Joseph Campbell’s Advice to Artists

Should I study law? Should I study business? Should I just become a painter? Should I devote myself to writing? How will I pay the bills? Can I make a living doing this? I need __ ? I want __ ? Should I do __ or __ ? How can I __ ?

So many questions plague the mind when you focus it on the future. The uncertainty of what will happen is scary. There is fear in not knowing what to do. Some might think that if one figures out what they wish to do with their life then that fear might subside. I found that not to be true. Making a living through art is never guaranteed. With anything there is uncertainty. Knowing what one wishes to do is very different from being able to do that thing and even that is different from making a living doing that thing. The questions of security, stability, happiness and purposeful living always revolve around such decisions.

Joseph Campbell too thought similar thoughts. He understood what it was like to wish to pursue a life of art but at the same time not wanting to be dead broke the entire time. He knew the consequences that could arise from living the “artist way of life” and that penniless living is just filled with struggle and hard times. That life is not for everyone. It definitely is not for me. In order to help ease the decision between pursuing what one loves and what might give stability, Joseph Campbell differentiated between work and job.

From Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion

The normal situation is that, perhaps for years, you work away at your art, your life vocation, your life-fulfilling field of action, and there’s no money in it. You have to live, though, so you get a job, which may be a low-degree activity relative to what you are interested in. You could, for instance, teach people the art you are operating in yourself. So, let’s say you have a teaching job, and you also have sacred space and time to perform your own work. Your art is what I would call your work. Your employment is your job.

Having separated what one loves and how one makes a living. Joseph Campbell goes further and talks about what to do if one is given a raise in his/her job.

Then, you are doing so well in your job that your employer wants to move you into a higher position. You’ll have to give more to the job than before, and you will receive a higher salary, but your new commitments will cut down on your free time. My advice is: don’t accept the promotion.

Time is what people do not have and cannot control. It goes quickly and one needs it to do what they wish to do. What happens when you spend more time on your job? You have less time for your work. In this way, one quickly spirals further and further away from his/her work as job commitments become more demanding along with higher pay.

Its’s like doing your exercise: you set aside a time when you’re going to exercise, and that is a holy time. With your art, you should do the same: give a certain number of hours a day to your art, and make it consistent. Then, whether you’re writing or not, sit there for those hours: it’s a meditation on communication and expression, the two factors in the art work. What will happen, ideally, is that gradually – and it might not be this week or next or even this year – as your given responsibilities drop off, there will be an expansion of the time available to you for the practice of your art. The point I’m making is that your work – that is, your art – and your job must not contaminate each other.

At the end of the day, the dream is to have your job and work be the same thing. For some people that comes early and for others, it happens much later in life. And for some, that combination never takes place. Regardless, a pursuit of stable living does not mean death to the artist inside of you. One can find the proper balance.

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