Career Strategy for Artists

In 2010, I had the dream.  My wife and I owned a house and had recently welcomed our first child into the world. In addition, my work life was great. I had a tenure track position teaching bassoon at Bowling Green State University where I worked with a full studio of lovely students, I was performing regularly in two regional orchestras and my work as an instructor within the entrepreneurship program at the institution allowed me to create new career pathways for students from across the campus.

Everything was perfect.

Except it wasn’t.

I was completely burnt out, tired from being stretched too thin, and not bringing my best to my work or my art. I knew I needed a change but was honestly lost because it was difficult for me to imagine leaving a career that so many people in my field were striving to achieve.

My work/life balance was way out of sync, which meant that I wasn’t able to be present for my family, nor was I able to bring my best at work.  Something needed to change so I worked to transition into a new position at Colburn where I continue to work.

If this resonates with you, here are some suggestions that may help you as you work to transition into something new.

  1. MOST IMPORTANT: You are the only person who can dictate the path you will take–One of the things that made my decision to change jobs so difficult is that I was comparing my career to others in the field and using their successes to determine my path. Tip: ONLY YOU can determine your path. If you are not happy in your current position, search for the answer internally. 
  2. Establish what is driving your desire for a change—As I mentioned above, the intensity of a tenure track position, combined with my creative work made it impossible for me to find the right work/life balance. I remember performing in a chamber music concert that was scheduled six months prior the performance and feeling miserable because the performance happened to take place two days after I ran a major conference. Most people probably didn’t notice that my level of artistry wasn’t at its best, but I did. Right then and there, I knew that I needed to make a change. Tip: Work/Life Balance, the necessity to make more money, and the need to have more artistically satisfying work are the top three reasons individuals come to me seeking advice for their career. Prioritize which of these three areas are driving you to make a change and focus your attention on what steps you will take carve out a new path.
  3. Know your desired work load mix—At the time, my goal was to have an even 50/50 split between my work as an artist and my work as an arts administrator. In some ways, that worked but my family suffered deeply because I was working all hours of the night to keep up. Tip: Consider 100% of your time in a week and divide your current work/life load up across the areas below. When you finish, do the same exercise but divide up you load according to what you would like your time to look like. Here are the cagegories: 
    1. Artistic Work
    2. Teaching
    3. Work beyond your direct art (IE, desk job, running a festival, designing a product, etc.)
    4. Life (IE, family, friends, hobbies, time for you)
  4. Know your desired income level—How much would you like to be making at the other end of the process? Tip: Come up with a number and write it down so you have a goal to shoot for. 

How does this resonate with you and what challenges have you faced when making a major change in your career? Let me know in the comment section below.


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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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