Creative Rock Stars Get Paid to Do What They Love

This post is part of the Creative Rock Stars series.

Flaming heart

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:

  1. There are clear goals every step of the way
  2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions
  3. 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, 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.”

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More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

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  1. Caterwauling | June 30, 2009


  1. I believe ALL work can be creative. It is our viewpoint and attitude toward that work, that determines whether it disconnects us or connects us.

    With that mindset we can all have a good life and we can all evolve current work into more satisfying work – if we attach the label of “non-creative, no-good, I hate this work” to our current work, we are sacrifcing our ability to be guided to more satisfying work.

    Was it Mother Theresa who said, “Try to find God in the pots and pans?” I interpret that to mean, find connection, inner alignment where you are, in every moment, as best you can. From there, you can feel, be guided and create the beautiful, creative life you want.

    In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book he highlights a steel worker who (don;t remember all the details, but…here’s the gist) was highly respected at work. Steady, helpful, clear minded and seen as a leader, without the leader title. Admired by owners and all workers, trusted and respected.

    At home this worker took a plot of land next to his house in a rough neighborhood and made a beautiful, creative, inspiring garden. He transformed his world – through his focus on adding value where he was – living out, what was for him, his greatest intentions. A rock-star in his world.

    My biggest learning has been this…work to find Connection/ Relief/ Good Feelings between where I am and where I want to be in the moment, moment by moment…

    (Finding God in the pots and pans.)

    …whether I’m cooking dinner, going to the Grocery, writing an article, training executives, updating my website, walking my dog… when i place my focus there, on my Connection and what I’m doing in relationship to my focus and my intentions, well, then I am truly getting in and being closer to the Creative Zone, and then I am guided and inspired to the creations that most thrill me.

    Seeing everything as a possibility for creativity – is key. I see friends who want to be “creative” but they hate their job and in their angst they seem to stay stuck. Never even getting close to their ‘creative’ dreams.

    It is all creative. And it is up to us indiivudally to focus and appreciate…when we do, intrinsic happy takes place, and then extrinsic happy unfolds. For me, in my world, that’s how it All works.

  2. It is true that money can not buy love or happiness but it can buy freedom to do the things that you love. Also doing the things that you love can buy you money. Once you get that momentum rolling it is like a well oiled machine.

    I think one of the hardest parts is taking what you create and making money with it. Anyone can attract clients and do work for them but to be in a position to choose your clients is where the freedom comes in. When you are the best at your creative niche, then you can pick and choose your customers. Jason Fried from 37signals used to do this in his web design. He wasn’t in business to attract a lot of clients, only the ones that saw the true value of what he did.

  3. “but unless your spaceship is fuelled by premium-grade creative enthusiasm Major Tom ain’t going anywhere far or fast.”

    WHAT the hell does this mean? Sorry, but I don’t know what you’re referring to and even if I did I still don’t think I’d understand what you mean in the context of what you were talking about there. Please translate.

  4. Andrew – It’s a reference to the song ‘Space Oddity’ by David Bowie. In the song, Major Tom is an astronaut blasted into orbit. It’s sometimes interpreted as a metaphor for the process of becoming a star. I was trying to suggest that you won’t make it as a star unless you’re genuinely fired up by your creative passion (instead of focused on the trappings of fame). Does that help? 🙂

  5. Yup, got it, thanks.

  6. I’ve found that getting paid to write actually inspires me to do a better job of it. Each time I get a raise, a more prestigious assignment or more demanding client, I feel compelled to justify it with better and higher quality work. Overall, I’d say getting paid to do a creative activity deepens your respect for the activity and strengthens your bond to it.

    Just my .02 cents. 😉

  7. Some of my best work has been stuff I never expected to get paid for. And some of my worst work is the stuff I was trying so desperately to get paid for. So I wholeheartidly agree with what you’re saying here. My questions is, how do you pay the bills if you are in a position where what you love to do is not necessarily something other people want to pay for? I don’t think crossing your fingers and hoping for a reward (payment)down the road is the best approach. Not for everyone at least. What do you think?

  8. My husband and I have been trying to make a living from our creative abilities for years now. We’ve had personal success with generating creative ideas which have earned us accolades and awards, but not financial success.

    We both got to the point of frustration where we wanted to stop earning from our creativity because not nearly enough money was coming in from it and it became soul destroying.

    So we tried doing more ‘commercial’ activities to earn, with the thought that we could then do our creative stuff in our free time. That didn’t work either – perhaps because even good ‘commercial’ stuff has to come from good applied creativity!

    We are now coming round to the realization that the methods and concepts being discussed here are what’s going to work – we’d figured out a lot of it ourselves, but at least for me, I find reading others’ descriptions of the process gives you all those little coined phrases, catch words, mantras, even formulas that pull it together and build up your resistance to the ROTS(Running on the Spot) virus.

    thanks for the motivating work

  9. Jay, Darren -very interesting to see you have opposite reactions to being paid for creativity. That fits my experience pretty well — it can go either way. Personally I find that being paid for coaching consulting etc certainly helps me focus and raise the creative bar in my business. On the other hand it’s really nice to have my poetry is a space where I don’t expect to earn any money and I just do it for the joy of it. Which kind of leads into answering Darren’s question — so far I haven’t worked out how to earn cash from writing poetry but my coaching work is a very satisfying way of earning money from an activity that’s “next door” to poetry. Sometimes you have to look sideways from your core creative passion in order to find something that people will pay for.

    Finola — sounds like you and your husband have been wrestling with the same issues. There’s no simple solution but it’s certainly a theme we’ll be returning to repeatedly on Lateral Action. I hope you’ll all stay with us and continue to share your experiences, it’s really encouraging us in what we’re doing and hopefully other readers as well.

  10. For me, the creativity/money paradox is about accountability.

    I find that the extrinsic motivation of having to deliver a creative performance (in my case, a piano competition, not money) drives me to dig deeper to realize my capabilities. If I’m simply playing for my own pleasure, I”m much less likely to push through that painful point of resistance or frustration (even though the other side of that resistance is where the most satisfying flow experience is).

    Some people do not seem to need that extrinsic motivation, but I do. It’s not that I’m actually thinking about the competition while I’m practicing (just like the person above probably is not thinking about the money while he’s writing). It’s the external accountability that motivates one to raise the bar.

  11. Thanks Renita really good point. In a way, accountability works in favour of creative performers or team members, by really forcing them to focus and get on with it, pushing through the barrier of fear or discomfort and delivering something because others are expecting it. If you’re a writer, designer etc working at home on your own you can end up procrastinating for days simply because you don’t have that external accountability.

    I blogged about this a while ago, suggesting that stage fright and writers block are basically the same thing — a wall of fear — but public accountability forces performers through the wall, whereas writers can spend days chipping away at it.

  12. Getting paid to create is an awesome feeling. It is truly the creators Holy Grail to do live a life of creativity and get paid for it. The road there is can be long and bumpy but as long as you stop and smell the roses(or snap a shot with you’re macro lens) you’ll probably reach your destination. At least that’s what I hope for.