One time, my mentor asked me the Question. You know the Question? The Question is: Where do you see yourself in five years?
The first time someone asked me the Question, I said, quite stupidly, that,
in five years, I would be running my own business. I had just finished youth service. I had no money. I had no experience. I had inherited zero millions from my family. I would never inherit any millions from my family. But I was sure I would be running my own business in five years. Yeah.
But by the time my mentor asked me the Question, I had been whipped by life a little. I had learnt what made my heart warm and gave me confidence to confront the world. That thing is writing. At the time he asked me the Question, I had only one mission: to be the best writer in the world. I’m serious.
So I told him this: I just want to write. I just want to tell stories.
He was disappointed.
“Is that all?” He said.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s what I enjoy doing.”
“But how will you feed your family? Look, being a good writer is great and all, but you must also have money.”
He was speaking from experience. There was a time he was so broke his landlord drove him out of his flat. When his first child was delivered, he had no money to pay the hospital. Yet he was such a brilliant writer. Heck, that’s why he was my mentor.
But, you know, my mentor was like Jon Snow. He knew nothing. He was definitely experienced at working and family life but when it came to insights into what I, his mentee, needed, he had no clue. All the advice he gave me came from his own suffering. And the matter got worse because I who listened to him didn’t know any better.
Which is why you must listen to no one.
The mind of the artist is different. First, the artist knows he’s uniquely talented at something. Writing, painting, sculpture, fashion, music, acting, photography, speaking.
Find what you like and let it kill you – Kinky Friedman
Second, he sees millions of possibilities with his art.
Third, money is the last thing he thinks about.
This is why advisers come in. Because they love the artist and want him to be okay, they show him examples of excellent artists who died wretched. They advise the artist to get a real job.
But here’s what I’ve learnt: no matter where you go, your art follows— like a curse, or a demon from a horror movie. You will suffer emotionally. You will feel like you must elope with this jealous lover. It’s like a malicious god who will not let you be until you give him his bloody sacrifice.
And speaking of sacrifice, no great art has emerged without sacrifice. Take James Rhodes, the British concert pianist. He ignored his calling for 10 years, within which he got a real job, got married, and had children. But, as he said, that decade of being normal was the most painful period in his life.
So he walked away from everything. He went back to learning piano. He lost his marriage. He lost his money. He lost his mind. Till he found his beat again and now makes millions of money doing what he had always wanted to do since he was 10 years old.
Of course, I won’t reduce Mr Rhodes’ life story to that single paragraph. He grew up privileged, he went to a £40K-a-year school, he had connections, he’s British— and in Britain things work much better than they do in Nigeria.
But there are also others who grew up with nothing and are excelling at their art. Take Donald Glover, the 33-year-old. He’s a rapper, actor, standup comedian, writer, and DJ. His father was a poster worker; his mom, a nurse. He’s won Emmys and Golden Globes. Oh wait, he’s American. In America things work much better than they do in Nigeria.
Okay, take Olamide. He was poor all his life. Look at Cobhams. He wasn’t rich. He was blind. He’s still blind.
For the artist who chose to make the sacrifice, he is fulfilled every time he creates something and he finds an audience that applauds. Eventually, the audience builds and money follows.
The question is how much money do I want? Do I just want to make a living or do I want want to be Jay-Z? I think every artist should accept being able to simply make a living at first. If being Jay-Z happens, great!
But we forget. We pile on huge responsibilities on the little money we’re making. We get married too early. We have kids too early. We want the life of the guys who gave up on their art. That’s messed up. We need to pick a side: the art that brings happiness or the chase for money that never ends. Joy or pain.
But, as I said, listen to nobody. Not even me.