Dear students: Money isn’t the source of your problem

James GallagherDear students,

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, about your concerns and how I might be able to address them somehow. First and foremost on your mind is money – how to survive in the real world when you graduate. You’ve heard countless stories, I’m sure – of how it’s tough out there to make ends meet. There’s the usual horror stories of graduates getting sucked into some MLM/pyramid scheme, or where they inevitably get so burned out that they quit the industry to badger their relatives and friends to invest in insurance. You tell me that there’s two distinct choices: whether to be rich and miserable doing something you hate for the money; or to be poor doing what you love.

But the world isn’t all black and white.

And artists don’t have to starve to get to where they are. You can choose to be smart about it, unless you’re making a choice to suffer through the whole ordeal (needlessly, I might say). Because the point here is this: no one starts off being good at what they do. Not even Vincent Van Gogh. Not even Mozart. They practiced and practiced their hearts out and they might have been poor at least once in their life (I’m making this up, but I’m pretty sure of it).

Everything is fleeting – your problems, your growing pains, the awkwardness, being poor, being a terrible artist.

Money isn’t the source of all problems. Laziness, and fear of the unknown is – especially when you’re starting out. If you’re able to spend your time watching cats on YouTube (like this cat jump fail that made me gasp), you can certainly eke out some time to do something about your money fears. As for having unfounded fears, you need to get off the internet and do something about your situation instead of reading about things you can’t control.

To start off, how about earning money on the side while you figure out what it is you want? I’ve been a busser at KFC after secondary school for 3 months, clearing tables and cleaning up poo residue from under the table from parents who thought that the floor is a dumping ground for soiled diapers (it happens more often than you think). I’ve worked in retail, standing on my feet for 8 hours a day, attending to fickle customers and being a sentry – watching out for thieves hoping to fleece some chino pants. And I won’t mind doing either one again, if I really had no other choice. Why? Because I know it’s only temporary. And you should too. Everything is fleeting – your problems, your growing pains, the awkwardness, being poor, being a terrible artist. How you get past it is up to you.

How about creating your own products to sell? You might just get spare change, but you’ll get a whole lot of insight into what people want when you put yourself out there. Plus you’ll be able to flex that creative muscle of yours. Think local craft markets, art fairs, and of course, Etsy.

And how about making sure that you’re doing the best you can while you pound the pavement looking for work? Have you brushed up your portfolio, dusted off your LinkedIn page and created a blog? Have you bought this great resource book filled with contacts of people in the US and contacted the ones that interest you?

Don’t let the fear of starving stop you from creating the work you want others to see. For one thing, you won’t starve. Really. My best friend and I once were so poor as students that we only had RM2 (USD$0.60) between us to split lunch, but we managed, because a very nice lady who manned the economy rice stall took pity on us and heaped food onto our plates after we asked what we could buy for that amount – we explained that we used up all our money to buy books for the month (which was the truth). I’m not saying that you should all go out and beg – but I look back at that time and laugh, because we were so young, and naive. We asked for kindness and we got it in return. And we make sure to return the favor to whomever we come across that needs help, because we’ve been on the receiving end of kindness. Maybe being a bit naive isn’t such a bad thing.

But that’s a post for another day.

{ Collage illustration by James Gallagher }


Every week, I teach about the creative process of illustration at a local college. And when I come home, I realize that I’ve forgotten to point this out, or to remind them about something. Dear Students serves as my own personal compilation of thoughts, and is a series dedicated to students around the world who might find my musings useful. To read the entire series, click here. 

8 Replies to “Dear students: Money isn’t the source of your problem”

  1. Koosje koene says:

    Yes, I agree! Especially the bit about spending your time right . You can complain for a bit, but then after a while you need to do something about it. Get into action, be resourceful and use that creativity to find ways to earn some extra money. Also, a job on the side can give you so much more than the extra money you need. It can be inspiring, you might make new friends, and it can motivate you even more to work towards your dreams, especially when it’s a crappy job. Trust me, I know. Asking for help every now and then and being naive can be valuable too.

  2. Thank you so much for the energy you give me by writing this. Big smile!

  3. AudreyH says:

    Thank you for these kind of articles =)
    It’s really interesting for me to discover sometimes your own thoughts/advices/experiences about this field in general. I am in a french fine-art school which doesn’t think about these questions, however usefull. So, thanks for taking time to share it!
    Then, it’s always really interesting to look at your selection of artists! I don’t know when I started to visit your blog (maybe 2 years ago), but it’s a pleasure to often come back here, have a good day!

  4. Sara says:

    For me the internet is both a place to be inspired, but also a place that takes my time. So I take this sentence with me.

    “…you need to get off the internet and do something about your situation..”

  5. Hanna says:

    Thanks this is exactly what I needed to hear, gives great perspective & hope. H

  6. A great read. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Medina says:

    Such wise words! Someone once told me their philosophy teacher had said that his best job was as a rubbish collector. It gave him plenty of space in his head to think, while got him really grubby and physically tired (and made him some money too, of course). There is something kind of cool about doing scummy jobs to get by while your heart is soaring in the projects that you give your quality time to. Plus the experiences gives you great material!

  8. Hang says:

    Thanks for the article, very inspiring . I totally agree! Laziness and fear will get us nowhere.

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