It's true, friends. Even the best struggle with creative dissatisfaction. And I mean other creatives, whom I consider the best, not me. On the spectrum of creative career success, I generously plot myself maybe at a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. But others, who are doing so much more, who have more years behind them, more of a reputation, and more accomplishments than I — these people struggle just as much as you or I do.
Take, for instance, Lisa Congdon. In a recent interview with Andy J. Miller on his Creative Pep Talk Podcast, she and Andy described the condition of never feeling quite satisfied in their careers. The way she put it: "you never arrive". Whereas you may have envisioned your older, more experienced and successful self feeling ever more confident, your decisions being ever more solid and indisputable, and your feeling of satisfaction after a job done, quite the opposite is true. It's always a struggle. Art directors want to make changes you never felt necessary. You have to take on projects that you're not that excited about. You have to steel yourself before reading every email back from a client after sending another revision. Okay, I added this last one on, but it's implied (I think) in the conversation between these two lovely people.
This Lisa is quite clearly a leader in our field, with hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram, an impressive lineup of speaking engagements and interviews, and an ever active, trendsetting creative body of work. She's good. And she talks about these struggles that I even now deludedly tell myself I may soon overcome.
In perhaps a most selfish way, I am relieved to hear that even the best struggle. I don't want anybody to have a hard time, but I do feel encouraged that I am not doing anything particularly wrong. If you're working as a commercial artist, making art and making money by so doing, you're going to have struggles. Even massively successful artists feel like failures much of the time. What can be so encouraging about this to someone like me, who is maybe a sophomore in the career sense, or for that matter, for the juniors out there? Is this what we have to look forward to — stress and struggle? It is encouraging because I think the struggle is only one side of the artist-for-a-living coin. As we all know, there are two sides, and the other side, we can surmise, is satisfaction. The necessary opposite and byproduct of a satisfying creative career is struggle. As with almost everything in life, nothing truly good can exist without effort.
Is this the curse of those first archetypal humans we know as Adam and Eve? Was there ever a Garden of Eden, where good things were good in their own right and without suffering? We humans have for thousands of years understood that if pure, untoiled-for joy ever existed (or if it exists today at all), it is not accessible to us. It is guarded by a flaming sword, we are ever banished from this paradise of free and effortless comfort. Effort and toil are the necessary conditions of our species.
For every benefit we enjoy, there is a cost. We can have food, but we must till the soil, plant, water, harvest and preserve it. We can have health, but we must exercise and be disciplined in our habits. We can have community and family, but we must put in the time to contribute to truly be a part of these and to enjoy the comfort and security these bring. To become a good and successful artist, we must put in the time to become skilled in our craft. To become a successful business, we must treat our clients like the gold these relationships actually translate to for us. Often, at our hardest moments, this is against everything we have inside us. We would rather dismiss them (that's putting it lightly) and move onto less bothersome work.
The cost of doing business as an artist is that our own will, our pride, our ego has to take a walk. It does not mean that we are giving in to mediocrity, or losing control of our overarching career trajectory. It simply means that, within the relationship, there needs to be some give and take, and sometimes, that give is hard to do, and the amount exceeds what we are willing to afford.
So clearly, I am talking about two different kinds of struggle: on one hand, there is personal satisfaction with our work, and the amount of effort that it takes to do it at all. On the other hand, there is our struggle to work for and with those on whom we depend — our clients. But the struggle is necessary because of the reality of human relationships. We must learn to give and take.
Of course, this give and take is a dance. We hopefully get a feeling for what we can actually afford to give and what we need to take. We will get hurt and hurt others along the way. But if we can see this struggle — like all struggle — as an important by product or even intrinsic part of the process, we can accept it, work with it, and even let it work for us.
I know my train of thought here is a bit mixed. I am talking on one hand of creative dissatisfaction and toil, and on another, of dealing with the blows to our pride that clients often deal us. But it is all struggle, it is all work. Perhaps, what I am getting at, is that we can try to see all of this as part of the job. Not simply necessary evils but simply existential realities — the kind that we must either accept and work with or else be defeated by.