I think a lot of us have unconsciously adopted the idea that we’re ‘bad’ with money. The old stereotype that artists are financial disasters starts seeping into our subconscious as early as the first time we heard of Egon Schiele's tragic end or figured out what was going on in Puccini’s La Bohème. Without realizing it, many of us have adopted the identity that we’re just bad with our money and have suffered quietly, thinking there's little to be done about it.
I happen to think artists are some of the most resourceful and ingenious money managers out there. Why? Not only can we do so much with so little—routinely finding ways to make something out of nothing, financing our ambitious projects using side gigs, and surviving on a fluctuating income—but we also have piles of the most important predictor of success: grit.
Grit is personality trait so powerful that it can catapult a person of average intelligence, average means, and below-average advantage far beyond the ‘geniuses,’ the ‘gifted,’ the ‘privileged’ of the world. Those of us with grit find success, not because of our high IQs or dashing looks, but because of our dogged perseverance. We keep trying—persist, persist, persist—until we get to where we want to go.
Anyone who has made their way in the art world for a few years knows that it’s tough and unpredictable, and merely surviving requires an iron-clad stick-to-itiveness. And those of us who continue to raise our freak flag every day, year after year, have got to have clearly defined goals in place to keep going. More than almost any other industry, it’s hard to know what effort, project, performance, or exhibition is going to be the thing that moves us forward, so we have to keep our eye on the prize and continually reassure ourselves that all of our efforts will eventually get us to where we want to go. We don’t stop trying, because our passion, our purpose, and our identity are all wrapped up in the same thing—making art. And to succeed in this mission, grit is our most important tool.
Celebrated educator and psychologist Angela Duckworth spent years conducting studies focused on people across the spectrum of age, economics, and industry, in order to identify a single significant predictor of success. What she found was this predictor was the same whether she asked which sales rep would make the most money in the year to come or which kid would advance farthest in a spelling bee. It wasn't social intelligence, good looks, physical health, or IQ — it was grit, defined as passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.
It’s my opinion that we in the arts community are steeped in a culture of grit. In fact, the thing that we love so much about the starving artists of the past is indeed their grit. The disconnect when it comes to money is that many of us don’t realize that our financial health is a meaningful component in the longevity of our art careers. We focus so much on 'making it' that the financial part of the equation is easily ignored.
But here's what I've seen: once we get it, once it becomes clear that our financial health is essential to sustain our creative ambition, then we’ll have the grit to master that too.
It takes a lot of determination to nurture one dollar into two dollars, into three dollars (and so on) to create the stability to build a sustainable creative practice. But our advantage is our grit, and the powerful cocktail of passion and perseverance is what I believe makes us poised for financial success.
The starving artists have had their time, and now I hope we’re all embracing the model of the thriving artist, using our vast reserves of grit to succeed creatively and financially.