Should You Focus on What Sells or What You Love? in Which I Come to Absolutely No Helpful Conclusions

So you have all these ideas, right? This idea and that idea and that other one over there. Ideas are everywhere. You have a giant list of them somewhere in your notes, and you add to it whenever something strikes you. (You do this, right? I’m not the only one?)

How do you choose among them? When you’ve finished one project, and you’re on to the next, and you look at that list, and you are trying to decide where to go next … how do you do it?

Hanna Wallsten, Soul Concepts Photography

Image courtesy Hanna Wallsten, Soul Concepts Photography,

Especially when you know that THAT project, the one that speaks to your heart the deepest, is going to cost a lot to publish, because you want it to be illustrated with old photos and paper ephemera and to include envelopes inside of it with invitations the reader can pull out himself … and so is extremely unlikely to sell. Especially before you have any following at all. While THIS project, when you sent it out to agents, got a pretty decent response and came super close to getting you an agent, and now you know how to fix it so it WORKS, and if you would only do that, you could probably sell it. Or self-publish it and feel confident about people wanting to read it. Or, better yet, you could finish and publish that nonfiction e-book about how to write a novel that you KNOW people want to buy. But that only just barely speaks to your heart, from a great distance.

In this case, I’m doing the money-grubbing first, because I don’t have any.

And I guess that most people will tell you that’s the way to go.

Via Michael Ellsberg’s The Education of Millionaires:

Get on your feet financially, however you can. … Get a square job, a corporate job, a temp job, a boring nine-to-five. Don’t feel anything is ‘beneath you’ so long as it pays.

It’s just so different — and better — figuring out how to make a difference in the world and find meaning in your life when your bills are covered and you have a secure roof over your head. It’s way less stressful than trying to do it when you’re broke.

True, and I understand this approach. It makes a lot of sense. It’s tough to create when you’re worried about paying your rent. And worse, your health insurance.

I don’t know how I’m going to pay for health insurance come December when my last company stops paying for it and it becomes Cobra, and that terrifies me. I understand the need to create something that sells, and the desire to be doing something for money that relates to what we want to create, somehow.

Related: The Ultimate How-to Guide for Making Art While Having a Day Job or Going to School or Otherwise Having a Life

But this approach is also … less motivating. It’s really hard to work both a day job and try to start making a living at that creative stuff you love. You simply don’t have the energy for both. I spent 7 years at a job that allowed me to be financially stable. I worked on creative work on the side. I told myself it wasn’t that bad, and in some ways it wasn’t. But now I look back and wonder how I didn’t try harder to find some other solution. Some way to turn the skills that I did have into a better way of living, a way that would nurture my creative talents rather than shunt them off to the side.

I don’t want to work like that anymore. It hurts.

If you read this post from a couple of weeks ago, you know that I recently attended a creativity convention. I haven’t done much of that in the past. I’m highly skeptical of motivational fluff and fake lovey-dovey, quasi-religious creativity mumbo jumbo. I’ve attended a few writers’ events, including one short weekend retreat, and usually found them … uninspiring. Writers tend to focus too much on critiquing and leave out the support and encouragement thing we creatives need so much. I’d come home from writers’ events feeling bored or frustrated and uninspired, so I gave up.

However, when this convention was announced, I knew I had to go, no matter what I had to do to get there.

It was the first convention put on by photographer Brooke Shaden, and it’s called Promoting Passion. I started following Brooke a while back (I don’t know how long and I can’t find it on Facebook; if someone knows a way to get the stupid activity log search to actually work, let me know) when a friend shared this image with me:


I found myself drawn in by the striking combination of hope and pain in her images, but I continued to follow her because of the way she wrote her blog posts and her Facebook posts. She shared her stories, both successes and failures, with a level of authentic genuineness that I have rarely seen on the Internet. She opened up and invited her followers to do the same. Risk seemed to become safe in her presence. She inspired me with her willingness to be vulnerable and with the way she welcomed others to do so as well.

Related: Why You Need Heroes (Even If You Don’t Believe in Them)

Via Brooke’s book, Inspiration in Photography:

When I first picked up my camera, I did not trawl the Internet for external inspiration or figure out what might sell best. Instead, I asked myself one very important, yet simple question — what makes me happy?

Each and every time I wanted to create a new image, I only asked myself what I felt like creating, and then set out to create it.

Wow! If only we could always create that way, and only that way.

Photographer and creator of the Instagram hashtag #storyproject Branden Harvey (also a speaker at the Promoting Passion convention) approaches it a different way. He noticed that with his work, the stuff he loved, the images and stories that were closest to his heart, often didn’t get the same level of engagement as other things he posted, things that meant less to him. So he adopted a rule of 3 to 1 — posting three images that he knew would get higher response rates but always then also posting that one that meant something more to him, that was the thing he needed to pursue.

No matter how it shakes out, you have to find a way to include that work that speaks most to your heart. Whether you adopt a 1 in 4 rule like Brandon or do your money-grubbing first and then your heart-work, make sure you’re doing your heart-work and not shying away from it because you think no one will like it or you won’t be good at it.

Brooke addressed this point as well. If you are not creating what you truly want to create, the stuff that’s closest to your heart, you will never find the opportunities for creating more of it. If you put work out there that is what you think you “should” do, then people will only ever come to you for that type of work. No one will even know to ask you to do your heart’s work, because you haven’t shown them that you want to. That you can. That you are. You will only be asked to do that work you love if you are putting that work you love out there.

Besides, you don’t know what people will respond to in your work. You can’t predict which work your fans will connect to; it will not necessarily be the same work you connect to. Often the thing I love that I think will be most popular, whether it’s a blog post or a novel, is the thing that people don’t quite get, while the ones I see as awkward bastard stepchildren, the ones I almost didn’t do, are the ones people want to read and share and know more about. If it scares you, if you think you won’t be good enough for it, do it and put it out there.

For now, I’m trying the broke and scared approach, so I write blog posts first, to keep up with that. Then I work on the nonfiction e-book about how to write a novel, because I know you’re going to want that, and some freelance writing. Then the fiction that’s done and almost ready to be published. Then the rewriting of that novel that I think will sell. The REAL heart-work will come later. Hopefully not too much later.

How do you feel about it? How do you make decisions about what to work on? Do you follow a rule like Branden’s? Or are you more like Brooke, creating whatever makes you happy?

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