The Creative Work Conundrum

The problem with creative work is it usually fails.

Creatives spend hours and hours on projects that almost always crash and burn. Just about every project started by a creative professional will end in disappointment.

It’s demoralizing. It’s depressing. It’s draining. Worse yet, when a creative doesn’t succeed, he doesn’t get paid. All those hours and resources invested in the project are gone forever. Unfortunately, our culture places very little value on the creative process. Instead, we care only about the product it generates. If the product fails to deliver, then the process too is wasted.

The savvy creative at least gains experience from failure and puts that experience to use in future versions, but that experience isn’t edible. The creative work process largely has no payoff. Because of this emphasis on a successful product, there is no reward for the vast majority of creative work.

How do we creatives continue to underwrite our work until we get that one success that makes the whole process worth it?

Sometimes we forget this failure imperative in the creative work process. Because we only see Jobs’s iPhone or Picasso’s Guernica or hear Handel’s Messiah, we sometimes forget how many failures these great creatives underwent in the process of creating their masterpieces.

The truth is, though, we all fail many times before we ever succeed. In fact, if the creative work life has chosen you, you will almost always be failing. Until you aren’t.

It’s that one success that can change everything–that can make all those failures mean something. Because when we finally achieve that success, the process is suddenly validated. All that work that was previously written off, retroactively gains credence.

My Creative Work Conundrum

Why am I going off on this tangent about creative work today? I actually don’t even know. It’s been on my mind lately. Probably because I’ve had so many professional failures in my life. So many “almosts.” I’ve had a couple successes, too, of course. Like this website and also the Adjunct Project. But neither have brought me the financial windfall I need in order to keep living this life of the creative mind.

And I guess that’s really the heart of the Creative Work Conundrum. How do we creatives continue to underwrite our work until we get that one success that makes the whole process worth it?

I’m sure this is the primary reason that most creatives stop short of realizing their full potential–they just run out of money. A long streak of creative failures and they’re broke. So it’s back to the grind.

I guess I also start thinking about this concept as the semester winds down and I have to start getting serious about how I will pay my bills over the summer. That adjunct professor salary just doesn’t cut it as far as saving for the future goes.

As one who’s consumed by creative work at all times, I have several projects in the pipeline. Lots of ideas and even time to execute them; it’s just that third side of the triangle that gets me: the financial means to sustain the creative process through the inevitable repeat failures.

I’ve always found a way to keep it going so far. I’m sure I’ll do it again. I’m a creative. Therefore, I know I’ll never be able to escape the creative work conundrum–even if I wanted to. I will perpetually be hounded by the threat of financial collapse until that one day when I’m not.

I’m sure many of you know exactly what I’m talking about. I want to share something with you that I found on the web a few years ago. No idea who created it. I take it out every once in a while when I start thinking about the struggle that accompanies self-guided creative work. Hope it inspires you to keep pushing yourself, even when it all seems futile. That’s the ecstasy and the agony of the creative life: We’ll always keep on creating.

Creative Work Gap


  • docspencerreid

    The quote is from public radio personality Ira Glass, and it’s a great one.