NZS, Episode 0008: Your Art And The Ten Year Plan

Hello and welcome to the next episode of the Nate Zeisler show. I’m so grateful to have you here and, before we begin, I just want to give a shout out to buzzsprout, the software I use to make this podcast. I started this podcast back in the summer and have just committed to a subscription because I love this product so much. What’s great about buzzsprout is that they give you 90 days risk-free to check out their product. I was able to record 7 episodes of this podcast without any financial risk whatsoever and the trial came with all the bells and whistles necessary for me to create a fantastic podcast. If you’re thinking about launching a podcast I encourage you to click this link to try buzzsprout today.

Now on to the question of the day.

Pete: Hey Nate it’s Pete. I have a question for you about financial stability, and it kind of has to do with the arts. I went to acting school and then I got an MFA in writing. Both are challenging careers to pull off and I remember there was a teacher of mine at acting school who said that [I should] just give it 10 years and you will develop your craft into the expertzone, and enough other people will have dropped out of the game and you will find success. I thought that was interesting, but I also thought it was risky because you’re dedicating 10 years to your art. What if it doesn’t work out?

Nate: Pete thanks so much for the question. I think this is the question for artists and creators: Will it work out? This question is something that I help creators, artists work through on a weekly basis and I battle this all the time as a creator myself. My personal “will it work” formula is a mixture of self-doubt, combined with impostors syndrome. Not a good combination for someone who is striving to achieve their own ten-year plan. 

All mindset issues aside, the first thing I want to talk about is the role a mentor plays in our lives. We all have mentors that we lean on for advice and expertise and we hope that the wisdom that they share will take us to the next level in our life and career. I have mentors myself and I rely on them heavily to give me insight and wisdom. This particular type of wisdom can be very motivating and flawed at the same time. So often when we seek advice from our mentors, they are looking at a successful career through their own lens and it likely does not reflect your ultimate career path. While I do think there is some truth to the rule of attrition Peter mentioned in his question, it’s ultimately up to you to define success. 

With that in mind I have just a few suggestions to help you think about success and that ten- year rule. 

First, we get a lot of advice in our twenties. Our twenties are in an interesting time in our lives because it marks a time of transition between relying heavily on our mentors and family, and being completely self-sufficient and responsible for our own steps forward in our lives and careers. 

Second, your twenties are a perfect time to take risks. You’re coming out of college and you spent a considerable number of years without a lot of money coming in. There is nothing stopping you from continuing to live like a college student so that you can pursue your art. Driving costs down allows you to pursue your art more directly and more deeply. 

Third, I want to call out the notion of the law of attrition that Pete mentioned in his question. Sticking with something over the course of 10 years with no guarantee that it’s going to work out is something that so many of us are asked to do in our lives and careers. I’m a firm believer that getting to the work and keeping your head down while pursuing your art or your craft deeply—especially you’re in your twenties— is a great way to build a career the catapults you into your 30s and beyond. 

Your job in in the first ten years out of college is to really look at every opportunity you can identify to extend your runway as a creator . Extending your runway means how far in time can you go and still be able to create. Can you find stability doing other things that allow you to do the things that you love doing the most? 

Your goal is to make the most amount of money in the least amount of time. The best way to do this is through expertise driven freelance work. I’m a classical musician so what I would recommend to me if I were in my office is to dive into teaching private lessons on my instrument.  If you’re a writer like Pete, I would encourage him to gain skills in teaching writing or tutoring, which is something that he could do while you creates and writes his book. Dollar-for-dollar you’ll make the most money finding opportunities to work using your expertise than just about anything else you can do. 

Finally, there are two things that I would like you to consider as you frame your career over the next ten years:

  1. Your art, freelance career or craft is a hobby until you make money doing it. If you are putting your creations out in the world right now and what you are putting out is free, it is simply a hobby.
  2. Your art is no longer a hobby when you start making money, but until you make 100% of your stable income in your art, it’s either a side hustle or part of a portfolio career. I know a lot of people who are completely happy pursuing their art this way and I absolutely approve of the approach. What I don’t want to have happen is that you get seven, eight, nine years into your plan before you start looking at where you’re making money. As much as we don’t want to talk about the financial implications of our art, it’s something you have to look at as you enact you ten year plan. 

Make a plan now so you don’t have to wait for 10 years to decide whether or not you’ve made it. I would encourage you to create intermediate steps that help you figure out whether or not your career choices are taking you in the right direction.

I’m a big fan of a three-year plan. I think that three years is far enough into the future to track whether or not you’re moving the dial towards the career that you’d like. This will help you both set some goals for yourself but also help you remain in control of your path. 

I tend to be an optimist in life but I do think that being a realist when it comes to building a career as an artist or creator is incredibly important. I highly recommend having a plan for what happens if things don’t go according to your plan. Getting ten years down the road not having your plan come through for you is is a real possibility and you really need to accept that this may be the outcome of the adventure that you’re on.

The goal is that you need to go into all this work with a certain amount of flexibility so that when it doesn’t quite work out how you thought it would you can quickly move into a new opportunity that might be just the pop you need to make your career grow.  The most successful creators I know came into their career with flexibility in mind and, though they are successful now, they didn’t imagine that they’re actually doing is where they would end up. If you can be open to new possibilities and flexible and still happy in the work that you’re doing I think will make for the most possibility of you finding success over the long haul of your life and career. 

Pete, thanks so much for the question, it was a good one, and for those who are listening I’d love to hear from you. Please share your questions with me at my email address and I’ll answer your question on a future episode. Thanks for listening and have a great day.  

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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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