Ditch Your Starving Artist Lifestyle: Be a Sellout


By Scott Lee
May 4, 2019



Saying this can be blasphemy to creatives. Over the years, I have met with and known lots of them - some embrace their struggle to pay the bills with pride. I once imagined that having a lifestyle that "wasn't about money" would work for me as long as I still got to do what I loved. There is a massive problem to this thinking.

Face It: Your Poverty or Near-Poverty Sucks


When I was deciding what to do with my career, I went through a number of phases. One of them was considering things around game development (which, eventually, lead me back to where I am going today). Among the different jobs that exist in game development, I had lots of choices in relation to college: programming, 3D modeling and animation, visual effects, graphic design, and the list goes on. I decided against all of it. Every one of the fields was too competitive, I thought, and programming was just too unbelievably boring. Naturally, I program almost every day of my life now (it's actually not boring, by the way) but I digress.

To avoid all the risks and anticipated laborious nights, I thought I would be best suited to a career in psychology: perhaps in a clinical setting to get started if I had to but really I was interested in doing research and being more on the life coaching side of things. I seriously wanted to be one of those Tony Robbins style gurus at one point. I even had a blog (now defunct and nearly purged from the internet), experimented with a live internet radio show (and I do mean experimented), and I found tiny pockets of success. The blog got over 100,000 unique readers in its best year. The internet radio show had a total of almost 52,000 audio plays (maybe not unique listeners) in its lifetime of 20-ish episodes. But following college graduation I would make a very important real world discovery.

Psychology degrees are worth little. Aside from that, I later came to realize I would have made a terrible counselor. Even worse, counselor was about my only option, which required graduate school. My grades were not high enough to qualify for the better clinical psychology programs here in Houston, Texas. This lead to me renting out a very small apartment, working 3 low paying jobs, and with that: moving through an emotional rollercoaster. It was a recipe for hopelessness.

I was spending beyond my means and going into debt, my apartment was infested with cockroaches, and while my rent was cheap it was at the cost of being in a relatively higher crime area. Going outside sometimes meant someone would offer to sell me drugs. I once found bullet casings just lying around on the sidewalk during one of my walks to the mailboxes. And again: I was not making enough money to break even - I continued to sink deeper into credit card debt.

From there, I had few options. I could scratch and claw to walk back out of debt, maybe, working the three jobs while making different choices. To do so on the same income, I would have to eat less expensive food, never eat out, ever, avoid buying any new clothes for a very long period of time, have zero luxuries, and ultimately: begin surrendering what few belongings I had. It would be a brutal, tough struggle, and most of my apartment was already sitting empty. I could not afford furniture but I also couldn't see how any of my life at the time could have any kind of permanence, and so my living room had a stack of moving boxes that were never opened.

For some of you reading, you may realize that this is not a very uncommon situation. Lots of people in the United States live in similar conditions, with a similar mindset of desperation, or even regret about their own choices. They may even perceive their situation as being thrust upon them, with circumstances beyond their control. To a certain extent, I was in that category.

For some folks, this is normal, the concept of never having enough to afford nice things or to put furniture in their own home, or struggling to pay the bills, being in debt, and so on. For me, it wasn't. I grew up privileged. I lived in an upper middle class family. I did not expect to be broke. I did not expect to get slapped in the face with reality quite this fiercely.

There came a time living in this apartment where I had to face facts. No one was bailing me out of this.


Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket Isn't Coming



When I was younger, friends of mine and I would dream about becoming highly successful filmmakers and masters of cinema. We dreamed of getting giant, multi-million dollar contracts with Universal Studios or Warner Bros. Even back then I knew that that was extremely unlikely to happen. Untold thousands of people move to California every year to chase dreams in Hollywood and almost none of them succeed. I used to have conversations about the idea that really, we cannot wait for Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket. No one will hand you the keys to the chocolate factory. It does not belong to you. The owner of the chocolate factory, figuratively speaking, is perfectly happy to keep it, and the dividends it generates.

And for you reading: the golden ticket is not coming your way either. I just cannot stress this enough.

Instead, you may find yourself in a similar situation, or worse: sleeping with the roaches. The longer I stayed in this apartment, the more furious I got, the more disgusted, the more traumatized. I felt like I could not afford to leave either. The area was dangerous to walk in, and I did not want to spend money driving when I could save those precious dollars. This apartment, I thought, was my prison cell. Sure, it did not have a concrete floor, there was carpet. Yeah, I had my own bathroom and I did have a decent mattress (without a bedframe) that was on the ground I could sleep on.

And yes, I was technically free to come and go as I wished. But that just was not practical. In practical terms, I was trapped. This bedroom, this living room - these are just a closed box with no escape in sight.


Prosperity for Yourself via Prosperity for Others


If you listen to social media, some people will engage in political debates where they will tell you that your poverty or near poverty is essentially impossible to escape because society has arranged the game against you. It is not your fault, they will say. Sometimes, that might be true.

But I had a choice. Chances are, if you're reading this with access to all of the world's knowledge via the internet, you also have a choice.

I do not remember when it was that I began waking up in the morning obsessively asking the question of how I could provide more value to the company I was working for, how I could hack my way into a higher position or a better salary. But it did happen: every day at work was obsessing over how I could make their company more money than the people sitting next to me. I became what some of those people on social media say you should never become: a great employee working for my capitalist overlords. They will just exploit you, some people told me. If you make them an extra $25,000 then they will just take it and tell you to keep going, without another dime, they said.

None of that happened. Instead, I applied for a promotion as one of the better employees and got the better job with the higher salary in return. It was a small raise. But that was just the beginning. The promotion was for middle management.

It was that tiny bit of increased autonomy that allowed me to multiply my results. I continued to obsess over how to provide more value. This lead me into process efficiency. I began learning Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) and how I could automate reporting on team efficiency. Eventually, the amount of time it took me to process my manager reports was a tiny fraction of the time it took other people in the same position on other teams within the company. I just clicked a button on code scripts while everyone else spent hours and hours manually entering data by hand.

The company took notice. Before long, I was working on Salesforce, learning Apex, in talks to join the development team, and would eventually receive an offer for about double that of my previous salary. The rest is history! And so was the roach infested apartment. With the new salary, I did not have to worry about survival related expenses in anywhere near the same way. I could sleep comfortably. I was able to get a bedframe. I could run the air conditioning to keep things comfortable. The same food ended up going into the fridge without having to go deeper into debt. The debt began to get paid off.


I Have Never Cared About Coding


Coding is not what saved me and it is not where I found my "passion." I have never cared about code, I have only ever cared about what I can do with code. Code is a way of increasing efficiency on a process by, in some cases, anywhere from 2x to 300x and beyond. It completely changes the way you look at problems, and at work. While some employers might exploit you, sure, the market does not care - it will throw you a chunk of those efficiency gains in exchange for having your skills working for them. Fortunately, I am very happy to say that my employers did not exploit me. While they probably made more money off of me than they paid me in this story: you should understand that my life was completely changed for the better and I was able to sleep with peace at night before the story's end.

All of this is to say: you might think you value your artistry to the extent that you can proudly say you are not a "sellout." But what that might mean is that you are so proud that you have also not done valuable things for others. The world may have responded to that in a negative way, by making you uncomfortable, or throwing unbearable difficulties in your path. I want to emphasize: this article is not about every single struggling person out there, I am not saying it is always one's choice.

For some of us, however, it is absolutely a choice. If you have the opportunity to go out there and make enough to be comfortable, even if it is not doing what you do in your starving artistry, you should absolutely take the offer. I have zero regrets about being able to lay on a couch, or sleep in a comfortable bed, with the air conditioning running, and I do not think you would regret it either.

Beyond that, I can afford to do more with art than I ever could have when I was broke. I think that you might be in the same position. That is for you to determine.



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