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Artists: The B.S. of ‘Do What You Love…’

Just after I turned 40 I did something that would change my life forever. I ran up a huge amount of credit card debt to fund a music CD, a labor of love that was supposed to save me from ever needing a day job again.

There was every indication I would do well. I had terrific material, pro musicians, and great contacts who assured me they were “willing to take a look” if I made the thing. All I needed was the cash upfront to fund it. My credit line was just sitting there, unused, waiting and ready for my perfect opportunity. And besides, I thought, “I’ve got to spend money to make money.”

Everyone I knew was doing it—leveraging cash to do what they loved. A couple I knew had run up $200,000 putting in a pool and remodeling their house to make it “more rent-able.” Another friend, a college pal, had fronted himself $400,000 on his credit line to fund his indie-filmmaker debut. And I had just encouraged one of my best friends to leverage over $100,000 to start a landscape design business.

“That’s what it’s there for, David,” I remember saying to him, with emphasis. “Our credit line is our God-given new business platform.”

I worked harder on my CD than on anything in my life: I gave it heart, blood and soul. I was sure that this is what my parents had meant when they said, “If you work hard enough, you can succeed at anything.” I was living the “Do what you love and the money will follow” credo. All I needed to do was “follow my bliss,” work hard, and the rest would fall into place, right?

By the time the CD was ready to go I was a year in and $80,000 in debt in production costs and living expenses. I had been ignoring my small writing business, using credit to live, too, to be “all the way in.”

Then came the first wake-up call: none of my contacts wanted to buy it. I felt a gut-wrenching panic well up inside me, but I stuffed it down with a big faith buy-in: I believed my passion was too true to miss the mark.

I doubled down on marketing. Three months later I was pitching anyone who would take my call, and sending bucket-loads of CD’s to exec’s. When no one bit, I started to tank. I was at $90,000 and moving money from card to card. I had hives. I had nightmares. I couldn’t digest a thing.

One morning when I was up to $100,000 I looked down at my prized project—my CD—and I started to cry. I was broke, desperate, had no job, and was up to my eyeballs in debt. I couldn’t juggle anymore. I had drunk the kool-aid; swallowed the hype. I had put the cart before the horse thinking that my leap from the cliff was a guarantee of success. I had fallen on my face and I didn’t know how to get back up.

And I wasn’t alone. The friends who put in the swimming pool were losing their house, my indie-filmmaker pal had lost his shirt, and my dear friend—to my chagrin for encouraging him to leverage his credit line—was filing for bankruptcy.

I made a vow then to live on cash no matter what, and to never get mixed up in the mess of debt again. I got an $11-an-hour temp job, sublet my apartment and moved in with my ex. It took six months to find a decent job—at $20,000 less than I was used to making. I came up with a simple system I called my “debt-free spending plan”—an easy list of expenses that I could track in five minutes a day to live on cash. I covered my bills, my daily needs, and made sure to give myself small amounts for clothes, vacation, savings, and entertainment. It worked.

When my ex-husband and I decided to get back together two years later (debt had been our issue), we agreed never to use credit cards again. We used my plan, lived on cash, and paid off his debt, too. It took five years, and though we lived simply, we still put aside a stash for vacations, car repairs, a new computer. And we didn’t fight about money anymore. It was miraculous.

Since then, my art life has been revolutionized, too. I recorded my second CD for free at the local digital design school. I painted in our living room for two years until we could afford the monthly rent on an art studio. I stopped doing high-pressure day jobs and started teaching yoga—living on less—to write my book. No pressure, no desperation—that’s what I’m after now.

If the spinning hype of what I once believed about artistic success has taught me anything it has taught me this: outcomes are not guaranteed, and success doesn’t show up on time, the way I once believed it would. I missed it the first time, but now I know what I was supposed to learn from those insightful, baby boomer adages on creativity: Do what I love, live within my means and build on that. Get a day job I can live with and support myself. That’s what I was supposed to hear. And when I do that I can keep creating for my entire lifetime. And that, for me, is the whole point.

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