Adam J. Kurtz on What Creative Success Means to Him

In our digital age, there are more ways than ever to make a career out of your creative talents. This series spotlights remarkable artists, designers, and makers who have excelled at doing just that – and who offer their insights for other aspiring creatives.

Adam J. Kurtz is a graphic designer, artist, author and illustrator. His first book, 1 Page at a Time, has been translated into ten languages, and his work has been featured in ArtReport, Cool Hunting, Design Sponge, Huffington Post, Fast Company, Time Out New York, AdWeek, Paper, and elsewhere.

Photo by Daniel Seung Lee

TarcherPerigee: What were the biggest concerns or fears you experienced about becoming a working artist? How did you overcome them?
Adam J. Kurtz: I was mostly just worried about money. Making art when it’s for fun, or supplemental to your job is one thing, but relying on creative work for your whole life is a little scarier. Ultimately I overcame this by getting fired from a job because I was taking too many sick days and time off to work on my personal projects. I literally kept a job until I couldn’t anymore. Life itself was like “ok, sorry dude; it’s time.” I’m so grateful that happened and I’m so much happier than I was at that time.

What do you do when you are discouraged or your ideas are rejected?
It’s easy to take rejection personally, and that goes for everyone and everything. When it’s your creative work or ideas or even your entire career path being undermined, undervalued, or poorly received it can feel like a judgement of your own value. It’s important to remember that not everything is for everyone. We’re not all drawn to the same kinds of work. Being rejected sucks, but the range of styles and tastes only serves to prove how much room there is for all of us in our overlapping creative industries.

What is your definition of creative success and how has this changed over time?
My definition of success has always been to make things that make me happy, and that can help others. There’s some narcissism in there (I want to be recognized for my work and given additional access or resources as a result) and more recently I’ve started thinking really critically about money. For a while the money didn’t matter. I’d spend my paycheck from my day job on printing or producing personal work. It was a hobby and it wasn’t profitable and that didn’t matter.

More recently I’m learning to value myself, as a person, as an artist, as a creative strategist, and the many other roles that are often blurry when you’re a full time sole proprietor business. I’m working hard, I’m accomplishing a huge range of necessary tasks, and I’m generating revenue for other people. Certainly, I’m worth paying too. My new definition of success includes a feeling of stability. I want to be emotionally fulfilled by the work and part of that is the freedom to be stuck in a creative rut. When you’re living week to week as a freelancer, that’s often hard to come by. I’m still figuring it all out.

Looking back, is there anything you would do differently—or anything that you wish you’d known then that you know now?
I never set out to do what I do now, so it’s hard to say what I wish I had done differently. I couldn’t have planned for this. Sometimes I wonder if I should have gotten into YouTube early? I could be a millionaire for talking about myself instead of what I do now, which is talk about myself for free.

What are your top tips or pieces of advice for someone who may be debating whether to pursue a career in a creative field?
Do it if you love it. If you want stable and guaranteed income, do something else. We need both doctors and creatives to heal us, but we generally undervalue the latter. See also: Journalism. It’s a great time to make work, and a much harder time to be paid for it.

What do you read – or do – when you hit an impasse or creative block?
The hardest thing to do is sit down to “be creative.” When I don’t know what to do, I try to do something else. The ideas float in and out of your head when you’re doing other things, and then once there’s something there you can sit down to explore, experiment, and flesh it out into something good.

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