Do You Really Want to Make a Living from Your Creativity?

This post is part of the Creative Rock Stars series.

Lightbulb with dollar note filament

Serious question.

This is the final post in a series that has looked at creative rock stars – the creative entrepreneurs who get paid to do what they love and to wow their audience. When they succeed, they have an incredible life. They get to reinvent themselves and live life on their own terms. They get to work and play with other cool creative dudes. They enjoy the acclaim of their fans and the respect of their peers. They even have the privilege of using their fame and fortune to make the world a better place.

But in spite of appearances, stars are not superhuman. A shot at stardom is always a leap of faith.

Because there are no guarantees. Otherwise I guess everyone would go for it. Creative entrepreneurs spend their lives balanced on a razor’s edge between creativity and commerce – or as creative rock star Eric Poettschacher puts it, between money and meaning. It’s great to be paid for doing creative work but if you are not careful you can be distracted from your true calling by money, fame and other external rewards. Get too obsessed with your vision and you risk creative burnout. Neglect the business side of things and you could end up being exploited or just plain broke.

Weighing up the pros and cons, you may decide the rock star life is too risky for you. Maybe, like the Magic Theatre in Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, it’s ‘Not for Everybody’.

So you might decide you’re better off keeping your creativity separate from your career or business. That way you can be financially secure and enjoy your creative work purely for its own sake. That’s not a bad choice. It seems to be the default setting for people in my own creative sphere – poetry. T.S. Eliot worked in a bank. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. Frank O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art. Philip Larkin was a librarian. William Carlos Williams was a doctor, writing his poems on prescription forms between patients. It doesn’t seem to have done their poetry any harm at all.

I know what Marla would say. She would tell me they were living in a different world, with different rules and different opportunities. She would remind me of Shakespeare – not only the greatest poet in English but also a highly successful entrepreneur. She would ask me whether I thought that was a coincidence. To which I’d probably reply that I may not have Shakespeare’s gift, but his life looked a lot more exciting than Larkin’s.

And I know what she’d say to that – that anyone can be a creative rock star if they really want it enough. But you have to be prepared to step – and here she’d smile mischievously – ‘outside the box’ of your usual idea of creativity.

Then she’d remind me of the E-Myth.

The Entrepreneur, The Manager, The Technician – and The Artist

Michael Gerber’s classic book The E- Myth is subtitled ‘why most small businesses don’t work and what to do about it’. The first two sections of the book should be required reading for anyone who even considers going into business for themselves.

The E-Myth Gerber refers to is the assumption that anyone who sets up in business for themselves is an entrepreneur. For Gerber, an entrepreneur is someone who thoroughly understands how a business works, and uses that knowledge to create a successful enterprise. He argues that most small business owners don’t fall into that category. Instead, they are typically former employees who have fallen victim to what he calls the Entrepreneurial Seizure – in which they are seized with a conviction that they could do better than their current employer, and resolve to set up in business on their own. A noble resolution – except that it is usually made without proper understanding of what it takes to run a business.

The basic problem, according to Gerber, ‘is that everybody who goes into business is actually three-people-in-one: The Entrepreneur, The Manager, and The Technician’.

  • The Entrepreneur
    The Entrepreneur is the dreamer and visionary who sees opportunities and capitalises on them. She focuses on the future and strategies for achieving the dream.
  • The Manager
    The Manager is the pragmatist who organises The Entrepreneur’s vision. While The Entrepreneur focuses on creating possibilities, The Manager focuses on setting things in order and keeping them that way.
  • The Technician
    The Technician is the worker, the person who does what needs to be done. While The Entrepreneur focuses on the future, The Technician lives in the present, happily absorbed in the task at hand.

Looking at these three roles, we can see that they are complementary. Properly coordinated, they would make the perfect business team, with The Entrepreneur inspiring the others with the vision, The Manager setting up systems and processes, and The Technician carrying out the daily tasks. Such a system can work whether the roles are played by different people, or whether an individual plays all three roles at different times.

But according to Gerber, what usually happens is that The Entrepreneur only appears for a moment – during the Entrepreneurial Seizure – then vanishes again. Into the void comes The Technician, convinced that he knows what needs to be done, and ploughs ahead working morning noon and night. Only instead of just doing his own technical work, he finds he also has to do everything else necessary to keep the business afloat. For example, a mechanic who sets up his own business finds he not only has to work full-time as a mechanic, he also has to be his own marketer, manager, accountant, IT department and CEO.

Inevitably The Technician discovers that there aren’t enough hours in the day. But instead of calling in The Entrepreneur or Manager for help, he adopts the only solution known to a Technician – working harder and longer. Because of his pride in his work, The Technician is convinced that nobody can do it as well as he can, and tries to do everything himself. This drives him to obsess over the details and get bogged down in perfectionism. Having made so many promises – to himself, to his family, to his customers – the weight of expectation bears down on him remorselessly. He refuses to give up, but it gets harder every day.

Does any of this sound familiar? That’s right – The Technician’s case has all the symptoms of creative burnout. In fact, we could say that The Artist is like The Technician on steroids. Both have the same love of work and perfectionistic pride in what they do. This can produce great results – but it can also spill over into workaholism and exhaustion.

Let’s face it, you don’t start a graphic design business because you love the idea of setting up business systems. You do it because you love design and want the freedom to do things your way. But if you’ve spent months working seven days a week, juggling graphic design work with bookkeeping, marketing, fixing your own computer and dealing with demanding clients, then you’re probably asking yourself whether it’s worth the hassle.

Just to be clear: there is nothing wrong with being a Technician or an Artist. Problems only occur when they take the place of The Entrepreneur and The Manager, and start trying to run every aspect of the business. They make wonderful Indians but terrible Chiefs. Creating and maintaining a successful business require different skills – and a different mindset.

The Creative Entrepreneur?

Gerber’s solution to the problem of the E- Myth involves a radical change of perspective:

The point is: your business is not your life.
Your business and your life are two totally separate things.

At its best, your business is something apart from you, rather than a part of you, with its own rules and its own purposes. An organism, you might say, which will live or die according to how well it performs its sole function: to find and keep customers.

Once you recognise that the purpose of your life is not to serve your business, but that the primary purpose of your business is to serve your life, you can then go to work on your business, rather than in it
The E- Myth

The Technician works in the business because he only sees the business as a vehicle for doing work. He doesn’t see it as an entity in its own right – something that you could go to work on, to build it, craft it and reshape it to make it more effective. That is the speciality of The Entrepreneur.

Personally, I’m intrigued by the fact that Gerber describes The Entrepreneur rather than The Technician as the ‘creative’ one:

The Entrepreneur is the creative personality – always at its best dealing with the unknown, prodding the future, creating probabilities out of possibilities, engineering chaos into harmony.
The E- Myth

The first time I read this I was surprised – surely the person who actually makes things is the creative one? But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes.

Obviously The Artist is creative, but his creativity is limited to artistic or technical spheres. He would never dream of seeing the business as a piece of creative work, which means he will never apply his creativity to the business itself. And he won’t trouble to learn the business skills that could transform his working life.

The difference between The Artist and The Entrepreneur is the difference between Jack and Marla. Jack has wonderful technical and artistic talents, which have made him a rising star at work. He’s recently been gripped by the Entrepreneurial Seizure, and dreams of travelling the world with his new business, but he has yet to learn what it really takes to be an Entrepreneur. Marla has the technical and artistic skill in spades, but these days she gets just as much satisfaction from applying her creativity to business problems. She’s the fully fledged Creative Entrepreneur – the rock star.

The rock star dream is creating a business that supports you and your creativity, allowing you to focus on the work you love while getting help with the rest – whether through partnering, outsourcing or automating the necessary processes.

Some of you will achieve the dream without literally becoming entrepreneurs. You’ll be lucky enough to find an organisation that allows you to be yourself and achieve your creative, professional and financial ambitions. But the chances are you’ll do it by taking an entrepreneurial approach to your career – always looking at the big picture, alert to opportunities and proposing solutions.

And like I say, there are no guarantees. For some, this means the dream will be too complicated, too difficult or too risky to pursue.

For others, like Marla, they’d never forgive themselves if they didn’t go for it.

How About You?

What’s the balance between money and meaning in your life right now? Is that the way you’d like it to continue?

Do you recognise a Technician/Artist tendency in yourself? If so, what are the consequences, good and bad?

Would you describe yourself as an Entrepreneur? Why/Why not?

How do you feel about pursuing the creative rock star dream?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet, creative coach and co-founder of Lateral Action. Subscribe today to get free updates by email or RSS.

Table of Contents for Creative Rock Stars

  1. Creative Entrepreneurs Are the Rock Stars of the 21st Century

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. At first I thought we were to contemplate this for abit, as you were separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were, and there’s be a follow up.
    Glad to see the comments open and know I’m not the only Creative type that can create a d/a screw up as you put it 🙂

  2. Well our about page refers to “those valuable mistakes that teach you way more than your successes” — so we like to practice what we preach. 🙂

  3. I see technician and entrepreneurial tendencies in myself. I love to come up with new ideas, and I can also work for hours to get them implemented.

    I’m currently leading a weekly meeting with non-entrepreneurs to coach them becoming more entrepreneurial, using the principles of the $-Road to Riches-$ ( You can see that we all have the CAPABILITY of operating in any of those roles, if the vision is large enough.

  4. I definitely fell into the technician role in the first few years of my business. Building Original Impulse and its systems was creative, after all. But operating them isn’t where the juice is for me. My creative writer was beating at the walls of the prison I had put her in, telling her once the business was successful, we’d let her out to play. I realized I needed to be creating and operating my business at the same time. I finally resumed my writing and art making alongside running my business and was much happier.
    I also feed the entrepreneur by consistently creating new opportunities through my business. I’ve expanded to leading creativity tours, developing products for creative types, and improving my speaking skills. This all helps feed my creative self at work while the technician plugs away at keeping my bookkeeping and email up to date. Next step: hiring an assistant to do all that administrative work!
    Thanks for putting the creative spin on the E-Myth, which every entrepreneur should read and live by.

  5. Seth Smith says:

    Brilliant series, Mark.

    By the time of this post I was to the point of hitting refresh.

    Maybe the tools of entrepreneurialism and self expression really are more synergistic than ever.

    And maybe, without the maddening high of the deafening crowds, creative rock stars won’t seek to reinstate the buzz with substance abuse.

    Or, MAYBE, we’ll hear about the Lateral Action gang trashing a hotel room in Miami.

  6. Thanks guys, really interesting to hear how were all trying to reconcile creative/artistic and business roles.

    Seth — with Brian on board, my money’s on a hotel in Vegas. 🙂

  7. Terrific article which got me thinking that even after 21 years (yes, she wrote 21) of working for myself I’m still very much the entrepreneur.

    I have 3 businesses now that I run in tandem. Each was started with a sense of excitement, a need for a new challenge rooted in intellectual restlessness.

    What entrepreneurs share is a love of the romance of starting something new from nothing … pitting themselves against the odds, throwing the cards up in the air and winning the pot.

    Entrepreneurs, in many ways, are the ultimate romantics.

  8. Entrepreneurs, in many ways, are the ultimate romantics.

    I totally agree with that.

  9. This is really an interesting topic…in a way it opens my mind 🙂

  10. Roberta — I agree with Brian, great line!

    Mchilly – that’s what we’re here for. 🙂

  11. I think this is typified in the artist who has a supremely ugly website. It’s as if the website is part of the ‘business’ aspect of things, and they are completely blind to it, or to the idea that it could be dealt with creatively and aesthetically.

    I love your posts. All very in-depth, informative, and to the point. Made me think, thanks!

  12. Yeah, Marla would remind us that aesthetics apply to business as well as canvases! Glad the posts struck a chord.

  13. What would you do with Heavy guitar talent with the only “Startup” available to be three ok guitars, a decent amp, 8 original songs, about 3k-4k in credit available, and no steady job at this time…. in South Florida (if region would matter)?

  14. Hi Adam,

    It’s extremely difficult to answer your question without being you. 🙂

    i.e. I’m afraid I can’t give you a surefire recipe for success. But three key ingredients are going to be:

    1. Making amazing music.

    2. Finding an audience and engaging with them, via what Seth Godin calls a ‘permission asset’. I.e. getting their permission to keep feeding them information about what you’re doing and selling. This could be a mailing list, blog, forum etc

    3. A business model that generates cash from the relationship between 1. and 2. The music industry is particularly volatile in this respect at the moment — there used to be an agreed way of doing things, i.e. sign to a record label, get them to promote you, etc. But that’s all changing now. Nobody really knows ‘the answer’ any more, and there are lots of new models and routes to success for aspiring rock stars. Which is either bewildering or exciting, depending on your point of view. 🙂

    For specific information and advice about the changing face of the music industry, I recommend Andrew Dubber’s excellent blog

    As a bottom line, I would encourage you to look at the business challenges you face as creative challenges — it’s a different kind of creativity to your music, but it can be just as rewarding in its own way.

    We’ll have plenty more to say about 1, 2 and 3 on Lateral Action – I hope you’ll consider subscribing to our own permission asset to hear what we have to say! 🙂

  15. I love the way you write . All very in-depth, informative, and to the point. Made me think, thanks!

  16. @ Mutuelle – there may be something in that, but I know a lot of entrepreneurs who love their work, and a few arts that require a lot of technical know-how!

    @ Fuad – My pleasure, thank you!

  17. Muhamed Ali says:

    So true !!!! Love it !!!!! Awesome!!!

  18. Mark I had a blast reading your rockstar series. It amazing how you created this piece of work, 2 yrs ago and it is still highly pertinent now. I’m also doing your lateral action worksheets, that go with your creative pathfinder course.

    I’m excited to see how this will all turn out.

    p.s stumbled across you via Peter Shallard, another good chap!! You guys are doing great things

  19. As a person who makes actual products and working hard on marketing them, this was a very enlightning article, it doesn’t even matter it was allready written 3 years ago.
    I definately started out as an artist/technician but lately, with help from the Roadmap course, start to understand how even I can be an entrepeneur on the long term.
    In my book your a rockstar Mark!