Q: Is it better to pursue your creative passion full-time, or work a day job and do what you love on the side?
—Creatively Confused (Austin, Texas)

Dear Creative (see what we did there?):

Our answer to your question is one that applies to almost every tough question in psychology: “It depends!” OK. Thanks for writing.

But wait. There’s more.

It’s wonderful to have a passion that inspires and propels you to create. It’s especially wonderful if there are people willing to pay you for doing what you love. Figuring out whether your creative passion should be your main gig or your “side hustle” requires some thinking about your values, your needs, and your personality.

First, values.

Values are broad definitions of what matters and what’s important to you, and they can serve as a guide for making key life decisions. Being explicit about what you really value allows you to consider whether the choices you make are consistent with what you say you care about most. All of us can benefit from revisiting every few years what we believe we value, which allows us to note how our values may have changed over time.

Art recalls seeing the movie Rebel Without a Cause as a teenager and being enthralled with James Dean’s character. Years later, after having his first child, he saw the movie again and thought the very same character was a complete idiot. The movie didn’t change, but Art’s values did.

Being explicit about what you really value allows you to consider whether the choices you make are consistent with what you say you care about most.

If the predictability of a steady income is a necessary part of your feeling happy and secure, then making your creative endeavors a happy avocation may be the better choice. Austin is full of wonderful musicians, artists, and writers who pursue what some might consider more mundane occupations by day, and yet exercise to the fullest their creative potential when they’re off the clock.

But if you find great pleasure in personal independence, if risk-taking doesn’t lead to feelings of anxiety, and you believe that the creative contributions you make to your discipline, or your community, or to society writ large, are the most important outcomes of your life, then making your creative pursuit your main gig is worth a shot.

Next, your needs.

Even if you value creativity, your current responsibilities might play a big role in your decision about how your passion fits into your life. You might be saving for a house, supporting children, or helping an aging parent. Trying to be creative is particularly difficult when financial stability is a must because others depend on you for their care. It is hard to be creative on demand and to churn out your best work when you are feeling a lot of pressure from outside forces.

In fact, if your life right now is defined by your responsibility for other people’s well-being, then having a creative outlet as a side gig might be just what the doctor ordered. Not only will a regular paycheck lower your stress levels, but when you have reached your limit dealing with obligations, creative passion might serve as an oasis that provides you with peace and satisfaction in an otherwise hectic life.

And, finally, your personality.

Everyone has a risk profile, which is a picture of how you respond emotionally to risk-taking in various aspects of life’s adventure. All of us evaluate risks differently depending on whether they are physical risks, social risks, financial risks, or medical risks. An intrepid bungee jumper may be terrified at the thought of public speaking or not having enough money in the bank to pay bills. What’s your risk profile?

Making your creative pursuit your main gig requires some social risk and some financial risk. Even successful creatives often live in a financial cycle of feast or famine. Someone buys a few paintings and you’re flush with cash and then two months go by before the next sale. Your band plays a series of great gigs around the state followed by weeks with only sporadic shows at local bars. Some people are willing to enjoy the roller coaster income, but if you’re consumed by stress if you don’t know exactly when the next payday is coming, then the creative main gig might be a bad choice.

Going all in on your passion means that you will come to be identified by yourself and others as a painter, poet, writer, musician, or whatever it is that you do. This creates a social risk of not living up to your own (or others’) expectations, and having to confront the fact that you didn’t succeed at maintaining your creative identity.

Regardless of what you eventually decide, we hope you’ll keep in mind how very special it is to enjoy a creative passion that you want to continue to nurture. No matter how you manage your creative pursuit, find a way to ensure that it remains a source of joy for the rest of your life. The capacity to create new things, whether in public for cash or in private for pleasure, is one of the best parts of being human.
—Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke


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This advice column is part of the Texas Optimism Project, a sponsored partnership between Texas Monthly and Frost Bank’s Opt for Optimism initiative.

Optimism is the self-fulfilling spark that turns challenges into opportunities and can even be a catalyst for better physical, emotional and financial health. With over 150 years of practical experience helping people succeed, Frost Bank is leaning into optimism like never before. Check out other inspiring stories from Frost Bank here.