How to Find Meaning in Creative Pursuits Outside of Work
As the finale in our series on self care for creatives, we dive into one of the biggest questions and challenges creative people face: how do we decide what creative work to keep for ourselves and what work to do for others? Annika Loebig (@anniloebig) chats with a few different working creatives across industries to explore how they think about and approach the difference between hobbies and work we should monetize as "work".
There’s a Tibetan Buddhist tradition in which monks create mandalas through the careful arrangement of colored grains of sand. The process can take anything from days to weeks, often with several monks working on it. Now, imagine you were one of those monks. For weeks, you’ve spent eight hours a day crouching over your several square metres large canvas, drawing patterns in the sand after you’ve assembled your pieces. You’ve devoted your utmost attention and concentration to the piece in front of you, which is finally, after a heavily laborious time, finished. You admire its beauty and the universe it represents. After one last look, you destroy it.
Feels pretty horrible, doesn’t it? To simply destroy the fruits of your creativity after having invested so much time and effort into it?
However, having a finished product was never the point to begin with. The ritual of sand mandalas is in many ways a meditative way for monks and their wider communities to reflect on the impermanence of life and its material reality. It serves as a reminder that there exists something that’s larger than our own tiny worlds. The destruction of the mandala is also supposed to empower the artist by forcing them to detach themselves from the art and the consequential permanence we often try to impose on it and hold on to. The detachment is therefore supposed to help the artist see that there’s value in the practice itself.
In today’s hustling culture and its glorification of the rise and grind mentality, we couldn’t be further away from the teachings of Tibetan monks. It can often feel like our creative pursuits lack any form of intrinsic value if they don’t serve as a means to our professional work.
As much as it feels good to acknowledge the luxury of turning our hobbies into paid work, how can we make sure that our creative tasks remain a source of pleasure and self-care without crumbling under the pressure of monetization?
I consider writing my main creative, and professional, pursuit. As the masochist that I am, I’ve always enjoyed the pain and reward that comes from getting teased by that blinking insertion point on a Word document, or the blank piece of paper in front of me, until I twist my brain for long enough to color it with an arrangement of words. I probably also clean the kitchen in procrastination, so let’s pretend that’s an extra bonus for productivity. As if the torture of writing wasn’t enough though, I’m also a terrible painter. It’s something I always picked up here and there over the years, but never stuck with for long enough to improve, which is one of the many reasons why I’ve never seen any career development opportunities in my painting skills. It’s never been anything more than an innocent, creative act of enjoying the present, and a way for me to decorate my bedroom walls the same way a child decorates their family’s fridge. However, sometimes I wonder if I felt differently if only I was good at it?
Co-founder of ethical fashion store The Good Apparel Hanna Moedder has always had a creatively diverse spirit. From drawing when she was younger, landing gigs as a wedding singer and even appearing on the Voice of Germany, to utilizing her interest in fashion through her online store, she’s often found ways to monetize her creative hobbies in various ways.
“I always feel guilty when I don’t work so I’m rather trying to create space and time where I deliberately don’t do anything that has to be productive” , she tells me. “I have stepped back from making music commercially because I found that at the time, it obstructed my creativity. But now I work as a singer again and I have found that it actually contributes to my creative work now.”
Oliver Crown, photographer and student at Westminster university whose work recently got published in Vogue Italia, explained how he tries to keep his love for shooting Polaroid separate from his fashion and concept portraiture work. However, he explains as it’s still a medium of photography, it’s easy to get tempted to utilize his most favorite images for work.
“Polaroid is such a niche loved format, and people love having their photos taken on them. I ran the numbers on selling Polaroids for people around valentines but decided against it because it felt like a chore.”
Our Instagram fueled dreams make us believe that the sole purpose of our creative hobbies is to turn their products into gold one day. Openly admitting that you’d rather choose a less ambitious goal with your art in exchange for more free, unmonetized time is often virtually frowned upon. If you’re not painting in order to become Instagram’s next Matisse, are you even alive today? And when the internet does advocate taking a step back and using your creativity for pleasure, it still does so in the name of productivity. With articles and blog entries citing various studies about how creative pursuits and hobbies can in fact increase your productivity and improve the quality of your work, they become nothing more than ‘productivity life hacks’, defeating the purpose of enjoying being present during an activity. As freelance writer and co-author of Basic Witches Jaya Saxena wrote in her New York Times article The Case for Having a Hobby: “Yes, studies have shown that having a hobby can make you more productive at work, but hobbies can also remind you that work isn’t everything.”
The blogging industry has evolved massively over the last decade, turning from simple digital diaries with crappy images into self-employed, professionally coded and marketed websites and businesses. Malvika Sheth, founder and digital content creator behind Stylebymalvika, has found it cathartic to frequently share her creative hobbies with her audiences. As blogging is such a highly personal and intimate medium, she’s been forced to consider what to share with others and what’s best to keep to herself.
“I’ve been told to strategically start up a new food blog or to launch a product with my designs, but these are things I’m not going to put pressure on myself for—at least not at the moment. Some creative pursuits are too enjoyable in an intimate way, so when that’s the case, I wouldn’t want to add the stress of monetization.”
Of course it’s worth mentioning that in the increasingly competitive creative industries, many people who can’t make ends meet purely through the (often underpaid) income from creative work won’t have much of a choice to resist full monetization.
Working two jobs while monetizing your craft has not just become a glorified work aesthetic of the struggling artist, but is a forced reality for many people trying to break into the creative industry.
As a young photography student, Oliver is fully aware of the pressure that comes with getting ahead of the game. His biggest advice, he tells me, is to understand the importance of deadlines and carve out the time it offers you to your advantage.
“Encourage yourself to do miscellaneous creative tasks alongside your actual work, because you never know where inspiration will come from and whether you will do something you love doing that can influence your paid work. If you are constantly finding new things to do, you will never get bored and never lose passion for what you love doing.”
Speaking of deadlines, Hanna has found it helpful to actively plan free time, and refraining from setting a goal on purpose. As creative hobbies tend to start without any prior intentions, it might be helpful to remind ourselves of the value it gives us before opportunities come up to turn it into a business or career.
“I think when things start off organically, then you can think about whether or not you’d be able to take the added pressure of business for something that’s been a source of pleasure for you,” Malvika explains. “Most of us have several creative outlets, so if one is for business, keep another for strictly pleasure!”
As much as the internet and its digital revolution has increased the pace and pressure of our creative industries, it also offers many more opportunities for creative refuge. Apps like Meetup offer various classes and social arrangements ranging from live drawing to yoga to programming events. It’s a good way to explore different hobbies with other people for fun - and I have yet got to come across a mention of networking! Video game Art Sqool created by Julian Glander offers users to engage in creative assignments which are graded and generated by an A.I. It’s creative self-care in the form of escapism by your inner child who used to love drawing in Paint.
Another more solitary solution is to sign up for an online creative self-care class. One of the biggest names in that category is Amy Maricle, who’s featured in many publications such as the New York Times, Spirituality & Health, the Washington Post among many others to talk about her Mindful Art Studio. Her online studio offers several creative self-care practices, personal mentoring, and resources on drawing to calm anxiety and help with loneliness. On her website, she writes that “Art is not for the privileged, the special, the anointed. Art is the natural creative expression that is the birthright of each one of us” which is why she also offers free classes to help anyone jumpstart their creativity. “My training as an art therapist taught me the importance of focusing on process over product, and how to use mindfulness to tune into the moment through art.“
I doubt that we’d turn into pumpkin growing, ukulele playing hippies who fingerpaint their livestock if only Squarespace didn’t tell us to get that template to sell the fruits of our creative pursuits. But perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is that spending time doing something creative can have meaning in itself. It’s worth reminding ourselves that living doesn’t just constitute working, and that sometimes carving out potatoes for a round of potato painting is a surprisingly good way to catapult us back into the present, and why our love for creativity blossomed in the first place.
Annika Loebig is a writer, socks-in-bed kind of world citizen, and journalism student at London College of Communication, using the art of writing to start conversations about contemporary human issues.