Modern society tells us that art might be a vocation, but probably not an occupation. Given how hard it can be to make a living, artists are supposed to make art for love of the art itself and told not to expect material rewards. As a result, there is always a presumption that a professional artist must be prioritising passion over practicality and putting their self-indulgent pleasure before money.
The money might be rubbish, the thinking goes, but at least they’re doing what they love.
But here’s something people who aren’t artists don’t know, and something that most artists are afraid to admit. The majority of those who do it for a living are unhappy because they’re still not doing what they want to do.
When I used to tell people I was a musician in answer to the ‘What do you do?’ question, they’d invariably respond with ‘it must be amazing to do something that you love for a living’. And I would nod and smile and pretend that was true. Because what else was I supposed to say?
“Actually, most of the work I do is shit. I hate nearly everything I do for money because it’s generic, belittling and facile.”
I hated turning up at venues and having to move tables and chairs to make space to set up because the bar staff couldn’t be bothered.
I hated being given 30 minutes to set up and soundcheck a 9-piece band because the Wedding Breakfast had run late and the hotel wanted everything back on track.
I hated being scowled at from a dancefloor by octogenarian ballroom dancers who thought we were playing too fast and/or too slow depending on their stamina and ability.
I hated being told to stop playing in the middle of a song so somebody could make an announcement.
I hated having to fend off drunken idiots who thought they could convince a jazz trio to do Led Zeppelin covers by yelling a riff at us and I hated trying not to stand in a puddle of piss whilst trying to change into a tuxedo in a portaloo.
But most of all, I hated myself. Because it was my own fault. Because this is what I’d chosen to do. Because I couldn’t or wouldn’t allow myself to pursue my real passions, to make the art I wanted to make and follow my dreams. Because all my life I’d resisted the urge to conform and play it safe for a pipe dream of an artistic life and this…this was how I was choosing to spend my time.
The work I was doing that had started out as practicality, as a means to an end, as a way to keep me solvent while I got on with my real work behind closed doors had somehow hardened into all there was.
Because I wasn’t doing my real work. I was stifled by fear and insecurity and self-doubt. Friends with day jobs and mortgages and fat salaries looked at me with secret envy because they saw me as somebody who had stuck to his guns, who had chosen to play by his own rules and who didn’t have to kowtow to The Man. I was the one who hadn’t given up on the dream. They projected onto me all that they wished they were.
But I was a fraud.
In ‘Turning Pro’, Steven Pressfield describes this phenomenon as a ‘shadow career’. He explains it like this:
“Sometimes, when we’re terrified of embracing our true calling, we'll pursue a shadow calling instead. The shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.”
I know so many creative people stuck in shadow careers. I see them all around me — talented, capable people; people who would be capable of so much more if they could only find the courage to start pursuing things that matter to them.
Because here’s the thing: For true artists, the technique is not The Thing. The Thing is the expression, the communication, the truth of the message.
An aspiring novelist isn’t equally happy writing copy for insurance company leaflets as he is writing his novel, a landscape photographer isn’t going to feel his soul soar taking pictures of food for a restaurant menu. A musician wanting to play original music finds no joy in playing bossa novas in wine bars to chattering apathy.
Yet to somebody who doesn’t know the artist’s true calling, it looks like they’re doing what they love. The writer sits and types, the photographer takes pictures, the musician plays his instrument.
Everything looks the same. But everything is different.
And here’s why. Because a shadow career doesn’t require us to invest anything of ourselves into the work. It’s work that’s either so easy, or so fundamentally lacking in real meaning that we will never be able to commit to it fully. It requires none of what makes us unique.
Whilst we might be able to demonstrate competence in a shadow career, we will never shine in that field.
The amazing thing about human beings is that we’re all different and are inspired and drawn to different things. The novelist might feel like he’s dying inside every time he accepts a copyrighting commission, but a writer fascinated and passionate about writing great copy will suddenly come alive.
Nobody has the right to tell you what your something is, and only you can know. If you’re good at the craft of what you do, you might be able to spend years getting by in a shadow career, paying bills and looking to the rest of the world like you’re living your passions.
Only you will know that you’re hiding from the truth of who you want to be and the work that you want to do.
There’s nothing wrong in doing work that utilises your craft but doesn’t stir your soul — you’ll always need to earn money, there will always be bills to pay.
But the only way that it’s going to be bearable is if you’re using that shadow work to fund your real vocation.
If shadow work is putting food on the table and you’re making time and space to work on your something you’ll be able to handle it — even if the balance isn’t the way you ultimately want it to be.
But if you let shadow work take up all your time or sap your creative energy; if you find yourself spent and hollow when it’s time to do your real work then you’re in trouble. That’s the path to frustration, guilt, resentment, anxiety, anhedonia, and depression; it’s the road to listless joylessness, bitter worthlessness and melancholic loneliness.
Trust me, I know.
And I wish I could say that was all in the past for me. But that would be a lie. It’s an ongoing battle to make myself sit down and do the work. It’s still hard not to let other things in my life push that which is most important to me to one side. It’s easy to invent reasons why I couldn’t get to it today and to swear I’ll be better tomorrow.
I’m trying and I’m getting better, but it’s still not straightforward. I wonder if it will ever be. I know the dangers of shadow careers, I know the discomfort of hiding from this work all too well. But I also know that doing the work, standing up, being seen, going all in — that’s scary as hell, and it always has been. I might know that the monsters don’t exist, but I’m still afraid of the shadows.
Every day I procrastinate and make excuses not to do the work is a day where I let fear win. My fear wants to keep me safe, but it doesn’t know that there’s no safety in misery, guilt and frustration.
That stuff will kill you.
Barry Dallman is a musician, writer and eternal student of the creative process. He is fascinated by the process of personal change and the challenges creative people face in committing to truly meaningful work. He's documenting his own creative struggles in the hopes of inspiring others to pursue what really matters to them.
Why don't we do what we really want to do? Why do we sacrifice our lives to our art - and then hold back from making it? What does it take to make us do the work we were born to do? Why is it so hard to be yourself?
These are the questions I'm trying to answer.
After years of fear and procrastination, I'm on a mission to show my work, fight the little voice that wants to stop me and share what I learn along the way. I'd love you to join me.