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Book Review: Real Artists Don’t Starve by Jeff Goins

July 7th, 2017 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador


We live in an age of remarkably high levels of economic disruption brought about by technological developments. That’s a truism, of course, but it’s as good a starting place as any for considering the book we are discussing today. As the internet has become more entrenched, the institutions that sustained a number of careers have diminished as they have struggled to adapt to the new technology hitting the market. This has created a particularly acute moment of crisis for musicians and writers: How do you do your work and, you know, not starve to death?

If you want to write and the institutions that would traditionally employ you are failing, does that mean you will always have to work a number of other jobs (or side hustles, as the capitalist class would have us call them) to support your real passion?

Jeff Goins’ new book Real Artists Don’t Starve is one attempt to answer the question. Goins belongs to a class of writer that works at the intersection of art, journalism, entrepreneurialism, and business alongside other writers like Daniel Pink, Austin Kleon, Donald Miller, Michael Hyatt, and Seth Godin. Like them, his work is a mixed bag of shrewd observations, sound practical counsel, and a perverted understanding of capitalism as being more life system than economic theory. That last flaw, unfortunately, may amount to sawing off the branch one is sitting on.

Principles for Thriving Artists

Goins book is split into three sections which, taken together, are meant to give writers and other creatives the toolset required to make a living from their work. Each section consists of four chapters, each of which are dedicated to one of his principles.

The first section focuses on individual mind-set. These are the four principles:

  • You aren’t born an artist.
  • Stop trying to be original.
  • Apprentice under a master.
  • Harness your stubbornness.

The second section is Market and is about how you can develop the relationships and community required to make a living with your creative work. These are his principles:

  • Cultivate patrons.
  • Go join a scene.
  • Collaborate with others.
  • Practice in public.

Finally, he ends the book with a discussion of money. These are the four principles for this section:

  • Don’t work for free.
  • Own your work.
  • Diversify your portfolio.
  • Make money to make art.

The book’s strength can be summed up as an unyielding belief that people willing to work hard, make sacrifices, and stick to their principles can often find a way to make a living doing what they love. While it is easy enough for people more inclined to cynicism and a deep suspicion of the American dream to dismiss this as a naive idealism, there is something to be said for encouraging people to work hard and adhere to principle in hopes of securing a better life for themselves. Even if social mobility is not what it once was in America, such a thing is not impossible even today.

In particular, Goins’ advise to find established professionals to mentor and patronize you, to practice where others can see, and to not work for free are all sound and helpful. Indeed, as I thought about my own work as a writer as well as the work of a number of friends I was struck by how so many of us seem to have followed these principles, often without even realizing it. On further reflection, I also realized that many of the struggles we have had to establish ourselves sound an awful lot like the mistakes Goins is trying to correct with his book.

While it can sometimes seem banal, the ability to recognize how a thing works and then explain it to others is incredibly valuable and it is one of Goins’ greatest strengths. Moreover, the book’s final chapter, explaining why we should aspire to make money—in order to live and do our work well and not simply in order to amass wealth—is a helpful, if somewhat obvious, capstone for the book.

Existentialism and Consumerism

One of the great ironies of our era is that we have embraced the maxim of one of the 20th century’s most famous leftists, Jean-Paul Sartre’s “existence precedes essence,” and found that it actually works in radically market-oriented ways.

In our radically consumer-focused society we have fully realized the idea that individual people can be both brands and products. Though Goins does not often make these ideas explicit, the ideas are nearly always there implicitly. Consider this excerpt from his explanation of why we should make money doing our work in the book’s final chapter:

The point is not to make a fortune or become famous, but to do the work. We are all looking for a way to share our gift with the world without worrying about making a living. That means more than getting paid once for our creations. It means building a life that allows us to keep creating.

Earlier in the book, we find this excerpt in an interview with one of his subjects as she discussed her own career path:

At the time, Melissa’s husband was supporting both of them financially, so she didn’t worry about making a living. Her art was more of a hobby, with just enough income to pay for her supplies, weekend workshops, and annual conferences. But when she and her husband divorced, Melissa realized she needed to find a way to make a living with her art. “I needed an identity,” she told me about the difficult time after her divorce. It wasn’t enough for her just to make things—she had to make things of value, things people wanted. So the custom ketubah art transitioned to selling ketubah prints, which eventually led to the business she has now, which is helping other people find and reclaim their own creative passions. “My mission on the planet,” she told me, “is to get people creating.” Personally, she doesn’t care if people want to make money from their creative efforts, “but a lot of people do want to generate income from their creative thing.”

The progression is something like this: We begin with Sartre, thinking that the simple fact of our existence comes before any sort of declarative statement about who we are as individuals. In a sense, this is a frightening thing—it’s why Sartre often said we are condemned to be free.

But what we have realized today, particularly as technology has evolved in ways that further facilitate this work, is that when all of the pre-defined sources of identity are stripped away we are left with an invigorating lack of restraint that allows us to be “our true selves.” It is perhaps telling that it was a divorce that led to one of the people he profiles embracing the approach to creativity that Goins here endorses. Though he encourages readers to “find a scene” where they can mature as artists alongside other creatives, even that counsel is itself a tacit affirmation of the extreme individualism that pervades the book. If the scene fails, after all, you may as well leave—there’s nothing else keeping you there, after all.

Why this way of thinking is a big deal.

I’m not unaware of the fact that this set of talking points has become one of my soapboxes, especially over the past few months. But there is a reason I keep coming back to it. I believe quite firmly that we are living in a time of significant upheaval. The institutions that shaped and defined life in America for decades or even centuries are failing. If it makes me alarmist to say so, then so be it. But when you have the sort of social mistrust, familial breakdown, income inequality, and political strife that we do in this country, you have many things but a sustainable republic is not one of them. Add to this our completely dysfunctional system of caring for people’s health, our hyper-mobility, and the looming threats posed by climate change and… well, we’ve got a crisis on our hands, y’all.

A book like Goins’ should help address one important aspect of that crisis: How do we find the means to employ ourselves and make enough of a living to provide for our loved ones and to be generous to those in our communities. In fact, this book provides some excellent answers to those questions. But, to borrow an image from Doug Wilson, it’s a handful of pearls with no thread. There are individual bits of wisdom here that are wonderful, but no coherent thread to tie the proverb-like aphorisms together.

Indeed, to the extent that the book does have a unifying thread that thread is in fact the same ideology that makes books like this one necessary. Indeed, it’s notable that other purveyors of this sort of thinking with more explicitly Christian ties are people like Rob Bell and Donald Miller who have quite obviously abandoned traditional Christian beliefs and practices to better facilitate their entrepreneurial dreams and desires which are mostly oriented around a hipper version of Joel Osteen’s your best life now schtick.

What is tragic about all of this relates closely to what Joshua Novalis said in his review of The Boatman yesterday. Human beings are complicated creatures and we are often, thankfully, better than our principles. But there is a kind of regression that happens over time which leads us closer and closer to living in alignment with our beliefs—which is why Miller and Bell have ended up where they are today. The principles to get them to being Tony Robbins knockoffs were always there. But it took them for that to become apparent. My fear with books like this one is that something similar is in play here.

At its best, this book will teach people to believe that they really can make a living doing a thing they love and that this can allow them to live in service to neighbor and neighborhood in ways they might not be able to if they were in a more conventional employment situation. But the underlying logic of the book works against that, even if Goins himself does not seem to recognize this.

The great objective of the book is the cultivation of one’s individual talent. And the book counsels going to great lengths to achieve that objective. The “find a scene” chapter strongly implies that this objective overrides the responsibilities we owe to our home places, though Goins does (to his credit) soften some of that rhetoric at the chapter’s close and looks for ways that people can create their own scenes, citing the Bronte family as an example. It is not hard to wonder if other obligations may, likewise, be dispensed with in the pursuit of one’s art.

To be clear, I think Goins is too good a person to be wholly at peace with how subversive this ideology is of Christian love and the virtues of neighborliness and fidelity. Most proponents of this hyper-individualist ideology aren’t aware of that, I think. (I hope.) But that does not make it any less true. The best response I can think of to this book is to counsel everyone who reads it to read this poem by Berry, particularly this section quoted below which is as searing an indictment of this line of thinking as I can imagine:

The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in pursuit of the objective.
the once-enslaved, the once-oppressed were now free
to sell themselves to the highest bidder
and to enter the best paying prisons
in pursuit of the objective, which was the destruction of all enemies,
which was the destruction of all obstacles, which was the destruction of all objects,
which was to clear the way to victory, which was to clear the way to promotion, to salvation, to progress,
to the completed sale, to the signature
on the contract, which was to clear the way
to self-realization, to self-creation, from which nobody who ever wanted to go home
would ever get there now, for every remembered place
had been displaced; the signposts had been bent to the ground and covered over.

Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless

To really feel the weight of the poem, I’d counsel listening to Berry himself read it during the trailer for the forthcoming film “Look and See.”

The goal of this book is deeply admirable: to help people find ways to employ themselves doing things they love rather than, in Berry’s phrase, “selling themselves to the highest bidder.” And there is much wisdom in here as to how we might be able to do that. But the objective of this book and the objectives of Christian piety seem, to me, miles apart. Are human beings meant for self-actualization acquired by discovering and developing our inner artist so we are better equipped to give to the world the gifts residing within our deepest, truest selves? Then Goins book is for you, beginning to end. You come from a world where the only obligations humans owe are to themselves and Goins seems to belong to that world too.

But if human beings are meant to embrace a life of loving sacrifice and dying to self in order to exalt the people and places to which we have been given, then the underlying philosophy of this book will be deeply corrosive to that pursuit.

While he wouldn’t like the politics, one of the main lessons I took from this book is that we’re living in Jean-Paul Sartre’s world. The trouble is if you scratch that world a bit and scrape off the Osteenian marketing veneer, you find it’s a pretty ugly place.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).