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Conventional wisdom holds that enjoyable hobbies do not pay well, whereas unenjoyable jobs do. This mostly extends to saying that art is unlikely to pay, whereas something like science does. The underlining assumption here is that, if it’s enjoyable, then everyone will want the job, and therefore there will not be many jobs/high pay.
But I see a different trend that explains the same observations: usefulness.
The typical problem with getting paid for your art
I was speaking to a friend earlier this week who surprised me by saying that she made substantial amounts of money in high school by selling her sketches. My surprise disappeared when I guessed (correctly) that her sketches were commissions.
The problem with getting paid for creativity is not that it is fun and therefore a popular occupation. That supply and demand of potential artists may still play a role, but I think the important factor here is usefulness. Artists and architects have commissions, writers have journalism and ghost writing, musicians have videogame and movie soundtracks…
It is hard to publish a novel because, often, people don’t need your novel. People don’t demand your novel ahead of time. It’s not that profiting off of creative talents is difficult: it’s just generally difficult to profit off of anything that you need to convince someone that they want, as opposed to fulfilling a desire that they already have.
The business principle
The same thing applies to selling any kind of product. Imagine that someone offered to sell you a product you’ve been yearning for for years, like a device that lets you speak to your dog. It’s something you already love but don’t have, so it’s quite easy to sell.
But you would find a different profit margin if someone tried to sell you something you’ve never wanted before, like an online service that lets you customize your own bike or a fruit bowl that’s perfectly shaped for storing bananas. Maybe a small subset of people have been searching for these two things all their lives, but the seller must convince everyone else in the world that they will love the product if they buy it.
How this applies to non-artistic work
Even in science, the fact that a person is paid for useful services still applies. For instance, say a young geneticist becomes a biology major to study the genetics of eye color (there are many genes affecting eye color yet to be found). This young geneticist will have a difficult time feeding herself by following this route because, well, no one cares that much about eye color. The National Institute of Health only has so many federal tax dollars to allot to researchers, so if the choice is between finding a cure for cancer and finding the genes for eye color, cancer will get funded every time.
The same could be said about philosophy. Many philosophy majors are pre-law, because arguing on philosophical principles is how lawyers win cases. No one wants to pay for philosophy unless that philosophy gets them out of jail.
Back to creativity
So the dichotomy of paid/not-paid might not be based on how fun or creative a particular job is. Instead, it might just be a matter of who chooses the project in the first place. Or, rather, whether or not the project is requested by the customer ahead of time.
The takeaway here is not to give you advice in how to succeed in your creative art, but more as a matter of arguing a technicality. “If something is fun, no one will pay you to do it” should instead be “No one will pay you for something they don’t want. You can’t make a living doing whatever you please.”
I will always keep practical investment in mind when choosing a research project, but I likely won’t place much emphasis on it in my creative writing. To me, creative writing is about telling a story that I want to tell, not a story that someone else tells me to write. My writing isn’t as good if I’m not personally invested in the project, so I make it a point of only writing what I directly want to when it comes to fiction. But if forced to pay my bills with creativity instead of science, I would aim for projects requested by someone else, yet still intriguing to me…at least until my very name is the demanded product. But that’s a story for another time.