Well-being among Arts Professionals and in Creative Work: Sacrification is Not a Badge of Honor

Self-care is a topic we usually avoid when talking about careers. We think that the mere admitting that we need to take care of ourselves might give the impression that we are weak. I didn't want to write about the topic in the first place because I feel that there are so many people out there giving advice and not walking their talk. I felt that the term became some sort of marketing strategy to sell you the latest beauty lotion. Anyways, the topic appeared in many conversations I've had with colleagues and friends over the last months on the topic of Art as Labor and I thought it might be time to finally share some thoughts I find valuable.

Sacrification is not a badge of honor

Modern work culture seems to wear constant busyness as some sort of badge of honor but it is doing more harm than good. People feel that if they fail to respond to emails instantaneously or if their not able to "quickly" fix something, they’re failing. The expectations in the arts field rise and produce unsustainable levels of stress among arts professionals. And sometimes the stress is imposed by ourselves, or as Ash Ambirge wrote in hear smart and fresh way Success Isn’t More Deserved When It’s Hard. There is this unhealthy believe that if we just work hard enough the outcome will always be in our favor. So, when do we know that we are working hard enough? The answer is usually, when we are suffering: Depriving ourselves of sleep, taking substances such as caffeine to enlarge our attention span, skipping time to rest, in short: "pushing really hard"...I think you get the point and know out of own experience what suffering in stressful times looks like.

Unfortunately, this behavior doesn't lead necessarily to the outcome we aim for in reality, there are people out there who sacrifice all they have and all they are for an illusion that they will never reach, as they forget that while they push so hard there might be a better option, something they are actually better in or some other doors they should knock on to get to a more satisfying outcome. Just because you follow the flow and things are easy or easier doesn't mean success in less deserved.

On one of my commutes I've listened to the wonderful The One You Feed Podcast and the interview with Emma Sepälä (Audio below). Emma Seppälä, Ph.D is Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and the author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success. She talked about the false notion that in order to be successful you have to work so hard that you postpone your happiness. 

"We have bought into this idea that the only way to be productive is thanks to adrenaline coursing through our veins and then we wonder why we're so exhausted by 2 p.m., why we fall on the couch when we get home after work, why we don't have energy, why we have sleep problems. And it's because we are constantly tapping into this "fight-or-flight system". There is nothing new on this idea that stress is bad for you, but we still have bought into the fact that we need it somehow. We become addicted to adrenaline, but that's the problem why we're burning out.

If you look to the animal world we're just supposed to feel stress a few minutes our lives. Our stress responses are just meant to be fight-or-flight, not all day constantly. The problem comes is that when we're constantly on this high adrenaline mode we're not able to focus, we lose our ability to make good decisions, our emotional intelligence drops, we're not able to communicate as easily with other people, we're not able to take a broader perspective when it's needed and our immune system is compromised.

We really need to rethink this idea but if you actually take time to do things like meditation, or whatever it is that calms you down, and if you actually make time for that in your life, you'll see that your attention is broader, your memory improves, you're able to connect better with other people, you're actually more powerful. If you think about who is more powerful when they arrive at a negotiation table, job interview or date, you name the event, the person who is really anxious about the job or the negotiation's outcome, whatever it is, or the person who is really calm who is really centered, who could just walk away and be fine. Clearly it's the calm one.

And yet calmness is somehow not a "sexy" feeling. We're always talking about "I'm so excited to see you" we don't seem calm to see you. In the United States in particular we value high intensity: high intensity stress, high intensity excitement, we know this also from data. When we think about happiness we think about high intensity emotions like excitement and thrill, that's all fine but what we're buying into is that life is high intensity all the time and we still wonder why we're so exhausted all the time."

Sacrification and Creative Work

During the European romantic age the cult around the artist as a solitary genius emerged. A true genius was a person disconnected from society working remotely at a distance, away from the rest of the world in his own orbit. His intelligent capacities were so high that they we're above everyday tasks. The artist became somehow a species producing work that is highly acclaimed but who was not able to solve everyday tasks like cooking or cleaning. The myth rose that artists were in a constant state of suffering in order to produce pure and genius work.

This lead to a misconception that in order to produce pure and valuable work you have to be a poor, suffering artist, art worker etc.. Instead of nourishing a sustainable living, people thought that suffering is a prerequisite for creation and this is simply wrong. We might feel otherwise because we keep hearing these "failure porn" stories, you know the one's that are told by people who after a period of rejection or struggling became a "better" person. But the thing is, suffering is not the process that made them become a better version, instead it was applying different tactics and a good portion of luck that lead to finally be able to leave the dark period behind. 

It is an absolute fallacy to think that people in the art world are more sensitive and therefore easier attracted to suffering as let's say a construction worker. Suffering might look different for everyone, some battle the demons to monetize their work, some battle to be heard and others search for emotional stability. It is absurd and cruel to imply that everyone has to go through such a phase of suffering in order to be rewarded with any form of compensation in the end.

The myth of the suffering artist is part of the wider myth, rooted in a religious believe, that doing penance will somehow cleanse and elevate the poor, eventually leading them on to glory. If one reverses this logic, this would mean that those who are not led on to glory are shamed as unworthy and deserve to fail. This Economic Darwinism seems to somehow become the core of our accelerated "grow better, grow faster" system. It should be evident that this toxic assumption cannot built a foundation for any (work) ethic, and yet we apply it to a variety of areas in life.

Persistent work, focus and and the love for the "one thing" will lead to the improvement of skills. That we see biographies of artists or writers full of scars doesn't mean they became successful because of them. It means they found a way to keep doing what they love despite the circumstances. They we're able to nourish their creative spirits in dark times. There is no freaking need to produce more "drama" in this world nor any need to choose to suffer intentionally. It's a strange use of privilege to dive into self-inflicted drama. Don't connect the ability to work or be creative to the circumstances, choosing a creative life means one is able to work from a place within, independent of if you're in a good or bad moment in life. 


Wellbeing at work

Despite the environment in which you are working, a museum, gallery or from the kitchen table at home, we all know the days we are under the pressure of deadlines and meetings. If we want to do our work in the long-term we need to take care of ourselves, set boundaries and be able to recharge after a stressful period. A sane time-management - refusing to be a perpetual production machine - and the ability to say NO more often are essential for our well-being at work. It impacts every part of our professional life and is not just a one-way street. Institutions benefit from providing a sane work environment. And remember the freelancers out there!

  • Health costs

  • Productivity

  • Work culture: Loyalty, motivation and collaboration

  • Attracting and retaining talent

  • Impacts on how service oriented employees are able to think and how much inspiration they can provide

  • Efficiency

When I started to look more into the topic of wellbeing and arts professionals I found a lot of information on the tremendous work museums are doing to work inclusive with communities who suffer a certain health problem and foster partnerships on topics of healthcare. This is not the angle of this article as I am focusing on labor issues and their consequences on the wellbeing of arts professionals working in creative environments such as museums, institutions or as freelancers, but if you are interested in the work that is being done in that area you should look into the The National Alliance for Museums, Health & Wellbeing



First of all I think an important lesson is that we are more than our work. The labor that goes into work might be a big part of our monthly time but it does not make as a better person nor define the person who we aspire to be. If we are lucky we are aligned with the work we do and find it fulfilling but I think it's dangerous to connect our happiness solely to our workplace.

  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist at the Claremont Graduate University, has been done extensive work on how tasks influence our behavior and ultimately our health. He calls the moment when we are aligned with our tasks and totally absorbed in the moment "flow", which he defines as following:

Mihali Csikszentmihalyi_2.jpg
  • As I mentioned before it seems that there is a lack in research on well-being and arts professionals. The most recent study that I found has been done by Andrea N. Michelbach: Are Museum Professionals Happy? Exploring Well-Being Across Domains and in the Workplace, MA Thesis, University of Washington 2013 where she focuses on the well-being of museum workers in Seattle museums. The study focuses on the psychology of work-related emotions and happiness measured by using The Happiness Initiative’s well-being survey. Among Michelbach's findings are that the participants of the study had a positive well-being in almost all measures except "time balance". “over half the study respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their life has been too rushed…, and two thirds disagreed or strongly disagreed that they had enough spare time…" (Michelbach 2013: 42).

  • Cultural projects are very time consuming if we want to work deeply with communities, provide valuable research and establish long-term connections. Time is not always rewarded with financial sustainability, as project funding is limited, but most of the cultural workers out there want to get the project done anyways. This leads to the tension between finding the work rewarding but still facing signs of burnout.


The perfect workplace?

Being a freelancer and having been employed in museums or institutions I think some problems art professionals are facing are due to:

  • Lack in leadership vision in the management of the institution

  • Underestimation of resources that is required to meet the goals

  • Insufficient compensation and unattractive reward system

  • Serious financial cutbacks in museums budgets with same or increasing demands

We won't be able to solve these issues without the acknowledgment that culture is relevant and needs financial support. It is very consuming to ask for money or to defend why culture is a substantial part in every society, but that's a whole other story.


External validation

On our quest to a successful and eventually good life, we should be aware of all the shiny pennies out there that are no indicators of how fulfilling, meaningful or impactful our work might actually be. Don't connect your values on the need for external validation.

Maria Popova, the founder of brainpickings.org, is someone I highly admire for her integrity and her persistence to find things that nourish her spirit. The website has become one of my go-to places when I am in search of new findings and recommendations. Last year she wrote about her 10 Learnings of 10 years brain pickings and her words are ever since hanging next to my desk as a constant reminder. Here some of Maria Popova's guidelines that are very much applicable to any work and its wish to be of value:

  1. "Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards."

  2. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning."

  3. "Don’t be afraid to be an idealist. There is much to be said for our responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction we call culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to existing demands — give the people cat GIFs, the narrative goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want. But E.B. White, one of our last great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role each of us is called to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the machinery of society. Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently supplying it can we hope to increase the demand for the substantive over the superficial — in our individual lives and in the collective dream called culture."

Wellbeing and creative work, Elizabeth Gilbert

Scheduling Self-Care Time

To schedule time for breaks and self-care might not seem as important as a project-deadline, but seriously you realize that there is a certain deadline on your life, right? If we're long-term invested in our goals we have to make time for recovery and get freedom for our head space. Self-care is not an event and has nothing to do with some weird Zeitgeist, it is a practice that you have to repeat.

  1. Get enough sleep

  2. Schedule holidays or days off into your calendar. If you're self-employed and find that strange call it different like recovery day, play day, head space day etc. days where you are allowed to get bored, to do nothing apart from taking a walk or whatever you enjoy to get into a new prospective.

  3. Time off is a matter of organization. I had the privilege to take 3 months off last year to hike 2200 Km on the Camino de Santiago across Switzerland, France and Spain. Believe me there was a lot of organization going on before I was able to go and it's been totally worth it. I really hope to repeat this format of mini sabbatical in some form in the future.

  4. Set non-negotiable priorities and then start to say NO for your own sanity! The constant rain of "I should" "I have to"... can be overloading and stop us from actually getting anything done.

  5. When one feels stuck it feels good to get some distance and concentrate on something new. A self-development and professional development calendar might come in handy in planning to learn new skills. Learning something new can feel empowering and helps us reach our goals. Schedule time for that in the calendar ahead before everyday tasks hit us. One hour consistently over a period of time during the evenings or early mornings might already help.