger friends it would go something like this: Know thyself; Be true to thyself; Follow your heart. Easily said but hard to do; simple does not imply easy. Shine the light within and illuminate the real you (it can take years or blaze forth as an epiphany); once you gain an understanding of your true nature then trust that nature to rule your decisions, and finally follow your passions wherever they may lead you. Happiness and unhappiness are fleeting emotions that are by nature ephemeral (they come and they go), strive for a deep core of emotional and spiritual contentment instead.

Don’t let fear rule your life. Fear is mostly an illusion, a mental construct. Faced head-on it vanishes in a puff of smoke. Understand that people are different, some thrive in a corporate (controlled) environment while others wither away. You can’t change a person’s basic nature through control and intimidation (why would you want to). Define what success means to you on a personal level and not by what society (or families) dictate or expect. If you’re a Creative (big-C) revel in your creativeness. I truly believe all people are creative (small-c) it’s just a matter of degree. To thine own self be true. Always.

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer, World Traveller

www.IndochinePhotography.me

Santiago, Chile

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7 responses to “Career Advice for Creative People

  1. I really needed to hear this! The only people I ever get a positive response from when I talk about creative career goals are those who already spent 30+ years at jobs that made them miserable. Although the majority of younger people will discourage following your passions as a career choice, I’m more inclined to trust the wisdom of the older generations!

    • Your comments pleased me. I wish that I had listened more when I was younger (but in that sense I conformed and thought I knew it all). Life (I think) is a lot like clothes, one size does not fit all. When you outgrow one set of clothes you shuck them for a new (typically larger) set. Same holds true of snakes, they outgrow their old skin only to re-emerge in new skin. Good luck on your creative path my friend.

  2. Hi Stephen, interesting read. I have never been a chance taker, like I always tell people, I colored inside the lines, that is were my comfort zone is. I spent my working life in the blue collar world, but I was lucky, I loved what I did, so as they say I never worked a day in my life. It’s the same with my photography, my comfort zone is wildlife, so that’s where I stay. I think I’m getting to old to change at this point.

    • I think you hit on the key Tim . . . you KNOW yourself. You liked what you did and I bet you were good at it. I came to hate what I was doing and rebelled. Same with photography, you KNOW what you enjoy (and you’re good at it). I pretty much know what I like (now) and stick to it, but in the beginning I sampled everything. I caution young folks to think about their life and career paths, and not just chase fame & fortune (money & status). In the end I’ve found money, status, and things to be pretty hollow; whereas job satisfaction, pursuing a passion, and experiencing life might be a better goal. I think we’re on the same page amigo. 🙂

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