What if all that hustle and all those late nights…

Those projects you poured your soul into…

The marketing strategies you keep putting on checklists and telling yourself you definitely need to try…

What if all those years of blood, sweat, and brainstorms are literally what’s preventing you from reaching the creative career success you dream of? 

Wouldn't that piss you off?

Yeah? Well, you certainly wouldn't be an outlier.

Recently, a group of  impressive, accomplished, mid-career creative professionals got together to share what was going on inside their creative businesses.  

Here's what they said:

When I get paid for creative work, I calculate the hours and energy spent on it versus how much I got paid, and realize I’m not even making minimum wage.

Living as an artist has destroyed my perspective. Living with this kind of poverty, it narrows your choices, your scope, you think it's just not possible.

My child and I shouldn’t have to live officially under the poverty line for me to pursue my dream...if I had understood business, it wouldn't have gotten that bad.

I want to go out to movies and treat my kids to stuff and just be normal. That’s the life I'm ashamed to admit I want. That's what everybody really wants. They're all just ashamed to say it.

I fear going without health insurance. If I get sick or something happens, my entire world's going to be ruined for the rest of my life.

When I have to pay my bills, I go through the whole internal spin of how am I going to get more money? I start looking on LinkedIn and... I think, okay, you know how exhausting that can be.

The thing is, these people have done everything right. They’ve:

  • Taken advanced training
  • Gotten good grades
  • Taken even more training
  • Developed a clear creative point of view
  • Honed their technical skills
  • Made amazing work
  • Been paid for their work

But here they were, well into mid-career, still flailing.

Still cobbling together gigs and part-time jobs and whatever they can come up with to make ends meet. Working such long hours for low pay that their “real” work got sidelined.

Exhausted, demoralized, even wondering if they “have what it takes,” or whether this is a sign that they’re not cut out for creative success.

Seasoned, capable creative people should not be burning out, embittered, baffled, forgoing necessary medical care and rest…and worst of all, feeling like it’s all their fault.

It’s not. It’s the system.

It's not just you:

What we learn about creative careers sets us up to fail

Artists, writers, and other creatives across the board struggle to even remain working in the field they’re so highly trained for.

Much less to make a decent living.

Only 10.1% of art school graduates worked primarily as artists. More than twice as many work in sales and service industries,  according to the Artists Report Back study from BFAMFAPhD (based on US Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey (ACS) data).

And the situation is no better for authors. The Author’s Guild reports a 42% decline in author earnings in the decade of 2010-2020, and median earnings of just $6,080 in 2017.

Poverty level for a single person in 2017 was $12,060: twice that income.

And ArtistINC’s intake surveys show 60% of the artists they serve make less than 20% of their income from their art.

Scott, Diane R. (2019, September 13). The Impacts of Investing in Creativity: Longitudinal Outcomes of Artist Professional Development for Individual Artists and Their Communities. Artist as Entrepreneur Summit, Kansas City, MO, United States.https://www.dianerscott.com/assessment

So, are you doomed? 

Not at all.

Those stats just mean that what most of us are doing now is clearly NOT working.

It certainly wasn’t working for me in 2015.

I’m an author: comics, prose books, textbooks. I’ve also been an illustrator, an editor, a project manager, a professor, and a department chair, among other things….and much of that all at the same time.

In 2014 - 2015, I ground out about 250 pages of comics in 10 months. (With the help of Matt Madden and several interns)

I can’t overstate how proud I am of the book that came out of that period, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio.

I also was massively burnt out.

My expectation was that somehow this would be my breakout book

And from the outside, it looked like it was.

Yeah, that’s me on stage with podcasting stars Roman Mars and Glynn Washington, with my comics projected 20 feet tall onscreen.

I was on an actual book tour.

Ira Glass recommended my book from the stage when he spoke.

Sounds like I’d made it, right?


Yeah, that’s me on stage with podcasting stars Roman Mars and Glynn Washington, with my comics projected 20 feet tall onscreen.

I was on an actual book tour.

Ira Glass recommended my book from the stage when he spoke.

Sounds like I’d made it, right?

Behind the scenes there was a different story

Anxieties about the future kept churning through my mind:

😟 Presales are nowhere near what they need to be to make this book the kind of top seller I hoped it would be (and that it would have to be for any hope of future royalties!).

🥺 What is the Random House marketing department is doing to juice sales (if anything)? I have no clue. I can already feel that the PR person is checking out on me. They clearly see this job as finished.

😱 Oh, and that next book I should have already sold in order to have any hope of feeding my family for the next three to five years it will take me to finish it? Uh, yeah. What next book?

😩 I am exhausted. I just can’t keep working like this.

In many ways, it was the pinnacle of my artistic career

The book got amazing reviews. It was picked up as a classroom text across the country. It quickly became an essential point of reference in the field of narrative audio. 

Sales were decent, as far as I could tell. 

Yet even strong sales had literally zero effect on my ability to treat my kids to an ice cream after school.


Yes, I had earned an advance (all of which had long since lined my landlord’s pocket). 

But until I earned that advance back, I would not see another penny from my publisher.

That could be years off.

Or, more likely, never. After all, the vast majority of books never do sell enough copies to “earn out” their advances. And that is what has to happen for an author to start earning royalties above and beyond that initial advance.

This wasn’t new for me: I experienced a similar feeling many times. Trapped, victimized by the very work I’d spent so many years mastering.

My plan to make this book “happen” was to create a fully-scripted podcast of the same name…which took me 8 months (with producer Ben Frisch). It hit New and Notable on the Apple Podcast homepage…

…but did not affect my sales in any way I could detect.

This wasn’t new for me: I had been in a similar situation many times. Feeling trapped, victimized by the very work I’d spent so many years mastering.

And we needed to figure out that next payday soon, or we would be in trouble.

So I went searching for the NEXT thing that might somehow magically turn things around.

I launched a new business.

I created a course.

I got a job as a department head of an illustration program.

(?! Didn’t see that one coming!)

…and I still had to deliver my other book, which I’d been working on for, oh, 10 years by then.

It was insane.

And I was trapped in Cyclical Burnout.

What is Cyclical Burnout?

burning the candle at both ends...or sharpening the pencil at both ends. pick your own metaphor!

Cyclical Burnout is the signature pattern of dysfunction for professional creatives and people trying to build solo or small businesses.

My own example is a classic case of Cyclical Burnout

But let’s take a look at how this pattern so often plays out:

  1. You get an idea for a project. You get excited about it: The challenge, the new creative horizons you can explore. BUT somewhere in the mix you’re also thinking about your career — and money. People will love it. It’ll be a bestseller. It’ll fly off the shelves. This is gonna be a game-changer, you think.
  2. You pour time and energy into it. It’s fun, it’s hard, it’s engaging…
  3. …but at the same time the financial pressure is growing. There’s this drumbeat of, “this has gotta work.”
  4. And then it doesn't land. Sales don’t materialize the way you hoped.
  5. But you’ve already devoted enormous amounts of time to the project, and now you’ve got to scramble to make the rent And you do that by adding to the pile: client gigs, teaching, more marketing, a part-time job…
  6. Finally, you get totally overloaded. The stress causes you to shut down and function at the absolute minimum.

That’s burnout.

But it’s cyclical, because you’re still committed
to your creative work.

  1. So you get excited about a new project. You dive in again.
  2. The trick is, all that other stuff you were doing in the previous cycle? (and the cycles before that…) None of it is gone and finished. It’s all still simmering on your back burner, languishing for lack of attention to finish, to promote, to sell.
  3. That’s why each new project you come up with adds a layer to what you “should” be doing. It all adds up to a snowball effect that sets you up for a future burnout.

Thus “cyclical” burnout: It’s almost a foregone conclusion that what you’re doing now will lead to another point—soon—when you’re totally overloaded and have to curl into a ball and nurse yourself back to full functionality.

...but Cyclical Burnout is not fate

Dire stats about success in creative fields…

Accomplished creatives getting trapped in Cyclical Burnout…

It all feels so inevitable, doesn’t it?

Like that’s how things have always been, and how they'll always be?

There are powerful societal myths that lead directly to the Starving Artist as a cultural standby character, and it’s not surprising if you figure out “you’re soaking in it.”

But what I can say right now is that those stories are not truth. It's not inevitable that we “starve.”

Burnout is not the natural state of the creative. 

Burnout happens when you're trying to pull off something unsustainable

But if Cyclical Burnout is the picture of unsustainability

What does a “sustainable” creative business look like?

We need to be clear on the criteria if we want to achieve the result.

In the broadest sense, a sustainable creative business has three qualities:

1. You can take care of your business.

You can manage the work that goes into your business on a regular basis. You have the time and energy to do what needs doing.

2. Your business can take care of you.

Your business is capable of providing for you financially. It also provides the flexibility you need to pick up your kids from school, or to get to your medical appointments, to have fun and to rest.

3. You can sustain the work long-term.

You’re engaged by the work, you’re using your skillset, you’re working in your zone of awesome. You won’t get bored or alienated. Your work is aligned with your values and ethics. Even when the work becomes challenging, you feel it’s worth it to carry on.

In short, there are three pillars of a sustainable creative business.

Your job is to build—from the ground up—to meet your needs in three broad categories:



Creative Engagement

That sounds pretty obvious. 

So why is it so hard to build a sustainable creative business?

The problem is, everything we’re taught focuses on what we can do and make that should lead to sustainability.

  • New creative projects
  • More marketing
  • School, training, certifications…

On the other end, we’re inundated with messages about what the results “should” look like:

  • Big checks from the publisher
  • A feature article in the New York Times
  • An amazing Instagram feed of fancy creative retreats
  • selling out a show before it opens
  • a deep-dive interview on a major podcast…

And, most important of all, the implicit promise of a life centered on creative pursuits that comfortably supports you and your family.

And when you don’t achieve that financial stability, you hit another burnout…

You’re left asking: is it me? Am I doing the wrong things? Am I not working hard enough?

These are all understandable, relatable questions.

But they're the wrong questions. Because they’re all about the beginning.

They’re asking: "How can I fix what I’m putting in?"

The right questions to ask are all about the Mysterious Mechanisms that connect the beginning and the end.

What is the outcome you desire? Maybe something like “make consistent sales of my service so I can spend less time marketing.” or “sell more of my most expensive product so I can focus on my more interesting and complex work.”

How is what you’re currently doing connected to that outcome? For example, if you post on Instagram three times a week, what impact does that have on making sales of your service? If you’re working on a new product, how does that help sell your most expensive existing product?

What’s going on inside the machine, connecting those inputs and outputs? Investigating the workings of the Mysterious Mechanisms is how you PLAN for success—and have a very reasonable shot at achieving it.

Fortunately, building sustainable success doesn’t require deus ex machina.deus ex machina

…nor do you need an MBA.

It’s a lot simpler than you might think, and creatives are fully equipped to get there.

This is a shame-free zone

As creatives, we’re hamstrung by lack of preparation about how to successfully design and run sustainable creative businesses.

Your struggles in the business arena are not your fault. It can feel embarrassing to find yourself many years into a “successful” career and still struggling (Oh yes. I know.), but it doesn’t need to be a source of shame.

The fact is, the prevailing “wisdom” about what it takes to make it as a creative sets you up to fail.

I’ll share exactly how in a minute, but first, this is important:

Quick sidebar:

Clearly, escaping this mess is not simply a matter of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”

For creatives trying to build small businesses, intense countervailing forces make achieving stability and security challenging. That’s true for everyone, and so much more so for those who are members of historically disadvantaged groups. When I shared those stats above about how many artists succeed, what I didn’t share are additional nuances within those top-level stats demonstrating the powerful disadvantages faced by nonwhite and non-cis-male artists.

As individual creatives, we can’t solve a broken healthcare system, lack of institutional support for artists, lack of paid family leave, or crippling educational debt, never mind climate change, millennia of racism, or eons of patriarchy.

To address those larger issues, we need to organize and work collectively, and we should (and do). But solving any one of those issues will be a long struggle.

We can’t, and we won’t, wait for the world to get itself sorted as a prerequisite for making our own lives better. We can’t give up on our creative work and our professional dreams.

We DO have control over many, many things in our lives, and the more we acknowledge and take responsibility for those things, the more stable our lives become.

Steven Covey came up with a term for the actions and thoughts that we do have control over. He said those things are inside your Circle of Control.

Here's the thing: If you are self-employed, or you want to be, that means, by default, you are (or will be) a business owner.

Further, it means that no one is coming to save you from yourself. If your business isn’t working, if it isn’t providing you with the security and stability you need, it’s up to you to fix it.

It’s not your fault you were underprepared! Clearly, just about everyone is in the same boat. But breaking out of the starving-artist trap is your job.

That can be scary.

As Paco DeLeon put it in her book, Finance for the People:

…While your power lies within your circle of control, so does your vulnerability. It can be scary to take responsibility for your power despite all of the things outside of your control that impact your life. Sometimes it can feel like a wave throwing you around. But in every moment, we can choose to fight and find our footing. We can be concerned and critical of the world around us but still choose to put the great majority of our energy towards taking actions that impact our circles of control. The world needs this of us.

Building a sustainable creative business is not for everyone

Some people don’t want to change. They prefer to keep on doing the same familiar things, hoping that somehow lightning will strike and everything will…resolve.

But if you are committed to the creative life, if this is your profession and avocation, this is the only path open.

You’ve already proven that you’re prepared to work hard for a life full of art and creativity. You have done it all your life.

You’ve already ridden waves of uncertainty and navigated crises.

You’re far more ready for the challenge than anyone (including you) knows.

The difference is, this time, you can set yourself up for a solid shot at financial success.

The people you heard from at the beginning of this article articulated some of the reasons they are pursuing the challenging road of self-employment.

I don't like working for other people. Other people suck. I want to be self-employed. I want to set my own strategy. I want to make projects that both connect with customers, but also inspire me. I want to get up in the morning for myself, instead of for other people.

I want to earn my own money. I don't want to depend on my partner. It feels really uncomfortable after a life of striving to be independent.

I want to support myself as an artist in a fully sustainable and joyful way instead of doing drudge work to support my practice. I want to be autonomous!

You can make a sustainable living with your creative skillset

You can set yourself up for success. It’s more than possible.

There are a few simple, specific steps to outline your plan, and I’ll lay them all out in detail.

One ground rule:

I refuse to pile on a bunch of “shoulds” and low-level tactics that will simply add to your load.

Remember Cyclical Burnout? Attempting to get to sustainable success by piling on more is a losing battle.

Instead, what’s next is I’m going to pop the hood and introduce you to the engine of your creative business: those Mysterious Mechanisms (that are supposed to connect your actions with the results you hope for).

Pay attention, because it’s not what you expect.

It’s a lot less complicated than you may fear, and will very likely lead to doing less. Not more.

Click Continue to read Part 2