When The Art Students League of New York reached out to request that I speak at The Virtual Military Veteran Artist Network Symposium I immediately said YES.
For those who may not know my background, I am an author – illustrator and artist who spent the past fourteen years in the Air Force. I separated from active-duty status in the summer of 2023 and transitioned to the Air Force Reserves to dedicate more time to my creative career.
A lot of my journey as a veteran artist was lonely as I navigated (blundered) my way to my creative goals outside of the wider art community. I always felt like somehow, I was “doing it wrong.” Moves and travel made it hard to gain footing with any local arts community, and I didn’t have the opportunity to attend an academic institution to formally study art or writing. A lot of my peers didn’t understand what I was trying to do, though some were supportive, and most were amused I was doing it. But along the way I met other creatives similarly striving, and it made all the difference: they too believed in what was possible beyond what could be immediately seen.
It is insanely hard (and inadvisable) to go it alone when building a creative career. I hope this information helps ease the journey for others navigating how to build a career (especially when pivoting from the national security space).
Here is what I have learned (or rather had to unlearn).
6 Steps for Veteran Creatives Building a Career in the Arts
You have the power to forge your own path.
1. You don’t need permission to pursue your purpose.
This may come more easily to others, but it was a hard lesson for me to learn. The military system is an unending series of meaningful opportunities to achieve, succeed, pursue goals, and work with awesome people. It keeps you striving, and it kept me hesitating when I thought “am I really going to leave all this tangible awesome stuff for something that currently only exists in my imagination?”
I think I stayed on active duty for as long as I did because I was waiting for someone to finally signal to me “okay, go ahead – go pursue your creative dreams!” But the signal never came.
Instead of looking to a commander, mentor, or boss for guidance above my own – I had to learn to look within myself.
- What do you really want?
- Does your heart come alive each day? If not, why?
- Do you feel stuck in a hamster wheel of achievement?
- Are these achievements in line with your values – with your highest self?
- At the end of your life, will you look back at all the life minutes you gave to this and know, resolutely, they were spent well?
- How can you shift your life around to allocate even a little more time to what you love?
- Where are you looking to others for approval, and why?
We all have an “enough” point. A time when we realize we have done enough, accomplished enough, experienced enough. Knowing enough was enough led me to assume command of my own life. I finally gave myself permission to pursue my dreams.
- What does “enough” look and feel like to you?
- How are you allowing others to shape the way you believe something is possible for you?
- What would it look like for you to give yourself permission to shape your life in a way that enables you to pursue what you want?
In the military you get tasked with something. Then, you go do that thing. In our creative career, we take responsibility for creating our own task flows and working toward fulfilling our own dreams. You must take the initiative. When you stop looking around you for permission to do what you want, the noise of naysayers, detractors and doubters gets drowned out by your own self-belief.
The first step to forging your own path is to begin looking inward, and not outward, for guidance and validation. No one knows how best to live your life but YOU.
2. Time: Consistency > Quantity
I was in abject time poverty while pursuing my art for most of my active-duty career. This is just the way it was. I am sure many of us have careers, family obligations and a myriad of other things that need our time and leave us with limited minutes and energy to put towards our art.
It’s understandable to feel that time is scarce. Navigating overwhelm, we tell ourselves “I don’t have time to do X.” But what if you asked instead: “What time do I have to do X? Is there a single minute I can reallocate to X?”
Step two in forging your own path is allocating time towards the effort – ANY amount of time.
Start with these questions and consider where your time is going (social events, work obligations):
- What am I signing up for that I know I DO NOT want to do? (stop doing this)
- What am I saying yes to that I feel indifferent/meh/maybe about? (stop doing this too)
- What am I saying yes to that I absolutely LOVE doing? (begin maximizing time here)
To forge your own path you must allocate time to what you love by using the tool: NO.
Say no to the stuff you obviously don’t want to do. Say no to the things you are indifferent to or only “maybe” want to do. If it is not an immediate YES, then use your NO.
When taking back your time, any amount counts. Five minutes here, twenty minutes there. This counts because consistency over time is where progress happens.
You don’t need hours upon hours to dedicate to something to move the needle forward in your dreams (though YAY if you have that!).
You need consistent and repeated effort steadily dedicated over time.
I worked for years (2018 to 2022) taking online classes late at night to learn painting techniques. If I didn’t need to go into work early, I would practice for half an hour. On days I didn’t work through lunch I treated myself to twenty minutes of practice. If I had five minutes before a meeting to just sit and wait, I would jot down ideas for stories and art.
I believe it was Seneca who stated, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
In 2023 When Google approached me to create the Veterans Day Google Doodle, I was ready for the opportunity. While making the Doodle “Operation Starry Night” I leveraged artistic techniques and storytelling skills I had learned across 2018, 2019 and 2020. Skills I continued to improve in 2021 and 2022 as I wrote and illustrated my debut picture book “The Krewe of Barkus and Meoux”.
As you forge your own path, TAKE YOUR TIME. Quite literally. Go at a pace that works for you. Take back those minutes from being spent on things that don’t fit what you are trying to achieve. Pour your minutes in preparation for the arrival of opportunities that matter to YOU.
3. Unlearn urgency.
My idea for my picture book The Krewe of Barkus and Meoux came to me during a wargame. I was bored out of my mind during a certain portion of the multi-day event, and while thinking about competition my mind wandered to the Mardi Gras pet parade.
How did the Krewe of Barkus and Krewe of Meoux combine to form one Krewe? Was there an epic dance battle in the French Quarter to decide who was best of Mardi Gras? The first lines of the story drifted to me:
“It was time for Fat Tuesday…You know what that means?
There were hundreds of celebrations…throughout ol’ New Orleans.”
In the military we get trained to have a constant sense of urgency as we move through the world. I distinctly remember getting yelled at in basic training to “move with a sense of purpose.” “Hurry up and wait” also comes to mind. I have spent a lot of time unlearning this constant impulse to be doing something. It is no small feat. Realizing the benefits of SLOWING DOWN – even to the point of boredom – has taught me an entirely different approach to my creative career.
Moving with a sense of purpose in a creative context does NOT involve rushing, reacting or urgency.
Moving with a sense of purpose in a creative context involves moving at a pace through life that is in harmony with your own ideas.
You will rush around until you realize the race is only against yourself.
Step three to forge your own path involves unlearning externally imposed urgency to begin setting your own pace.
Slow down and notice the world around you. Notice it through every sense you possess. This is where you draw inspiration from – it is in paying attention to what seems like small insignificant moments. If you cannot slow down enough to experience the world around you, then you won’t be able to receive inspiration and see new ways of connecting things.
Consider the following:
- Where do you feel a sense of urgency? Why?
- What is one way you can slow down and support yourself?
- Can you remember a time recently where one of your five senses placed you in awe of the world around you?
- What kind of pace of life would feel fulfilling to you?
4. Seek Community & Collaboration > Competition.
When pivoting from a background in national security to a career rooted in creativity it can be hard to let go of a competitive mindset. We are naturally conditioned to be competitive in a military environment: it is a hierarchical institution, streamlined, a zero-sum game with an up and out system of progression. You get stratified and ranked against your peers, there is a known ranking of signifiers to designate the best: which school you go to, what unit you are assigned, what position you get, who you work for. This competitive approach is well suited for the realm of defense, but it helps to shift our mindset if we want to build a career in the arts.
Approaching building a creative career with a mindset of competitive scarcity is a recipe for disaster. You must switch to a mindset of collaborative abundance.
Step four of forging your own path is recognizing that collaborating with other creatives is key to building what you dream of doing.
Creatives naturally exist in community with one another, and no two creatives have identical versions of what a successful career looks like. If you are stuck focusing on what another creator has achieved, you aren’t focusing on what YOU uniquely can achieve. Furthermore, just because a certain thing has been achieved doesn’t mean it is now no longer accessible to you.
Be wary of slipping into competitive scarcity: it often comes at the cost of building the collaborative community around you which will help you succeed.
We know we have done a good job in our lifetime if other artists have been able to look to our work to inform their own. We learn from one another, inspire one another, and support one another. The artist’s journey is not meant to be made alone. We are a community collaborating across mediums and generations, it is such a powerful thing!
Consider the following:
- How can you approach your career in a way that helps you surround yourself with others similarly striving for their dreams?
- Where do you feel the most scarcity in your creative practice?
- What fears are feeding into that scarcity mindset?
- What tiny action can you take to address those fears?
- Which organizations exist that could help you grow your community?
5. You determine what “success” means to YOU.
One of the great things about the military is that it gives you a career with clear measures of success and metrics of achievement over the course of decades. The difficult thing about leaving that system to pursue a creative career is that you are now doing a complete 180* on what success is and how to work towards it.
Instead of success being prescribed and provided to you from an outer entity, you now must reach inward and excavate what matters to you without any external driving force. This is not easy. It comes with a reckoning of identity and an uncomfortable level of self-questioning.
A conversation about success must also start with a reflection on your own values. If you don’t know what you value, you won’t know where to aim your pursuit of success. Once you know your values, the opportunities that harmonize with your success will be transparent.
Step five to forge your own path is not for the faint of heart: you must learn to discern between outward measures of success (which distract you) and focus instead on inward measures of success that drive you in the direction of your values (and dreams).
Some thoughts to ponder:
- Can you identify measures of success that come from outside of you?
- Can you identify measures of success that originate from within your own unique dreams?
- What did you love doing as a kid before the world told you what to be?
- What sparks joy for you on a soul level?
- What are you so interested in or inspired by that you would pursue it even if no one ever knew?
- Can you think of a few values that resonate with you?
- How are you making decisions that point your life in the direction of those values?
6. “Good business is the best art.” -Andy Warhol
You need to nest your craft.
Spending time in the Department of Defense opened my eyes to how bureaucracy functions. Turning my eyes to the wider art world, I have considered how we inadvertently create or participate in systems that can easily consume us (as creatives) if we are not careful.
It is not always the case of course, but there are publishing houses that care more for the bottom line than their authors. How often have we heard of music labels who work their artists to the point of creative suffocation? The focus of these organizations is to generate revenue, and fortunately some perform better than others at honoring the humanity of their creatives.
The reality is that we as artists must be prepared to navigate the place where our creativity intersects with business.
Step six to forge your own path involves setting the conditions for your own success by nesting your craft within a business (legal structure) of your choosing.
We need to stop perpetuating the myth of “the starving artist.” It is time we stopped buying into the belief that “art doesn’t put food on the table.” The global creative economy is booming to the tune of billions while these lies keep creatives in fear.
We live in an age where we can take our work directly to our audience and generate income from our ideas.
Do not underestimate your ability to grow into the identity of a creative entrepreneur or creative business owner. It is important to protect your work. If you don’t do it, other outside organizations (or people) might position themselves to do so on your behalf. Protect your work and research what business legal structure best suits your version of success. That structure will be what liaises with the outside world to enable your dreams to come to fruition.
Thoughts to consider:
- What type of business might work for my creative work?
- What self-limiting beliefs do I have around making money from my art?
- What can I do to challenge those beliefs?
You can do this.
In conclusion, the path to pursue a creative career is non-linear and winding. You loop through the same spot over and over until you realize you aren’t stuck; you are gaining altitude in your own perspective. Learning to see yourself and your talents with wider understanding comes with time, dedication, and the dogged pursuit of what you love. You will bring your ideas to life by being present in your unique process and practice.
I hope these steps provide support as you explore how to shift from the mindset needed in a military career to the mindset needed in a creative career. So much of what you have already learned during your time in service will help you move the needle forward in your dreams. Your unique experiences will undoubtedly serve as a well of ideas from which you can create your work. But if you get stuck, or feel lost, I hope the steps above help you to keep going.