Lessons Learned from Five Years as a Full-time Creative

Sept. 16, 2023

Five years ago, I left a fulfilling career as a Presbyterian pastor. I was curious if I could make a viable business out of a 10-year obsession with photography, so I took the leap.

Along the way I learned that there is no template for how to make a living as a full-time creative. I remember googling my questions to only to find mysterious dead-ends. It seemed like most business resources catered to a world that existed before the internet upended the creative marketplace. While exploring my options, I met with a photographer I thought had it figured out. His advice to succeed as a full-time photographer was to have a spouse that makes a lot of money. Instead of following a proven path it was apparent that I would have to figure it out as I went.

I don’t claim to have arrived, but my little photo business just passed a million dollars in all-time revenue. This milestone offers an opportunity to reflect with gratitude on some of the lessons learned over the last five years. Hopefully they’ll be helpful to other creatives pioneering their own path.

Stages of Spring

Doing it six months at a time was helpful.

When I started, I wasn’t sure if I could do this for the rest of my life, but I figured I could do it for six months. Sure enough, six-months later, I was making it work, so I gave it six more months. After a while I stopped counting the months, but these short-term milestones made the journey more manageable.

Starting with a financial cushion helped take some pressure off.

Before launching, I saved up a year’s worth of income. This cushion gave me some room to enjoy the first months without stressing too much about paying the bills. Creative endeavors require some free mental and emotional space to experiment and explore. Too much pressure to make money could have easily derailed the venture.

Fox Kit Mischief

Finding a balance between running a business and doing creative work is challenging.

It’s ironic that full-time photographers often struggle to get out and take photos. After a summer full of art shows, I’m feeling the weight of that. Thankfully, I’m on the road to Colorado for two weeks of fall colors. As long as I strive, with passion, to run the business and make new art, I think I’ll be OK. When these get out of balance, I’m probably in for trouble.

Knowing my side hustle from my main hustle has been formative.

I was telling a painter friend about the commercial assignment photography I do for construction companies, and she said, “All artists have a side hustle.” I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but she helped clarify my business model. The assignment work helps pay the bills, but my art business is the main hustle. Keeping the focus on this has helped me grow it to the point that I don’t need the side hustle to make it work

Mount Rainier Summit Lake Calm Waters

I’ve never worked harder, but I love it.

You know what they say, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” It might be more accurate to say, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work harder, but you’ll love it — most of the time.” There are easier ways to make money than selling goods and services in the creative marketplace. It’s a hustle. One successful artist I know decided to return to teaching art in the classroom after venturing out full-time for a season. He said he was “tired of the hustle.” I have moments of wanting an easier path, but most of the time, I love it. I’m also probably ruined for normal jobs at this point. There is no going back.

Mount Rainier Tarn Reflections