The 3 Stages of an Artist’s Work: Transaction, Compromise, Gift

What if the point of becoming a professional artist or writer was not what you thought it was? What if success wasn’t the ultimate goal? What if each phase of your journey, even the frustrating ones, was a necessary stage to better understand what it is you’re here to do?

The 3 Stages of an Artist’s Work: Transaction, Compromise, Gift

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In creative work, there is a spectrum from “starving” to “sellout,” and somewhere in the middle is where most of us find ourselves. How do we make sense of this? When you give yourself fully to your vocation, I think, what unfolds is a lifelong process of self-discovery. And so, this work reveals itself to us in stages.

My work, as I understand it, is to encourage and empower creative people to share their art with the world. Whether that’s helping a writer finish her book or encouraging a photographer to charge what he deserves, my role is to nudge people along the path, helping them find a way to do what is honest and true and feels like a work they can believe in.

I myself totter along this path as an author, teacher, speaker, poet, and human, trying to figure it out. Every day, I learn something new about myself through this work, illustrating the words of my friend and mentor (a title at which he would surely balk) Steven Pressfield: “The artist creates not as an act of self-expression but as an act of self-discovery.” We are all figuring out who we are through what we do.

And so, as we move in the direction of what we call our “dream,” the life we think we want and the work we believe we deserve, we may experience an evolution of epiphanies in how we understand this vocation. At least, that’s what I’ve found. There is a path an artist can pursue that includes a series of stages through which we all must pass to deepen our understanding of what our true work is. I think of each of these as a necessary step, an initiation right, in becoming who we are.

Stage 1: Transaction

The first stage of an artist is to see your work as a transaction. In this stage, you make things to get things. Money. Fame. Attention. Here, we create something for someone in exchange for something else. Even if we have no intention of selling our art, but expect encouragement or even to feel a sense of purpose, we are in this stage.

This stage is zero-sum: you earn something at the expense of others, even if you don’t realize that’s what you’re doing. Whether you’re selling a painting or trying to get a book deal or hoping your parents “get it,” the end is always the same. You’re doing the work to acquire, to receive, and as long as you do that, you are giving up some of your creative freedom. You are a slave to the approval of others. And of course, this is natural and normal and even necessary. But this is not the highest calling of an artist.

Nonetheless, this is where we all start: as humans sharing our souls in hopes of someone understanding it, and by extension, us. Many of us hope and pray our work might be good enough that someone would consider paying for it; we may even think this is the goal, but it is simply a stage on the journey.

This stage is also binary. It works or it doesn’t. You starve or you succeed. There is no middle ground, no compromise, no half measures. Here, we experience the world of celebrity, reinforcing the myth of the big break, the all-or-nothing leap of faith that ends in agony or ecstasy. You take the leap, hope for the best, and only one of two outcomes will occur. You either get lucky, or you crash and burn. And of course, very few end up making it, which only leads to disillusionment. This may happen a few times before we face the reality that nothing received for our creative work will ever fulfill us. Which brings us to the second stage.

Stage 2: Compromise

The second stage is one of compromise. Whether you succeed at the first stage or not, you will end up here, realizing fame and success are not what you thought they were or failing to achieve your goal, at which point you will be forced to let go of your dream. Either way, you end up here, trapped by success or struggling to survive.

At this point, you still have something to offer, some creative work that wants to be made manifest in the world. But now, you are realistic, cautious, a bit more understanding of the way the world works. You might even go get a day job and do your art on the side, afraid of selling out but also equally fearful of ending up homeless. You tell yourself a story about privilege and luck and how the whole system is rigged. Or perhaps, you become a bohemian, disenchanted with the way the world works, relegating your work to the fringes.

Regardless, this stage is about survival and self-preservation. It’s motivated by fear masked as practicality and common sense. After all, how many people get to live their dream? That’s just not common. And so we move in careful and calculated ways, thinking we have to be “grown-up” when really, in some ways, we have given up. The truth, however, is our hearts just can’t handle ore rejection. We still are doing our work in hopes of getting something, but we are holding back now, giving our energy and attention elsewhere.

Here, we end up feeling jaded toward those who have “made it,” jealous of their success and wondering what we did wrong. Many artists stay here their entire lives, thinking themselves mature and responsible. But this is not a satisfying or fulfilling place to be; indeed, you are not meant to stay here. But there are lessons to be learned about money and marketing and what really matters. Still, we can’t remain in this halfhearted, conservative place for long without something significant in us withering. We must move on to the third stage.

Stage 3: Gift

The third stage is when you see your work as a gift to the world. Similar to the first stage, you are passionate and pursuing your art with abandon, but no longer is it a reckless passion. You understand who you are and what you are here to do. You also know that the work cannot be given in expectation of getting anything. Rather, the giving is the gift.

Here, we share our work without expectation of anything. We don’t starve our way to success, nor do we compromise our core values for the sake of practicality. We relax in our true work, knowing it is not for everyone but surely for someone. We trust that if we do it well, the world will take notice, but whether they do or not is none of our business. And when we do our work like this, when we offer it as a sincere and honest gift, we show up in ways that the previous stages don’t offer.

We are open and excited, free to give our best work away without needing anything in return. And of course, this is attractive and interesting and brings with it new energy, allowing us to create even better art. This doesn’t mean we don’t charge for our work or allow people to pay us. It doesn’t mean we work for free. All it means is that the place from which we create is a liberated one, a place of detachment. We are not trying to get anything. The art is the gift, and creating it is what we give to ourselves. If other people benefit, as well, then that is merely a bonus.

Of course, there is an irony here. When we do our work from a wholehearted place, we end up attracting unprecedented attention and compensation. As it turns out, good art gets its reward, eventually—precisely when you no longer need it. In a way, it’s a bit like love, and of course, it is love.

The Rub: What’s the point?

Why share this? What’s the point? Where do we go from here? I don’t mean to be unnecessarily esoteric. There are practical things you can do to help your work spread and grow—strategies, tools, and resources worth implementing. But far too often, I see people getting stuck in one of the first two stages, wondering why it doesn’t work.

The reason is this: You have to care. You have to believe in your work before anyone else does. You have to show up, hands open, ready to offer whatever gift you have, all of it, to the world. You have to keep showing up, keep sharing, especially when you doubt how good it is or if anyone cares. Moreover, the way you get people to care is by audaciously doing the work, no matter what. Being generous is always the best way to get noticed, and it’s the only true path to creating real art.

As Lewis Hyde writes:

The art that matters to us—which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however, we choose to describe the experience—that work is received by us as a gift is received.

You can move quickly through these stages or slowly. You can even get stuck in one of them, thinking it is the destination. But this is the path, at least as I understand it, and the point is not success but to deepen in your understanding of what your gift is and how you can freely offer it the world without expectation of reciprocity. And then, to build a life around that.

Are there practical considerations like how you’ll make money and where you’ll live and what your schedule will look like? Of course, there are. But if you want to be an artist, you must start here. You must begin to see your work as a gift. Otherwise, you will end up starving, selling out, or giving up. By all means, follow the path. Seek first the transaction, then the compromise, but don’t stop; keep going. Commit to the path and understand what will come.

Do the work knowing no one will care or listen for a very long time. Do it for the practice. Do it to call your own bluff. Do it because you love it and if you stick with it, you’ll be rare. Eventually, people might care and pay attention and want to give you things. But by then, it won’t matter. Welcome to being an artist.

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