top of page

The entire Navigate the Chaos collection of all 365 blog posts is now available in a paperback entitled Navigate the Chaos (795 pages for $24.99). A smaller collection of thoughts from the Navigate the Chaos collection is available in paperback entitled Wonder (94 pages for $4.99)

How often do you engage in subtle maneuvers?

Today is February 2 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you engaged in subtle maneuvers?” Authors, artists, and other creatives navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well by using a strategy commonly referred to as engaging in subtle maneuvers. Unfortunately, due to the myths, lies, and half-truths related to how artists earn money, there is a tremendous need in the marketplace for reality-based career advice for college students, recent graduates, and anyone else interested in creating art.

For example, in March 2013 the satirical publication The Onion published “Find the Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It on Nights and Weekends for The Rest of Your Life” by David Ferguson who wrote: “Just find the thing you enjoy doing more than anything else, your one true passion, and do it for the rest of your life on nights and weekends when you’re exhausted and cranky and just want to go to bed. It could be anything—music, writing, drawing, acting, teaching—it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that once you know what you want to do, you dive in a full 10 percent and spend the other 90 torturing yourself because you know damn well that it’s far too late to make a drastic career change, and that you’re stuck on this mind-numbing path for the rest of your life.”

Since the definition of satire is ‘the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices’ this satirical statement is misleading, even outright wrong since history has proven time and again how many successful artists do just that; they create art on nights and weekends. Many artists, in fact, keep their day job because they either enjoy it or use it as a distraction from their art.

Three recent books examine this lifestyle. Jon Acuff's book, Quitter: Closing the Gap Between Your Day Job & Your Dream Job, examines the possibility and reality of translating an idea for a new product or service into a dream and not a nightmare while balancing the demands of a full-time employment position. Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work examines dozens of creative people and concludes that most of them engaged in subtle maneuvers to pursue meaningful creative work while also earning a living. “The book makes one thing abundantly clear: There’s no such thing as the way to create good work, but all greats have their way.”

In Real Artists Have Day Jobs: (And Other Awesome Things They Don't Teach You in School), Sara Benincasa proclaimed that “the biggest myth we are fed as artists is that we need to sustain ourselves solely on our art. This is ridiculous. Every artist has at some point in time had some other job. Some of them kept these jobs their entire lives.”

There is no need to be a starving artist because many successful artists held day jobs. Working during some part of the day was common place for artists of the past and continues to be so today. Here are five of the countless artists that held day jobs to help finance their art.

  • Frank O’Hara published Lunch Poems as a series of reflections he made from his work at the Museum of Modern Art.

  • T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land by night and worked accounts at Lloyds Bank during the day.

  • Wallace Stevens won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. When Harvard University offered him a faculty position he declined it since it would have required him to give up his vice-presidency of The Hartford insurance agency where he supervised real estate claims.

  • Richard Serra is an American minimalist sculptor who started a furniture removals business in New York called, Low-Rate Movers. He employed many of his fellow struggling art friends, including artist and composer Philip Glass, who worked as his assistant helping him to install shows and move furniture.

  • Sujatha Gidla published Ants Among Elephants in 2017 while working as a conductor for the New York City subway.

These five artists, and many others, engaged in subtle maneuvers to produce their art and work a day job. German-language novelist and short story writer Franz Kafka, widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature, relied on subtle maneuvers. Most successful people who navigate the chaos use the subtle maneuvers strategy. Throughout his life Kafka had a Brotberuf—a bread job that allowed him to have a reliable source of income. Franz Kafka’s father often referred to his son's job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute as his Brotberuf— a job to put bread on the table. Kafka's job with Worker's Accident Insurance Institute had him investigate and assess compensation related to personal injury cases involving lost fingers or limbs to name just a few of the many situations.

Kafka usually got off work at 2 p.m., so that he had time to spend on his literary work. Kafka described his approach to writing in a letter to a friend: “Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible, then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.” Kafka was unknown during his own lifetime, but he did not consider fame important. He became famous soon after his death. Almost all of Kafka’s work incidentally was published posthumously, against his wishes.

Kafka is renowned for his visionary and profoundly enigmatic stories that often present a grotesque vision of the world in which individuals burdened with guilt, isolation, and anxiety make a futile search for personal salvation. His major works include: The Trial (Der Prozess), The Castle (Das Schloss), Amerika and The Metamorphosis. Kafka had a full-time job yet used subtle maneuvers to write at night and on the weekends. American composer Charles Edward Ives leveraged subtle maneuvers as well.

Ives is widely regarded as one of the first American composers of international significance. Unfortunately, Ives' music was largely ignored during his life, and many of his works went unperformed for many years. To support his family, he maintained a long career in the insurance business. As Ives put it, if a composer “has a nice wife and some nice children, how can he let them starve on his dissonances?”

Encouraged by his father to experiment with music, became a church organist at the age of 14, and wrote various hymns and songs for church services. After graduating from Yale in 1898, he secured a position in New York as a $15-a-week clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Company. In 1899, Ives moved to employment with the insurance agency Charles H. Raymond & Co., where he stayed until 1906. In 1907, upon the failure of Raymond & Co., he and his friend Julian Myrick formed their own insurance agency Ives & Co., which later became Ives & Myrick, where he remained until he retired. He achieved considerable fame in the insurance industry with many of his business peers surprised to learn that he was also a composer. In his spare time, he composed music and, until his marriage, worked as an organist in Danbury and New Haven as well as Bloomfield, New Jersey, and New York City.

If you have a day job and create art during a small portion of your day, you then have the freedom not to depend upon your art for money. One of the most famous English playwrights of the 19th century understood this. In 2013, a letter by English playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was found in a box stashed at the back of a wardrobe in Oxfordshire, U.K. The letter revealed the author’s thoughts on how to succeed as an artist. “The best work in literature,” Wilde penned, “is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer.”

The author Pearl S. Buck said this on creativity “The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him... a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create -- so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

  • How often are you engaged in subtle maneuvers?

  • Do you accept that it is okay to have a day job while you work on your art during the nights and weekends?

  • Do you feel the need to punish yourself and live as a starving artist?

  • Do you work another job to help pay the bills or are you too good for that?

  • How would you describe your relationship with money?

  • Can you accept the realization that you do not need to sustain yourself on your art?

  • Is your desire to earn money from your art limiting your creativity?

  • Do you agree with Buck in that creating art and breathing are one and the same; that is, you cannot have one without the other?

  • What have you done lately to ensure your art does not suffer from your pursuit of money?

bottom of page