Are You Trapped in the ‘Creativity v Cash’ Dilemma?

This post is part of the Break Through Your Creative Blocks series.

Break Through Your Creative Blocks!

If you have a creative block you’d like some help with, tell us about it – details in the first article in the series.

Sometimes it can feel like a constant battle to earn enough money to justify spending time on creative work. This problem can be particularly acute if you work in a creative medium with little obvious commercial potential.

This kind of block doesn’t just affect your non-commercial work however – it can lead you to resent the work you do to pay the bills, and bring up resistance to doing it. “Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t!”

So I wasn’t surprised that this issue was raised by several Lateral Action readers when we invited you to tell us about your creative blocks.

“This idea/piece of work is not (or will not, depending on whether or not I’ve actually started it yet) get me any closer to my goals, and it certainly won’t pay the rent. Therefore, I’m not going to pursue it – I’m going to do some other thing that is far more practical/that will generate income.”

(Michael Radcliffe, Artbizness)

“Biz is so slow, I seem to only gravitate towards only the ideas (no matter how stupid or unwanted) that may make money right NOW. Creativity is discarded for necessity then I freeze! Help

(Ray Harvey)

“Starting in college, I intentionally left my talented painting side to study advertising and design because I wanted to be sure that I could support myself in the world. After successful 20 years in advertising, I was kicked to the curb when my employer started loosing accounts and couldn’t afford to pay me. I had just moved across the country, bought a new house in my new city based on my new salary. And then boom. The housing market dropped, there were no jobs and I have all this time to paint. Yet, all I can do when I’m not taking on freelance work is stayed glued to the computer looking for a job or keeping up with all the social media. Because it feels like work.

I’d love to rid my head at least a few hours a day to paint again.”


“The block of Time=Money has ‘stuck’ me up over the years and i have scattered energy trying to do everything for everybody, not creating enough money to do the creative.


Guys, I know how you feel. 🙂

My biggest creative passion is poetry – and I’m scratching my head to think of a creative medium with less commercial potential than that. But according to Hugh MacLeod’s Sex and Cash theory, even movie stars and rock stars face the same basic dilemma:


The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs: One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the task at hand covers both bases, but not often. This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended.

A good example is Phil, a New York photographer friend of mine. He does really wild stuff for the small, hipster magazines—it pays virtually nothing, but it allows him to build his portfolio. Then he’ll leverage that to go off and shoot some retail catalogues for a while. Nothing too exciting, but it pays the bills.

One year John Travolta will be in an ultrahip flick like Pulp Fiction (“Sex”), another he’ll be in some forgettable, big- budget thriller like Broken Arrow (“Cash”).

I’m thinking about the young writer who has to wait tables to pay the bills, in spite of her writing appearing in all the cool and hip magazines . . . who dreams of one day not having her life divided so harshly.

Well, over time the “harshly” bit might go away, but not the “divided.”

This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended.

And nobody is immune. Not the struggling waiter, nor the movie star.

(Hugh MacLeod, Ignore Everybody)

After years of struggling with this issue myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three basic options:

1. Put Creativity and Cash in Separate Boxes

This is where you make a very clean distinction between the work you do for money and your creative passion. It’s the classic “Work 9-to-5 and write/paint/play in a band in the evenings” approach.

The great thing about this is that it keeps your creative passion fresh – it usually comes as a welcome relief from your other activities, and you’re in no danger of seeing it as “just a job”. Frankly, it can also be a bit of a relief not to have to do challenging and potentially scary creative work all day every day.

The big problem, as the examples above show, is that it can be hard to justify spending time on your creative work, when other responsibilities are calling. It feels like fiddling while Rome burns.

Obviously, it helps if you’re earning enough cash to pay all the bills. If that’s not the case, then you may need to prioritise solving that problem first! But even if you’re struggling financially, you can probably afford to spend your Sunday mornings on your own creative pursuits.

You may find some of the suggestions helpful from last week’s block – “Not enough time”. But where money’s concerned, the difficulty isn’t just about finding time, but justifying spending it on noncommercial work. Because it feels like you could/should always be ‘doing more’ on your day job or business.

One way is to sit down and work out how many hours a week you can realistically spend on your creative work while having little or no impact on your other responsibilities. Then schedule that time in your diary, just as you would any other commitment, and stick to it!

If you still find it hard to escape that nagging feeling that you ‘should’ be more gainfully employed, have a read of Foolish Productivity and ask yourself whether you’re more effective in scenario (a) where you spend all day every day on ‘busy work’, or scenario (b) where you regular take time off to refresh your imagination and recharge your enthusiasm with other pursuits.

I think you know the answer to that one.

If you’re one of those people who find it harder to keep promises to yourself than to other people, then why not make use of that tendency – by making a public commitment to your creative work. I did this a couple of years ago, when I announced my New Year’s resolution to practice daily meditation on my Wishful Thinking blog. It worked a treat.

But you don’t necessarily need to announce your intentions to the world at large. Here are some other options:

  • Join a class – one reason why I attend classes at the Poetry School is that I’m more likely to prioritise writing poetry when I spend time with like-minded people. Especially when it’s my turn to bring a poem to the workshop. 🙂
  • Join an online group for mutual encouragement and support. A great example is National Novel Writing Month, when thousands of writers gather each year and commit to writing a novel in 30 days!
  • Find a ‘work buddy’ – someone who shares your creative passion, and who could also do with some help in the motivation department. Both of you make a commitment to spending X hours per week on your creative project, and hold each other accountable.

2. Earn Cash from Your Creative Work

This is the Holy Grail for many creators – getting paid to do what you love. Earning thousands of dollars from each of your paintings, novels, gigs or movie appearances is very nice work – if you can get it.

This is why so many aspiring creators daydream of the day when they’ll be discovered by a discerning and well-connected agent/manager/editor/impresario. This Good Fairy waves the magic wand and takes care of all that nasty business stuff like marketing, PR, negotiation and sales, leaving you to get on with the sexy creative stuff. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is – for most of us.

That’s not to say you can’t earn money from your creative work – just that relying on the Good Fairy to appear isn’t the best way to make it happen. If that’s your strategy, you might as well play the lottery while you’re at it, the odds are probably better.

Fortunately, these days there are a lot more paths open to earning money from your creativity than even a few years ago. Free publishing platforms like WordPress allow you to reach a global audience from your living room. Manufacture-and-ship-on-demand services allow you to produce your own books, CDs, posters, T-shirts and pretty much anything else you can think of, without getting your hands dirty. And low-cost e-commerce solutions allow you to take secure online payment instantly from your customers.

So what are you waiting for?

Well, there’s a little more to it than that. (Which is why we’ve – cough, cough – created an entire course on the subject.) But if you look around at people like Hugh MacLeod, John Unger, Natasha Wescoat, Hazel Dooney and David Airey, you’ll see it’s possible to generate a good living by selling your work online.

No, it’s not easy, and it won’t happen overnight. But it can be done – with hard work and a little creativity. Which brings me on to option 3 …

3. Take a Creative Approach to Earning Cash

This is where things get really interesting. Rather than just producing creative stuff and then selling it, you take a creative approach to the whole business of earning a living. In other words, you become a creative entrepreneur.

A quick glance at the websites of the artists I just mentioned will show you that they aren’t just in the business of selling art, but their whole marketing and web presence is an expression of their creativity.

The options for creative entrepreneurship include:

Take a creative approach to marketing your creative work

E.g. releasing music online for free, in order to generate buzz and sell concert tickets. Or publishing cartoons online for free, in order to sell a printed comic book.

Earn cash from something ‘next door’ to your creative passion

This is the route I’ve taken, by stepping sideways from my own creative passion (poetry) to provide coaching and training for creative professionals of all kinds.

Build a business to help your fellow enthusiasts

This is one of the ‘Career Renegade’ paths recommended by Jonathan Fields:

Very often, that thing we most love to do also requires a certain amount of stuff. Beaders need beads, bead boards, thread, crimps and more. Rock climbers need harnesses, shoes, chocs, nuts, cams, and beyond. It’s not unusual for an entire, equally passionate subculture to revolve around that gear. If you look deep enough, you can often find gaps in demand for that year, stuff, or “schwag” that supports the main activities.

Career Renegade

Treat business as a creative medium

This means adopting the entrepreneurial mindset, and constantly looking out for trends, problems and market opportunities. It’s also about coming up with innovative business models that deliver outsized value for your customers – which can lead to outsize profits and plenty of spare ‘creative time’ for you.

How Do You Resolve the ‘Creativity v Cash’ Dilemma?

Which of the three paths work best for you? Why?

How do you resolve the tension between creativity and cash?

Any tips for helping others do the same?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. For a FREE 26-week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

Table of Contents for Break Through Your Creative Blocks

  1. Tell Us Your Creative Blocks – and We’ll Help You Smash Through Them!

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

Productivity for Creative People

Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

Responses to this Post


  1. Some creatives get discouraged because they know they won’t get rich and famous selling their work. They get intimidated by the small number of people who have made it big.

    We forget we get to define our own success.

    We don’t need to compare ourselves to rock stars. We need to understand our audience, and delight them.

    • I so relate to this comment and this article is awesome. I am in that tense place of desperately needing money (first child on the way) and also feeling like my creative dreams might be about to come true… if only we hang on.

      The temptation is to move away from the creative flow towards money and stability, but this may lead to regret.

      I think having clear lines and being creative about money is definitely important. This is a really great blog article. Helpful to where I am right now.

      Thanks Again

      Geoff Talbot

  2. Ironically, I’ve just been re-reading Adventures in the Screen Trade, in which William Goldman discusses the same thing in the life of a screenwriter (He wrote Butch and Sundance, A Bridge Too Far, The Princess Bride amongst others)…

    He actually started as a novelist and fell into screenwriting, and suggests screenwriters write in another form for artistic reasons i.e. Screenwriting itself is about making something work on budget etc and paying the bills, and the ‘other’ writing outlet is the one for the artistic endeavour…

  3. Let’s also remember the ‘non-creatives’ who face exactly the same issue. In fact, I am not that big a fan of distinguishing between creatives and others. Main point for me is self-determination really… Great post though.

  4. I think these three points are actually steps in the development of a creative entrepreneur. First, you learn to build the foundation of your passion while holding down a day job. Next, you begin to translate that foundation into a (typically small) income. Finally, you integrate the creative and the revenue-producing areas of your life, taking charge or collaborating on all the aspects of a true business built around your creative passion.

  5. I agree with Jeffrey Tang. Most of us start off at #1 and attempt to move to #3. This is a great series Mark! Thanks so much for sharing.

  6. I solved this problem by splitting my two creative loves; design and photography. I work in my design business three days per week and that pays for my second love, landscape photography. In design I can be the very commercial business person and not get too upset by what clients want, and two days a week I can be my own client and do my own thing.

  7. Thanks for the great comments, sorry for the delay responding, I’ve been buried in producing our Entrepreneur course.

    @ Stacey –

    Be secret and exult,
    Because of all things known,
    That is most difficult.

    (W.B. Yeats)

    @ Dan – Interesting, although I’d hope he found some creative satisfaction in his screenwriting. In my case, I don’t think I enjoy any writing as much as poetry, but I do love writing blog posts, e-books, courses etc. as well.

    @ Adrian – “I am not that big a fan of distinguishing between creatives and others.” Me neither.

    @ Jeffrey – Excellent point. Tony calls it the hierarchy of the successfully self-employed.

    @ Jeff – my pleasure! Plenty more to come…

    @ Steve – I know the feeling, I find client work refreshing after writing, and vice-versa.