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I'm A "Creative," And I Work Pretty Damn Hard

Jessie Ma1 Comment

Maybe cuz...
I’m Not Just A “Creative,” I’m A Creative Worker


“Passion over paycheck.”

Catchy, right? You’d see this phrase in hipster font, at a trendy art gallery where everyone who considers themselves even remotely artistic can stare with appreciation for the fellow starving artist that made this comforting, relatable piece of typography. “Yes, you get me sir. The freedom to create comes at no price. Financial security is so pre-grad. What about your soul? Passion over paycheck 4evr.”

It’s the millennials’ slogan, their Instagram bio, their inadvertently pretentious way of painting themselves as these altruistic, noble expressionists. No matter what society thinks.

But it makes me cringe. (Not so much the fact that we’re annoying, but) the meaning of the phrase itself. And the fact that we embrace it without thinking twice.

Passion OVER paycheck? It creates this dichotomy by labeling the two as mutually exclusive, one or the other. Business or pleasure? Soup OR salad? Pick one! It makes all artists seem pleasure-seeking at all costs, namely, a financial one.

In actuality, (and fortunately,) there are a lot of people breaking their backs working as a “Creative.” But “Passion over paycheck” tells me that, doing what you love comes at a sacrifice of real adulthood. “Oh, you’re a designer? A dancer? That’s not a real job.”

I can’t stand the connotation that being “A Creative” means you relinquish any sort of responsibility as an actual contributor to society.

But it’s such a generationally nuanced idea that would be impossible to challenge without examining its implications. I’m determined to advocate for a better understanding of modern Creative WORKERS, because it’s a topic that hits so close to home (if you couldn’t already tell), and I tend to get very defensive. But in a smart way.

So let’s break it down.


The dated and unhealthy attitude of respecting “work,” IF AND ONLY IF if it’s fundamentally ABSENT OF FULFILLMENT.

Layman’s terms: Why does work have to suck, anyway?  

There are so many articles about how “spoiled” “Generation Y” is because we want to find a job that we love. Well, I think it’s ridiculous to think that we shouldn’t. It’s not me being “entitled,” it’s me saying that I don’t want to hate what I do for money to feel “earned.”

In the olden days, you went to work at a farm or coal mine (or whatever), and came home, exhausted, smelling like cow sh*t so you could provide for your family. And that’s the traditional way of viewing “work.” It’s hard. It sucks. It’s, at its most elementary and basic level, completely removed from your personal life, 100% irrelevant to your well-being.

And now, people are starting to realize that it is possible to find joy in your career. We’re getting better at not being miserable, like how we eat lemons instead of dying of scurvy.

Yet, because a part of us holds on to that tradition, people who search for intrinsic value in their work are seen as unrealistic or spoiled.

But hold up -- isn’t the POINT of an advancing society, that human beings can have a better standard of living? Isn’t the whole reason that we’re here, to progress? So why is it such a shock that we’d prefer to find work that we enjoy? What’s so “wrong” about expecting our jobs to not conflict with the level of happiness we’re capable of achieving?

There is a silent, screaming desperation in every worker who, at the core, are unhappy with what they do. Donuts in the breakroom and Casual Fridays are not going to make you love your job.

When I worked at my last job, I’d hate my life for 8 hours a day, and spend my entire paycheck online shopping to alleviate some of that misery. I felt stuck there, caught in this cycle of being the office bitch by day and an excessive consumer by night. And what’s crazier (or sadder) is that, I thought this was normal. I thought everyone cried during their lunch breaks. I thought it was understood that your paycheck came at the cost of your mental health.

But it’s not. You don’t have to degrade yourself, ever, for anything. Especially not an outdated tradition, a now unnecessarily destructive view on what “work” should be.


Money earned through struggle is not the only legitimate way money is earned.


The idea that human beings are exclusively “left” or “right” brain-ed

This irks me to no degree. We’ve become a society that’s

  1. reflexively trained to judge people based on their occupation

  2. obsessed with labels for arbitrary personality traits.

Point 1 needs little explanation. The first question you hear at any party post-college is “... So what do you do?” *proceed to paint mental picture of stranger*

Point 2 is about our affinity for attaching ourselves to certain labels. “I’m an introvert! A vegan! A Delta Kappa!” We take pride in “being a ___.” The labels relevant to this matter? “I’m right / left- brained!”

So combine those two social habits and what do we get?

The idea that your job can sufficiently describe if you are either Right- OR Left-brained.

I’m not saying your personality has nothing to do with what you pursue. Of course it DOES. But your job is not the entirety of your identity.

So when people see an engineer or accountant and think “Oh, boring,” or see “creatives” and dismiss us as blubbering hippie idiots. I need to interject.

Yeah, you may be more predominantly “Left- or Right- Brained” (is that even a legit thing? More on that later), but... guess what? WE ALL HAVE WHOLE BRAINS.

And what does this mean? WE ARE ALL WHOLE PEOPLE. I have friends who have to highlight their analytical, “left brain” side at work, but are some of the biggest goofballs ever. Mathematicians who paint, lawyers who dance. And on the flipside, I have tremendously talented, creative “right brain”-ed friends who are rational, verbal, organized, too.

It’s unfair to see a part and assume it as the whole. By prematurely and erroneously taking someone’s job description and pigeon-holing them as one side of the brain while dismissing the other, we’re being.. Brain-ists.


Creatives’ left brains? Yeah, we have (and flex) ‘em too. Don’t you worry.


The idea that creative work is PURELY CREATIVE.

This is directly related to previous concept.

Creative workers, no matter what avenue their area of creative expertise may be, are for damn sure doing more than what you see.

I’ll use an exaggerated example to highlight my point. Because I like being dramatic.

Beyonce is a singer. But physically, actually “singing” probably doesn’t even make up half of her day. She’s an entrepreneur, a business tycoon, a cultural influencer, a PR specialist, and a damn professional.

Along the same lines, I’m a writer. I love writing. But there are a million tasks on my to-do list that have little or nothing to do with writing, at all. I manage calendars. I edit. I deal with clients. Contracts. Invoices. Excel sheets for days. I had to learn coding (granted, very basic WordPress shit, but it’s a big deal for me ok?!)-- generally, a whole lot of things that ARE NOT WRITING.

I’m a writer in a sense that my main job is to tell stories, to expose or influence or share, to put the words together that could hold some power to an individual or an audience or a company. But telling a story requires more than me typing for 8 hours a day.

***For freelance creative workers especially-
Not only are you working to hone your craft, and all the bitch work that comes with it (aforementioned),
you’re your own agent. You’re forced to be a business person, a negotiator, a professional corresponder. Step 1: Produce your work (creative side) Step 2: Get that work to work (not creative.) That’s a lot.


Artists are not just art-ing. We grind, outside of that, FOR that.


The level of difficulty and SACRIFICE inherent in creative work.

One thing we forget when looking at works of art- is that it takes talent, time, effort, vulnerability, to have created that. We appreciate the product, but overlook the process.

This is the reality: Artists train, study, obsess over their craft. And it’s hard. You can’t quantify such different fields, but I want to argue that researching your art, REALLY researching it is just as demanding as med school or law school, ventures that would never be societally dismissed as “easy.” But artists are not seen as hard-working as doctors or lawyers. Why is art taken as a joke so often? Why is our creative process so overlooked?

For me, I’m cool with the “-school” part of it. I'm always reading (that’s the writer’s form of training/practice). Reading is, if anything, the enjoyable part of the work. But what creative work oftentimes calls for is a spiritual vulnerability and sacrifice.

Oh no, Jessie’s getting all weird and abstract-y on us. Nah nah nah. This is true for any human being. Self-expression is not a walk in the park. “Putting yourself out there,” for anyone that’s tried it, is nerve-wrecking as all hell, because you’re exposing your interpretation of something that’s in reality. A person, a concept, an object, an event. You’re putting that into your frame, your skills, your choices, to create. Honesty is fucking terrifying.

But creative workers are fearlessly exposing themselves, day after day after day. It’s our jobs to follow our curiosity, trust in it. Yes, it’s lovely, but it can take a toll.

The best artists are the most adept at communicating a common denominator. That’s what I think. My favorite writers can help the reader relate to and understand an idea, challenge them, reach into some core feeling that they had and use their talents to bring it out. I always say that I don’t strive to be a beautiful writer, I strive to be an honest writer. An empathetic writer. I want to leave people thinking, “How did she know that about me?” -- a response that only comes when I put myself way, the fuck, out there. All the time.

No one looks good in their darkest hours. But those hours are what people need to know exist in others, too. If I have ever made anyone feel less alone through my words, I have done my job. The diffculty in “training” or in “exposing” pales in comparison to the rewards.  

But let’s talk sacrifice.

I tied my success as a writer so intimately with my self worth as a person. My work was my reality, which was my identity. Because of this, I held such a high standard in all I produced- which is a good trait, but this type of perfectionistic creation can be dangerous to anyone’s psyche.

I devote myself to words. So it feels like a personal insult when my work is not well-received, or worse.. ignored.

***(For fellow creatives who stuggle with this, I recommend listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s interview with Marie Forleo on the topic of creative work. Or, read her book, “Big Magic.”)

But yeah. So for everyone who thinks that everything artists do is enjoyable- it’s not. There’s a lot of bitch work. And the parts that are indeed art- it gets dangerous, for ourselves.


Creative work is not only difficult in its process, it demands a lot of personal sacrifice and a never-ending emotional quest.


The fear that your parents will not, or, at best, will reluctantly support your dreams to be an artist.

(Ever-more relevant to us 2nd genners,) but it’s such a general modern script: Boy enrolls in school, discovers he wants to pursue art, parents are against it, he is torn. Passion or paycheck?!

So. Wanting to pursue art doesn’t just come with sneers from society. It comes directly from the closest people in our lives. Not only do we have to deal with stigmas, we have to learn how to self-forgive, and rationalize to our parents the reasons we don’t want to be Pharmacy Technicians.

Maybe I’m fortunate to have grown up with more liberal-minded parents (by an Asian-parent standard, at least), but my parents have always stressed the importance of my well-being and happiness, over money. But traditionally, and honestly..

Yes, our parents push us, and it seems, at a superficial level, that they want us to be rich = successful. But that’s not it. It’s that through struggle and tradition, they’ve grown conditioned to believe that money IS happiness. And realistically, financial stability IS a huge factor in both well-being and happiness. The trick is being able to attain both, and challenge the older generations’ view on art as an impossible source of income.

My mom knows that I don’t thrive on materialistic goods. There were times when I was  being spoiled rotten, by family, boyfriends, myself with a well-paying job. But not one of those gifts made me as happy as the freedom to express myself.

She knows how much I adore writing. And once I started to show her my published works-- further-- once I started to show her my paychecks, she was over the moon.

I thrive on ideas, expression, connection. Yes, money is important, but they’re not going to buy me my kind of happiness. Once our parents see our successes, monetarily and in the way our eyes light up-- how can they possibly not support that?

In all,

I’m not asking everyone to start giving mad respect to all artists everywhere. But support them. Try to understand them. Pay due respect for the work and sacrifice they’re making, just as you would any other occupation. Being an artist is, after all, a real. ass. job.

P.S. Here's a photo of me with the first print publication my name's ever been in. Teehee.