Money doesn’t buy happiness but it does buy time. And time spent on creative work can be bliss.
One of the main reasons we’re so envious of rock stars is they don’t have to trade off time doing what they want vs what pays the bills. Even better, they are very well paid for doing something they love to do.
Have you ever felt a twinge of anxiety or guilt at devoting time to a fascinating creative project with no obvious commercial value, when your Inner Boss was telling you you should be doing something more ‘productive’? If so, then the idea of getting paid for having that much fun may sound too good to be true. Not for a rock star it isn’t.
Even if you already make a decent living out of your creativity it may not yet have sunk in that the more you enjoy your work, the better it will be. And the better it is, the more you can expect to be paid for it. So if you ever find yourself feeling ‘stuck in a rut’ at work, alarm bells should be ringing – the more bored and dissatisfied you are, the poorer your work will be and… I guess you can finish that sentence.
To see why enjoyment and creative excellence are so intimately linked, let’s turn to the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has spent a lifetime researching happiness and fulfilment. He is famous for his concept of flow, which he describes as ‘an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness’ which we experience at moments of absorption in challenging activity. Flow is what happens when you become so pleasantly absorbed in writing, drawing, playing music or sports, or presenting to an audience that you ‘come round’ at the end and wonder where the time went.
You can experience flow when engaged in a wide range of activities, but you won’t be surprised to learn it’s particularly common during creative work. After all, that fascinated absorption in your work is one of the main reasons you devote yourself to creative pursuits – right?
So far so fun. But Csikszentmihalyi’s research shows that the pleasurable experience of flow occurs during times of peak performance. He cites the following three performance-related conditions of flow:
- There are clear goals every step of the way
- There is immediate feedback to one’s actions
- There is a balance between challenges and skills
So unless you’re stretching yourself and making progress towards meaningful creative goals, flow will be in short supply.
Now here’s the tricky part – while creative flow is an intrinsic motivation (i.e. the experience is rewarding in itself), money is an extrinsic motivation (i.e. something you get for the end product of the work). This means that the more you are focused on the work itself and enjoying the act of creation, the better it will be. But the moment you start thinking about what you hope to get for the work – such as money or fame – you take your eye off the ball and risk turning out something mediocre. Which ironically, will have less commercial value.
So if you really want to make money out of your creativity, one of the most important things you can do is find work you absolutely love to do. Of course, you also need to be producing something others want to buy – but unless your spaceship is fuelled by premium-grade creative enthusiasm Major Tom ain’t going anywhere far or fast.
The poet Anne Sexton summed it up when she told her agent that she would love her poems to make her a lot of money, but she had to forget all about that in order to actually write them.
Another example is the well-known ‘difficult second album syndrome’. Debut albums are usually the result of an irrepressible musical spirit that bursts forth from the band. It’s great when fame and fortune result, but it also gives you a challenge: how do you ignore the weight of expectation – from your fans, the media, your management and each other – long enough to write and record music for the sheer joy of it? Sometimes it’s easier to get famous slowly.
So getting paid to do what you love can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you deal with it. You could create the Sistine Chapel or Led Zeppelin IV. Or you could end up as another rock ‘n’ roll casualty, burnt out and/or selling out.
Either way, money and creativity are an explosive combination. Handle with care.
Motivation, Money and You
What kind of creative work do you enjoy the most?
What creative work has brought you the greatest external rewards – such as money, fame, critical acclaim or new opportunities?
How does getting paid for your work affect your creativity? Do you find it a help or a hindrance?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.