Making a Living Working for Yourself: Passion Alone Isn't Enough

Most people know me professionally as an art nude model: it’s been my full-time occupation for the last five years.  But what most of these people don’t know is that modeling is not the first business that I started.  It’s actually the fourth.

Before modeling, I tried working as a freelance editor and as a chain mail jewelry designer.  But where I spent most of my time and energy was working as a musician.  

I taught piano lessons, accompanied choirs, performed hymns every Sunday morning at a local church, and even played keyboard in a very short-lived classic rock cover band.  I was a pretty good musician; I had over fifteen years of classical piano training.  More importantly, I loved playing the piano.  So I did what I thought I was supposed to do as an adult: I followed my passion by trying to make a career out of it.    

I supported myself as a musician for two years, although “supporting” might be a generous term for it.  It certainly wasn’t the positive experience that I had assumed my self-employed dream job would be.  Including practice time, I regularly worked sixty to eighty hour weeks and made the same amount of money as a friend that worked part-time at Starbucks.  

Worse, I started dreading music.  It wasn’t a source of joy and creativity for me anymore; it was a source of unending stress. 

When I discovered modeling, it quickly became another outlet for the creativity that music had previously provided me.  Switching professions became an easy decision.  Within six months I was no longer collapsing from stress.  I was making more than I ever had as a musician, and I loved every moment of it. 

Although I’ve never regretted my decision, I’ve always been curious why one type of self-employed art was successful, while the other was not.  What was the difference between music and modeling?  Why was one passion a viable career option, and the other ultimately a failed venture?

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The answer I came across originates from a common pitfall in artistic endeavors.  Because so many people want the prestige of being a professional musician, they will undersell themselves and work for almost nothing, just so they can say that they were paid for their music.  

The problem is, these artists are making their art about them, and not about their audience.  I certainly made the same mistake with my music: I was so convinced that I was supposed to be following my passion that I never gave a thought as to whether other people would enjoy it too.

If you’re only concerned with following your own interests, then it’s very easy to lose sight of the value you’re supposed to be creating for others.  Whether you’re self-employed or working at a “traditional” job, your work isn’t about you: it’s about what your customers want. Work is about what other people love.

How do you know if your passion is something that is valuable to other people?

Yes, you can create art for art’s sake.  And yes, you can create it for your own enjoyment.  But marketable, salable art is about what your audience enjoys enough to pay you for.  Whether you enjoy it too isn’t relevant to what makes it work.  

But how do you know if your passion is something that is valuable to other people?  How could I have known that art nude modeling would work out as a passion and a job, while music was just a passion?

The reason that I was successful at modeling is that nudity is a rarer commodity.  As much as I personally disagree with the idea that there is anything wrong with being naked, society still puts a stigma on it.  Because of that, nudity is scarce: most models don’t want to pose nude in front of other people, let alone in front of a camera that creates a permanent record.  Since most models avoid nudity, it becomes a marketable commodity—something that is both desirable and rare.  And unfortunately, art only intersects with money when it’s a commodity. 

I couldn’t make a living as a clothed model at my age and weight (youth and unbelievable skinniness are rare commodities too).  I probably couldn’t even work full-time as a nude model in a more liberal area, because a larger number of attractive young women are comfortable posing nude, driving the overall price down.  And I certainly can’t support myself as a pianist.  There are too many incredibly talented and skilled musicians that want to do the same thing. 

This has nothing to do with the quality of my art, but rather the rarity.  Yes, quality has an impact as well--I certainly wouldn’t be able to build a career as a model if I wasn’t skilled at modeling in the first place.  But those are supporting skills: just like knowing how to run a business, they can be learned during the process.  If you try to start working for yourself without a marketable commodity, you will always fail.  It is not something that you can pick up along the way.  

If you want to successfully work for yourself, you need to answer one question: what value can you supply to other people that they cannot easily acquire elsewhere?  If you want to enjoy the process, you need to find something valuable that most people dislike, avoid, or can’t do for one reason or another, and that you can and want to provide.