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The 4 Habits of Thriving Artists

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
art & design, featured

thriving artist habits

Photo: Jody Morris via Flickr

The trope of the “starving artist” is so old, it’s practically not even a trope anymore. Instead, it’s more like a creepy bedtime story we tell potential working artists, as if to scare them out of the pursuit of art and in to some other career path. But in reality, a starving artist is neither a hopeless financial drain on society, nor a glamorous scamp subsisting solely on the love of creating something beautiful. A starving artist is just a thriving artist who hasn’t developed the habits it takes to be successful.

Author, artist, and speaker Lisa Congdon made art her full-time job just five years after starting it as a hobby. Now, she tours the country helping others do the same thing. And, she says, the best way to become a thriving artist is to pick up the habits and traits that can help you become successful.

Successful artists aren’t just those who have miraculously been discovered on Instagram — instead, they’re the ones who take small steps, every day, to further their business and their personal development.

They make friends.

Don’t create in a vacuum. Lisa suggests that all working artists join a supportive community. “If you don’t have one, start to find one. And the internet is a great place for that, as well as getting involved in the arts community where you live. Surround yourself with supportive people,” she explains. Not only can ignoring other artists in your medium or city make it really difficult to price your work or understand the value that you add to the market, it can also be supremely lonely. Plus, even in the world of art and creativity, that tired adage — that it’s who you know — remains a relatively true statement. Being well-connected can lead to more work, more attention, and more opportunities. Your community can exist solely online, or it can be made up of the other few artists in your small town. It can include your family, your oldest friends, or be comprised entirely of people you’ve met in the last year. Whoever they are, keep them close. Community is key.


Establish yourself as a professional designer, seamlessly work with clients and learn how to sell art. Learn more.

How to sell art with Lisa Congdon


They take notes.

Doodling and sketching are intimately connected with language and creativity, and even just picking up a pen while on a phone call can help you remember things better and feel more emotionally connected to your work.  But, says Lisa, sometimes, it’s best to switch to words — even if you never show them to anyone.

“I truly believe that when you get your worries out onto paper, there is a release that happens that is very profound,” she says, “I write down just about everything that comes to mind. No one ever has to see it, you never have to publish it. It’s your way of releasing.”

Some of the most famous authors, artists, and creators were regular journalers who, like Lisa, took a notebook (sometimes, but not always, the iconic Moleskine) with them everywhere they went. These thinkers used their notebooks to write down worries, ideas, inspiration, or frustration. If you want, you can turn your notes into a blog post or even an art project — but for the most part, note-taking is there for you.

lisa congdon thriving artists

They plan ahead.

Artists are often characterized as wild and free individuals who take opportunities as they come and don’t plan their success. This is incorrect. The best, most successful artists, have a plan. They have a lot of plans. They plan often and they plan in several different ways.

“Begin to chart your path,” Lisa explains, adding that “this includes vision-mapping — which is basically brainstorming all your big goals for the next one to five years, and letting yourself dream big about where you want to land.”

Write down your most outlandish, most dreamy goals. Write down your tiny, could-do-it-tomorrow goals. Write down the 10 things you’d like to do before you die. Then, says Lisa, figure out how you’re actually going to make them happen.

“Take those big, lofty goals, and break them into action steps that help you to get there.”

They are okay being uncomfortable.

Being the owner of a creative business — even if it’s just your freelance business and you are the only employee — comes with some intrinsic awkwardness, because it combines creativity, which most of us are pretty great at, with business, which most of us are less good at, or at least less comfortable with. If we were as good at business as we are at making things, most of us would have gone into another line of work. And yet, many artists and creative people try desperately not to feel it.

“I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad,” explains Dr. Brene Brown in an interview with Forbes. But avoiding it, she says, had more negative consequences than positive ones.

“My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few.”

Which means we need to embrace feeling unsure, says Lisa.

“I pretty much live outside of my comfort zone, which means I’m a little bit anxious a lot of the time, but it serves me well. And I think as artists, this is a place we have to go.”

This discomfort can exist, says Lisa, in the promotion your work, in some element of your business, or even just in overcoming a situation where you feel less-than-comfortable, like a networking event. Either way, every day, the most successful artists are stepping beyond their natural boundaries and trying new, sometimes nerve-wracking things.


Establish yourself as a professional designer, seamlessly work with clients and learn how to sell art. Learn more.

How to sell art with Lisa Congdon


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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.