7 Lessons I’ve Learned From Working As A Paid Artist For 20 Years by Forbes – Entrepreneurs

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I feel incredibly blessed to have earned a living for the past two decades as a professional author, ghostwriter, and coauthor of positive, inspirational non-fiction books, articles and blogs. When I was growing up, I never imagined this path would be possible. I figured writing would remain a hobby while I worked a “real job” in the business world or, if I was lucky, academia. But here I am, in my mid-40s, beginning my third decade of making an income by writing. My filmmaker/ writer husband Kiran Ramchandran lovingly refers to our career path as being “a paid artist.” It is very aligned with my life purpose of being a joy champion.

I have found my life purpose in writing positive, inspirational books and articles.

Nicole Seu

It hasn’t been easy. I don’t think the creative path ever is. But I have learned a thing or two along the way about aligning your career with your life purpose, following your heart, and managing to do for a living what you truly love.

  • Ask yourself if you really love it.

In high school, I wanted to be an actress. I got the lead in several plays and even was accepted to the prestigious summer theater arts program at Northwestern University. But it was there, working with professional actors, dancers, and set designers, that I heard over and over again, “Don’t pursue this path unless you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.” Once I got to college, I pretty much quit acting. I still love going to the theater and watching movies and shows, but being an actress didn’t seem like “the only thing I could do with my life.”

In high school, I (far right) dreamed of being an actress.

Morris Fox

I do really love writing. Truly love it. I feel a sense of joy when I sit down at my computer to work. It’s all about getting into the flow. When I write, I get lost in the task at hand. Time and the outside world disappear. I am grooving.

If you can find your way into a state of flow doing something, then it’s worth the pain and suffering of pursuing that path.

  • Be willing to do the grunt work. For years.

The first book I ever wrote was a total fluke. A friend who was a doctor asked if I’d like to coauthor a book about supplements with him. I said yes. I went to the book store (this was before Amazon) and bought a book called, “How to Write a Book Proposal.” I followed the instructions, then wrote emails to all my friends asking if anyone knew anyone in publishing who would be willing to review the proposal. A friend said yes, her friend was very junior at Putnam and would take a look.

Two weeks later that person wrote back to me. “I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. I’m going to offer you a book deal.” Her boss bought the book and worked with me on it. At the end of the process, she said, “Hey, you could do this for a living, you know.”

“Do what?” I asked naively.

“Be a professional ghostwriter.”

Now I’d never heard of such a field. I had no idea at the time that many books are ghostwritten. Chances are any non-fiction book you’ve ever read that’s written by a famous person – a celebrity, a politician, a business leader – was ghostwritten. That doesn’t mean the individual didn’t contribute tons of ideas, interviews, and even research. But a different person put all the words on the page, organized it, cleaned it up, and turned it into a book.

Was it my dream to be a ghostwriter? No. I dreamt of being a professional author. But the ghostwriting gig has paid my bills for two decades while I have honed my craft, learned a tremendous amount, and become a far more skilled writer.

My friends who wanted to be screenwriters, directors and movie producers, clothing and jewelry designers, and, yes, actors, have all followed a similar path. They started off as glorified secretaries, in many cases. They were willing to do the grunt work for years before they wound up in the lead roles. And that was okay with them.

  • Cultivate your relationships.

Mentorship is critical if you want to succeed as a paid artist.

Christina Morillo, Pexels

People often talk about mentorship. I benefitted tremendously from having mentors in my writing career. My first editor, Amy Hertz, took me under her wing after publishing a book by two unknown coauthors. She offered to find me a literary agent. She gave me my first ghostwriting gigs. I developed a very close and personal relationship with her, and I still turn to her for advice to this day.

But it’s not just about mentors. Every person you work with will either serve as a glowing reference for you, or will have the ability to serious damage to your career if displeased. I spend a tremendous amount of energy keeping my clients happy. I hop on the phone whenever they need to talk. I rationalize my choices in editing their work, but ultimately, as I always tell them, “You’re the boss” – and I let them have the final say. I work to build friendships with each of my coauthors. And, in fact, almost all of them have ended up becoming lifelong friends, for which I am immensely grateful.

In truth, many of my projects have come as a direct result of their referrals. And not just that. My coauthors are responsible for getting me gigs as a writer for Intent.com, Huffington Post, and Forbes, as well as many of my life coaching clients.

If you’re going to be a paid artist, treasure and cherish every person you work with. They’re worth more than gold.

  • Be prepared to fail. More than once.

From what I’ve heard, many people pursue the artistic path expecting to fail. Once.

The truth is, you’re likely to fail more than once. Possibly over and over again. You’ll face rejection. You’ll get told you’re no good. You’ll be broke. Friends and family will urge you to just give in and get a “real job.” But you’ll keep at it in spite of that. You’ll pick yourself up and get back to it.

For me, “failure” meant running up against massive barriers on several occasions during my writing career. There were times when I was flat broke and simply didn’t have the get-up-and-go to hustle my way through another day, so I took an office job for a year. I stopped being a paid artist for a while. Luckily, these stints – one at an ad agency and another doing social – turned out to be restorative periods. I got to hibernate for a while, regain energy, and prepare myself for venturing back out into that big, bad world. And that was okay. 

  • Know that you’ll always want more.

You’ll always want more, and that’s frustrating. This is due in part to the fact that as an artist, you’re always pushing yourself to reach new heights. So, you attain a certain level of success and recognition, then immediately set your heart on the next accomplishment.

Your ambition will drive you to always want more.


I was delighted, at first, simply to get paid to freelance edit and ghostwrite other people’s books. But then I wanted my name on the cover. And then I wanted to start writing my own stuff. And then I wanted to start writing poems, screenplays, and children’s books, not just non-fiction. Along the way, getting what I wanted next hasn’t come easy. I’ve had to fight my way up each rung of the ladder.

I don’t suppose this will ever change. I have come to believe that I’ll always want more, and that’s okay. The drive to achieve is part of the fun – as long as I also am content with where I am right now. To counteract the desire for more, I make a conscious effort to practice gratitude every single day. I am so happy to be doing what I am doing. I am a paid artist, and that is a beautiful thing.

  • Hustle and promote yourself like crazy.

I don’t love this part about being a paid artist. It’s probably my least favorite part of the job. But in truth, I don’t believe there is any other way to make it, especially in the day and age of social media. You have to hustle constantly. You’re always on the prowl for your next gig. And you have to promote the heck out of everything you do in order to win eyeballs, fans, supporters, page views, likes, or whatever else is going on in the wild world of the internet.

Your relentless self-promotion will seem gauche to some people. It might even offend a few of your closest friends and family members. Hopefully, when you explain the situation to them, they’ll understand that it isn’t a choice. Promoting yourself is part of the package.

  • Be willing to make sacrifices.

Some people sacrifice their personal life. They work relentless hours, completely dedicated to their work. While I admire that, it’s not what I have wanted. I always cherished working hard and having a full personal life.

However, I have sacrificed financial security. We don’t own a home. We don’t have a huge retirement account. More than once, I have gotten down to the end of my savings and found myself having to frantically go out in search of new work.

I’m grateful for the freedom my husband and I have had as paid artists to live in LA, Honolulu & Paris.

Nicole Seu

That’s okay. In return for not being nearly as rich as most of my Silicon Valley friends, I have enjoyed real freedom, a flexible schedule, the ability to work from anywhere in the world, to pick and choose with whom I work and on what projects, the ability to travel and live abroad, to go to yoga in the middle of the day, to spend ample time with my husband and children. And I get to spend my day-to-day life doing work that I find fun, fascinating, and educational.

That is worth more than money to me. I made a choice, and I’m happy with it.

June 1, 2019 at 08:14AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs