Transcript of The Myth of the Starving Artist
John Jantsch: This episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast is brought to you by SaneBox. Get some sanity back in your inbox. Take control of your inbox. Get all that stuff out of there that is dragging you down. I’m going to give you a special offer later in the show. Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch and my guest today is Jeff Goins. He’s an author, blogger, and speaker, founder of an organization called Tribe Writers, an online community for writers, and he is the author of a new book we’re going to talk about today called Real Artists Don’t Starve: Timeless Strategies for Thriving in the New Creative Age. Jeff, thanks for joining us.
Jeff Goins: Thanks for having me, John. Pleasure to be here.
John Jantsch: I know you’re in the Nashville area.
Jeff Goins: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Jantsch: I play a little guitar and so-
Jeff Goins: I know you do.
John Jantsch: Last time I was down there, obviously I’m going to check out the music and I’m always floored at these guys. I’m like, “Dude, I would pay so much money to see you play,” and this guy has a guitar case open on a corner.
Jeff Goins: Yeah, I know.
John Jantsch: Playing for tips, and I think that’s a little bit of what you get out here, isn’t?
Jeff Goins: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, right. Yeah, I’m surrounded by creative geniuses in this incredible town, writers, even entrepreneurs and musicians, and many of them have the starving artist mentality that regardless of how talented you are, there are just some things that people aren’t going to pay for. Obviously, I believe that’s not true.
John Jantsch: Are we waiting for that big break? Are we waiting for somebody to tell us we are good enough? I mean, because you also see people that have that record deal that they’re not that talented.
Jeff Goins: Yeah. I think that’s true. You know, the whole idea of Real Artists Don’t Starve is I wanted to debunk the myth of the starving artist, and I was talking to an old friend of mine. When I first moved to town, I worked for this organization as like a telemarketer calling people and selling them music subscriptions. I met the CEO of that company. I just ran into him and he goes, “What are you doing?” I go, “I write books now.” He’s like, “What’s your latest book?” I told him, and I said, “It’s about the myth of the starving artist.” He’s like, “A myth? You mean to tell me that this guy that can’t make a living traveling 200 dates a year, like that’s a myth?” I was like, “Well, you know, myths are stories and they may or may not be factually true, but myths are stories that we tell ourselves to help us make sense of the reality around us.”
When we tell ourselves these stories long enough, whether or not they’re accurate, they become true to us, right? Growing up believing the Santa Claus myth, that was real to me. That was true to me. Same thing with this myth of the starving artist. If I tell myself, and this is something that we still say in our culture, that there’s no money in art, that you can’t make money as a musician or a writer or an artist, then you start believing it and the things that we believe have a way of coming true in our lives.
I think the same thing is true with the other side of the story, the story of what I call the thriving artist. If you believe that story, that can be true too, and so whether or not you starve as a creative, it’s really your choice, and that’s why we see people who are very, very starving because they’re neglecting what it takes to thrive, which is you have understand marketing, you have to be willing to get into the business side of your art. It’s also why we see people who are succeeding who may not be that talented, but understand the business aspects of their craft.
John Jantsch: One of the real pressures I think that people who consider themselves artists fall under is this idea of what you talked about, marketing and selling is selling out.
Jeff Goins: Yeah. Absolutely.
John Jantsch: How does that hold people back?
Jeff Goins: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a spectrum. I actually believe in the word sellout. Some people don’t, you know? That they think that’s just something that people … that’s a word that people say about you when you start to succeed.
John Jantsch: Right. That’s people who can’t figure out how to make money. Right.
Jeff Goins: I think obviously there’s some truth to that, but I do think as somebody who really cares about good art, good music, good writing, I’m very aware of that. I don’t want to be a sellout. A sellout to me, John … and I think it’s very subjective. What it means for you to sellout is not what it means for me to sellout, and so I have no right calling you a sellout and vice-versa. What it means to sellout, in my definition, is that you are making art, which Lewis Hine calls a gift, and I agree with that. Art is a gift that we give to the world and I think we have a responsibility to make money off of that so we can keep giving that gift, but the gift itself is a gift, you know? It’s not something that we’re trying to necessarily hawk. If at some point you start making things for the sole purpose of making a buck and you begin to compromise the values that first got you started in this …
I think you can do this in anything. I think you can do this in business, marketing, art, creative writing, craft making, whatever. If you got into something because you loved it and you wanted to change people’s lives with this, and then at some point it gets flipped and you’re doing this just to feed the beast, to make more money, for me that feels like selling out and very averse to that. I don’t want to do that. On the other hand, I don’t want to starve, so this is sort of the spectrum from starving to sellout. I think in between those two extremes is I what I call a thriving artist, and this is somebody who doesn’t make art to make money, but they have disciplined themselves to make money so that they can make more art.
John Jantsch: In some ways, I think, would you agree that who and what we call an artist or who and what we call art is probably broader than most people accept?
Jeff Goins: I agree with that. Seth Godin talks about this in his book — I know he’s a mutual friend of ours — on The Icarus Deception. You know, he says, and he talks about this in a few of his books, but art is something that you create that changes someone or something, and I think at its purest essence, art is a creative gift that you share with the world, and so do you have to mark art? Is everything art? No, not necessarily, but anything can be art in the sense that you can take a gift that you have, and when you share it with the world and it impacts at least one other person, I would call that art and I think it is the thing that makes us human. It is the thing that connects us to each other, is the ability to make things that in one way or another the world has never seen, at least like this, and it connects you to me and me to somebody else and so on.
John Jantsch: Yeah, and I would suggest there are a lot of business owners out there that have created an artful solution to solving someone’s problem who would never consider themselves an artist.
Jeff Goins: Absolutely, yeah. I think any time you’re making something that is building on what has come before, but you’re iterating and you’re innovating and you’re changing it in some way that has a greater impact on people’s lives, absolutely. I think that’s art. I also think that a lot of business owners and entrepreneurs can have a starving artist mentality about their work, which is just any time you think your passion, this thing that you care about, this gift that you want to share, like has no innate value, that it’s not something people are willing to pay for. I see this. I see this with people who have gone out of business or are frustrated. They’ve got some great bakery or some big idea or an app, and it just doesn’t work and they start telling themselves, what? This story, which is, “Well, nobody wanted this anyway and it wasn’t really worth anything and I’ll just go do something that’s a sure bet.”
The point of the book is, art actually, in spite of what we heard, is a pretty safe bet as long as you do the things that real thriving artists have always done and you don’t try to go at it alone or pretend like the way the universe is setup in terms of what it takes to succeed in any craft, in any business … These are rules that you have to follow even in the arts.
John Jantsch: Tell me a little bit about Tribe Writers.
Jeff Goins: Tribe Writers is this course that I’ve been teaching since 2012 and I kind of came upon it accidentally. You know, online courses are a big thing now, but back then there were some, but it was kind of a new thing. That was the year that kind of changed everything for me. In 2011, my wife and I decided to start a family. She got pregnant. I was working a full-time job at a non-profit and I was actually fundraising my salary at that organization. She was working with a record label here in Nashville, and we could not afford for her to stay home and be a mom for a while, and that’s what she really wanted to do, and so I was trying to figure this out. I’d started to blog at this point. I started writing about my own journey as a writer, and it was just kind of this experiment. I was writing every day on it, just trying to share my ideas with the world, and it had grown to tens of thousands of subscribers.
People kept talking about how to make money online and I’d never had any luck with this, but it was something that was interesting to me, and so I wrote an e-book called You Are a Writer. It was just my journey of how I’d started this blog, built an audience, and I’d actually just signed my first book deal, which wasn’t a ton of money, but it obviously was a big deal, gave me a lot of confidence, and so I’d done some things that writers want to do: build an audience, get published. Then I wrote this other book. Actually, while I was waiting for my first traditionally published book to come out, I wrote a second self-published book in between turning the manuscript in and it coming out because I needed to make some money. I just self-published it, and it was called You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One). It was just my journey as this short, little book, like 20,000 words.
I published it in 2012, and put my email address at the back of the book and 10,000 people bought that book and started emailing me at the address, asking questions. I couldn’t keep up with all the questions and I would tell people to go read my blog or I would answer the question or I would send them to another research, but people just kept asking me to show them how to do these things that I’d done: start a blog, network with influencers, grow a personal brand, get published, etc. Finally I was like, “Okay, what people are describing is a course. I just need to create a course,” and so I built the course with my community, with my audience. I said, “What do you want?” “Oh, we want to learn how to do this.” Okay, I’m going to put this in the course. “What do you want?” “I want to learn how to do this.”
I built this course while still having a full-time job. At the end of each night, I’d put my son down for bed. I would sneak through his nursery and I’d on to my home office, and I would whisper into the microphone these lesson plans. I’d do this every night from like 11:00 at night to midnight and it took months, and I built this course and launched it. In about a week, I made practically my salary for the year and I thought that was like an anomaly, so I went through the course, I taught people the material. Eight weeks later, I launched it again. Same thing, maybe even more money. By the end of the year, my wife had quit her job and I was getting ready to quit my job. I’ve been doing it ever since, writing books and teaching writers how to succeed.
John Jantsch: That’s a awesome story. Thanks for sharing that. One of the themes in the book, and I’ve actually heard this from other folks, this idea of being an artist doesn’t mean that every word that comes from your mouth and every brush stroke is something original.
Jeff Goins: Yeah. Steal Like An Artist, that Austin Kleon thing. Love that. There’s an old quote that I am particularly fond of, by a guy named Will Durant who’s a historian. He says, “Nothing is new except arrangement.” In the book The Rule, there’s 12 rules in the book for how to not starve and how to be a thriving artist and whatever your vocation is. You know, the idea here, the rule is don’t try to be original. So many creative people, particularly young ones, I think are trying to be original. They’re moving to a cabin in the woods to write a book. They’re sitting in their basement trying to write a song. You know, they’re going someplace by themselves trying to come up with an original idea.
The irony here is all of their heroes, all of the world’s most creative minds throughout history did the exact opposite of this. They stole from their influences. They borrowed the best ideas from their predecessors and they rearranged them, they built on them, and then they shared them with the world. When I talk about this, people are like, “You don’t really mean steal. You mean, you know, like learn from.” I go, “Well, I don’t know about that.” You know, there’s the story where Steve Jobs calls Bill Gates and he’s mad at him because Windows had just come out and Windows, as you may remember, John, looked a lot like the operating system for the first Macintosh.
John Jantsch: The first one, sure.
Jeff Goins: Steve Jobs was mad at Bill Gates. He said, “You stole from us.” Bill Gates, “What are you talking about, I stole from you?” He goes, “You stole from us. You know, Windows, it looks just like the Mac.” He goes, “Hang on a second, Steve. The way I see it is we both had a rich neighbor named Xerox and when I broke in to steal his VCR, I saw that you had already stolen his television.” What he’s referring to is back in the day, Xerox would let people come in and look at all their stuff. Steve Jobs brought the entire Mac team in there and copied some. They basically invented the mouse and this graphic user interface.
They co-oped in all that stuff and they stole from a bunch of other people, and they rearranged into something that looked original to them, but they were building on the work that had come before them, which is the only way we do great work. I think it’s Austin who says this where if you steal from one person, you’re a thief. You’re a copycat. That’s plagiarism. Don’t do that, but when you steal from many people, now you’re an artist.
John Jantsch: Let me ask you a question. How many emails do you have in your inbox right now? 100, 1,000, 10,000? But you can’t just delete them all. There has to be a way to take your inbox back over if it’s running your life. There was a point in my business where I felt like all I did was delete email, and then I found a tool called SaneBox. It really allows you to take back control of your inbox, of your email. It starts off by taking everything you’ve got in there today and figuring out what’s important, what’s not important, and creating folders and places for it to go that in some cases you’ll never again, but in another cases you can quickly check. There’s also tools in there to remind you when you need to follow up on an email. It’s actually incredibly accurate, and I have worked with the folks in SaneBox to get you a discount, my listeners. If you visit SaneBox, that’s S-A-N-E B-O-X.com/ducttape, you’re going to find that you can get a $25 discount just because you are a listener of this show. Again, S-A-N-E B-O-X, sanebox.com/ducttape.
One of the other themes that I love, practice in public. I think there are a whole lot of people that think they have to practice behind closed doors and figure it all out, and then come out to the world and say, “Here it is.” Now, boy, from the very beginning, the get-go of my business I said, “I’m a speaker. I’m an author. I’m a consultant. Then I’m going to go out and consult and I’m going to write and I’m going to speak, and maybe I’ll actually become one of those things.”
Jeff Goins: I love that. Yeah. I don’t think you fake it till you make it, but I do think you believe it till you become it, and this journey takes faith of becoming an artist, an entrepreneur, something that you are not yet but want to be. It takes a little bit of faith and it also takes a lot of practice. My friend Bryan Harris calls this learning out loud. He said, “Don’t wait to be the expert.” If you want to start a blog, build a business, you can do this honestly and basically share what you’re learning as you’re learning it. I remember the first time I was hired as a consultant by one of my friends and he paid me $1,500 for an afternoon. At the time I was making like $12 an hour, so this was quite a raise. I sat down with him and I said, “What do you want to focus on?” He goes, “I want to focus on focusing.”
I said, “Okay, we could do that.” He wanted help with his marketing and I’d been a marketing director at a non-profit for about seven years, and so I’d read a lot of Seth Godin books, I was familiar with online marketing. I started just kind of rattling off all these books I’d read going, “Well, you know, Purple Cow says this. Permission Marketing says this, and so and so says this, and John Jantsch says this.” My friend stopped me. I was trying to get through all that, so I was, “You know, [inaudible 00:17:57] let me tell you some stuff you probably don’t know.” He said, “Hang on a second. I haven’t read any of those books, I don’t know any of that stuff, and I will gladly pay you $1,500 this afternoon for you to just sit here and tell me what you’ve learned from other people’s books. You can distill dozens of hours of reading into an afternoon. That would be worth my time because I’m not going to go read those books and I’m okay paying you to tell me other people’s ideas.”
That was like a big change, a big shift for me to realize I didn’t have to be an expert necessarily. I didn’t have to be somebody that I wasn’t. I could just share the things that I was learning. I know you’re a musician. I’m a musician too, and I remember when I got way better at playing guitar and I got way better at playing guitar when I stopped practicing by myself in my basement. I got pretty good. I learned how to chord. I could kind of play a few riffs. I didn’t realize I was consciously doing this, but whenever I messed up playing guitar in my basement, I’d stop, I’d go back to the beginning of the song and start over again. Then I started playing with some friends. We started playing in a bad and I realized, first of all, I was learning from being around other people and I started to get a little bit better doing that, but whenever we messed up, we’d still stop, go back to the beginning of the song.
Then we started playing shows and I realized like, if I messed up in the middle of the song, unless it was really bad, I couldn’t go back and start over because people would notice. With an audience there, maybe only two or three people sometimes, it put this pressure on me to bring my A game because now I wasn’t rehearsing. Now I was performing. The best year of my life as musician was the year that I toured with the band playing all around the country and we’d play five to seven, sometimes 10 shows a week.
John Jantsch: Wow.
Jeff Goins: It was all practice, but I was playing in front of people and I got really, really good because I had to be good, and so if you want to be a writer, start a blog. Practice in public. If you want to be a musician, learn your chords, get some basic knowledge, but as soon as you can start booking shows, that’s going to accelerate your skill that much more. You want to get paid to speak? Go start speaking. This is the number one way that we get really, really good at something. We do it in a setting where it’s going to be embarrassing to fail, and so put yourself in those situations as quickly as you can, not to embarrass yourself, but so that you know what it feels like to actually bring your A game.
The more you do that, the better you’re going to get, and the fun part is people will see you getting better, so you don’t have to start out amazing. I didn’t start out, as a consultant or as a writer or even as a speaker, amazing, but when I was performing, people were watching me. Over time people see your skill increase and they start rooting for you. It’s kind of the fun thing, to bring an audience along in your journey.
John Jantsch: I had a music teacher once, and I always remember this and I apply this to a lot of things in life. He said, “It’s okay to make a mistake when you’re playing. Just make sure that you make it again when you come back around so that the audience won’t know the different.”
Jeff Goins: That’s right.
John Jantsch: Yeah. Here’s the hardest question I’m going to ask you today.
Jeff Goins: Okay.
John Jantsch: But it’s one that I think my audience will appreciate how you answer. What would you think small business owners need to be artists in their own right?
Jeff Goins: I mean, I think the way that you need to not be an artist, first of all, is to not think your business is precious. Maybe this is counterintuitive, but I think this is true for any artist, is when you look at the thing that you create as so precious, you call it your baby or whatever, you are doing yourself and the business a disservice because you’re not going to do the hard things that you need to do to help this thing survive. It’s kind of like parenting, right? My kids are precious to me in the sense that I love them and cherish them and don’t want to hurt them, but I also have to be tough and stern with them and discipline them because I want them to survive. I often tell my son when he’s misbehaving, — he’s five — when I’m disciplining him, “Buddy, I’m doing this so that you understand life has consequences, and that if you do this in a different setting, not around mom and dad, you could get hurt or things could not turn out well for you.” I mean, that’s the thing not to do.
The thing to do, why you should treat your business as an art form and why you should think like artist is because I love the idea that art is about changing people and changing things, and ultimately leaving a legacy, so in the book I tell the story of how I met Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon. What’s incredible about him is at 50 years old he quits NASA to start painting, because he sees it as his duty to paint the moon because he’s the only man who’s ever walked on the moon, who can paint it, and so he starts painting the moon. He starts charging tens of thousands of dollars for these painting because he has to not only do his duty, perform his calling, but he also has to make enough money that he can keep doing it.
There’s this really interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, I don’t want you to think like a starving artist where this thing is precious. I’ve seen so many small business owners go out of business because they think of their restaurant, they think of their consulting business, their agency, whatever it is, as this perfectly precious thing and you’re not willing to make hard decisions about it so that it can survive and even thrive. Then on the other hand I’ve seen folks lose a lot of the art in their business because they think they’re bigger than they are. One of the things that I’m going through right now, John, is I was trying to scale my business, grow, grow, grow, and then I realized I’m losing a lot of the personal side of this that feels like art to me, that feels important, like I’m actually doing my duty, performing my calling, not just doing a job.
I recently a friend who runs basically an accounting and finance business. People outsource their finance department to her. She started taking on a bunch of clients and she started losing the influence that she has over each client because she was trying to grow. Then she was delegating the work to people that she hadn’t fully vetted and it basically blew up in her face. I said, “Look, not everybody has to be Walmart. What you do in providing boutique service to your clients is incredible. Don’t lose that.” I think as a small business owner, we’re not Walmart, and so I think we should stop reading books about Amazon and Walmart and Apple. Those are great organizations. I love them. They’re amazing, but I’m a small business owner, and there’s something personal and beautiful and artful that I can bring to the service I provide my clients that those companies cannot. That’s my advantage and I want to play to it, and I hope others do the same.
John Jantsch: Yeah. I think the people that I’ve seen get past that are actually able to do something or have a story so compelling that they can attract other artists.
Jeff Goins: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
John Jantsch: I think that’s the part. You talked about your friend. You can’t just, “Oh, you know accounting? Okay. Here it is.” I mean, they have to be attracted to whatever it is that is artistic about what you’re doing.
Jeff Goins: Yeah. That’s a great point. Yeah, it’s not say that you can’t grow, but you have to grow the right way and you have to maintain your values along the way. Walmart, one of their values or goals or whatever is to basically be the cheapest. There’s nothing wrong with that. That provides a lot of value to people, but if that’s not your goal, if you’re not racing to the bottom as it were, and you’re providing something specific for someone specific, which is what most small businesses do, then fight for that. In the book I talk about having the right kind of stubbornness and I quote Jeff Bezos. I love this. He says, “We’re stubborn on vision, but flexible on details.” Right? So have the stubbornness of an artist to achieve your vision, but don’t be precious about the details. Be flexible with them.
Do whatever it takes because part of being an entrepreneur is looking for opportunities, recognizing them, and seizing them, and if we get too precious about this thing that we thought we were going to create, and the market takes a dip, there’s some obstacle and we can’t pivot around that, well, now we’re sunk. There’s a very real part of me as a business owner that knows part of what I’m doing is whatever it takes to just live to do this another day.
John Jantsch: Yeah. Amen to that. Jeff, where can people find more about you and obviously Tribe Writers and Real Artists Don’t Starve and anything else you want to share?
Jeff Goins: Yeah. Thanks. It’s an honor. I love your work, and honored to be here. You can find me at goinswriter.com, G-O-I-N-S like coins but with a G. Goinswriter.com. You can find out more about the book and all that other stuff on my blog, and sign up for the newsletter and you’ll get weekly updates on writing and creativity and fun stuff like that.
John Jantsch: All right. Awesome. Thanks for stopping by, Jeff, and hopefully next time I’m down in Nashville and we can bump into each other.
Jeff Goins: Jam, we can jam, John.
John Jantsch: Yeah.
Jeff Goins: Come over to my house.
John Jantsch: Just to bore the heck out of my listeners here, I finally got a looping pedal.
Jeff Goins: Cool.
John Jantsch: So now I don’t need a band anymore.
Jeff Goins: I know. Yeah. You play mostly acoustic?
John Jantsch: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
Jeff Goins: Yeah. Are you a Martin guy, a Teller guy?
John Jantsch: Actually I bought a Guild, a D35 about 30 years ago.
Jeff Goins: I like Guild.
John Jantsch: Yeah. John Denver played it, so that’s why I wanted it.
Jeff Goins: Yep. Yeah, yeah. Cool.
John Jantsch: Awesome.
Jeff Goins: We’ll have to jam. Thank you.
John Jantsch: You bet. Take care. Hey, thanks for listening to this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. I wonder if you could do me a favor. Could you leave an honest review on iTunes? Your ratings and reviews really help, and I promise I read each and every one. Thanks.
Want to know the secret to reaching inbox zero and taking back your email sanity? The answer is SaneBox and I can’t recommend it enough. SaneBox sorts through your email and moves all of the trivial stuff into a different folder so the only messages in your inbox are the ones you actually want to see. Aside from removing all of the junk so you can focus on messages that matter, there’s a great feature called the BlackHole. Move an email into that folder and you’ll never hear from the sender again. They also have Reminders that automatically remind me when I need a follow-up email, aka nothing falls through the cracks. Did I mention snooze emails? They are a great way to defer/de-emphasize less urgent emails so that I can read them later.
Because we could all use more organization in our email life, we worked out a great deal for our listeners. Visit https://www.sanebox.com/ducttape today and they’ll throw in an extra $25 credit on top of the two-week free trial. You don’t have to enter your credit card information unless you decide to buy, so there’s really nothing to lose. Check it out today and let me know if you love the BlackHole and reaching inbox zero as much as I do.