10 ways to stop being a “starving artist.”

It never fails. I’m at a networking event, talking to an actor  and without hesitation they give me the excuse, “Well, I’m a starving artist.”

 I smile politely but I really just want to shake said actor by the shoulders and scream, “It doesn’t have to be this way!”

The term starving artist came from geniuses back in the day, like Van Gogh, who sacrificed everything and never sold a painting  in his lifetime.

However, even back then, other artists lived remarkably well, like Rembrandt, Dickens and Warhol.¹

So here’s why you should give up the “starving artist” belief:

  1. You are what you think you are. Beliefs effect your actions and your actions create your destiny. If you believe you are a “starving artist,” you will push money away. You’ll limit new revenue streams and find ways to lose money once you make it (accidents, tickets, bills, etc.)

  2. You are limiting your success. Success begets success. Diversifying your “success portfolio” allows success in other areas to fuel success in your art. Limiting your idea of what it means to be successful, limits your potential to be successful. As Dallas Travers puts it, “You cannot build on success you don’t acknowledge.”

  3. You are perpetuating a stereotype. The “starving artist” is a global belief. But that doesn’t mean it has to be true for you. If you refuse to buy into the myth, you can diminish the stereotype. Actor Karisa Bruin says to ask , “Whose belief is this? Is it mine? Is it society’s? Could it be my parents’ belief?”

How to STOP being a “starving artist”:

1. Have a new mantra. In order to get rid of a bad habit, you must replace it with a better one. In this case, your old mantra was, “I’m a starving artist.”  Try replacing it with one of these examples:

  • “People love to give me money.”

  • “I bring a lot of value to the marketplace.”

  • “I am a thriving artist.”

Actor, Karen Burris says, “I don’t like the term [starving artist]. It comes from a place of fear and insecurity. I think a more powerful position to come from is…’I make my living in the performing arts.'”


2. Separate the money you make as an artist from your definition of success. The most common goal I hear from actors is, “I only want to make money from acting.” If they’re making money elsewhere, they don’t give that money as much value.  Similarly, when they make art for free, they value it less than the art they make for cash. The bank doesn’t care if your money is from a coffee shop or a play. They’ll give you the same value on the dollar. Likewise, your artistic soul doesn’t care if you’re acting for free in a children’s hospital or getting paid on Broadway. Stop waiting to get paid in order to feel fulfillment. . Choose to be happy on your way to achieving your goal. You’ll get there faster.

Positive psychologist, Shawn Achor, said in the documentary State of Play,

“Happiness is the joy that we feel growing toward our potential…As soon as we hit a success, our brain changes what success looks like almost immediately. So if happiness is on the opposite side of success, none of us ever get there, because it’s always off in the future.”

3. Allow yourself to make money in the margins. Making money in the margins is a term I learned from Five Lessons a Millionaire Taught Me by Richard Paul Evans. Wealthy people tend to make money in multiple ways, one of which is not to trade dollars for hours. They invest in the market, in real estate, they make residual income, and they make profits, not wages. Even Jessica Alba started her own company that has nothing to do with acting. Does that make her a less successful actor? No. Does it make her wealthier? Yes.

Actor, Michelle Weissgerber started her own children’s entertainment production company called Chicago’s Balloon Twister. “When I go to events I make the same amount of money I was making at a Monday-Friday 9-5pm job in two days instead of five. This side job also taught me how to run a business, which is really the key to becoming a successful actor. Market yourself. Work on your product. Get your name out there. Spend some money on your craft. You can’t wait for someone to give you the job.”

Forget the old adage, “If you can do anything else, do it instead.” Instead say, “If you can do anything else, do it on the side.” If you’re already waiting tables, babysitting, answering phones and doing typical actor jobs, why not spend that time doing something that makes you happy and fulfilled? Dallas Travers started a whole program called Your Other Dream Job. It’s for actors who want to start or grow a side business about which they are passionate. With my other dream job, I can set the hours of my business, and I can spend as much or as little time as I want on it. I don’t have to get permission to take a vacation or go on an audition. I make profits, not wages. I am my own boss, and I love what I do. Plus, I can act. I have two dream jobs now, and neither one feels like work.

4. Change your definition of your J.O.B.. Actor and Artistic Strategies coach, Gail Rastorfer says to view your J.O.B. as a financial investor into your artistic business. Your J.O.B. allows you the funds necessary to grow your artistic business. Put a portion of what you make into your separate “Artists Savings Account.” This way, you can take classes, do shows that don’t pay much, invest in marketing materials, and never worry about the money to do so.  It’s the seed money for your small business. That’s sexy. 

Jaime Kalman, an empowerment coach and former actor, was waiting tables as she got her coaching certification. She used to dread going to work, until she changed her mind about her J.O.B. Her goal as a coach was to serve people. She realized that her title at her job was literally a “server.” Once she realized she could serve others from anywhere, she was happy to continue waiting tables until she no longer needed it.

5. Educate yourself about money. I’ve read books, gone to seminars, and sought coaching on how to earn money, save money, budget money etc. Ignorance is not bliss. The more you know…

Some of my favorites are on my bookshelf.

6. Research Thriving Artists. Many of my friends make livings as actors. It’s inspiring to look at their careers. Knowing that they’ve done it makes it easier to believe I can do it. And so can YOU.  Ilyssa Fradin is a Chicago actor who makes a full time living doing commercials. She transitioned from “Starving Artist” to “Thriving artist” in April 1995. “I got my first check for a voice over account, fell on the floor crying with gratitude and haven’t looked back since.”  Who do you know who is a thriving artist? Interview them on how they got there!

7. Be grateful for what you’ve got. I feel bad about my career or bank account or life when I forget how good I have it.  This happens when I’m focusing on other people who “have more.” It’s when I’m focusing on all the stuff I don’t like about my life or myself. It’s when I’m focusing on all the things I want that I don’t have. When I do that, I feel like crap. When I focus on all the amazing things I do have, all the things I like about my life, and myself I’m filled with gratitude. Only when you are grateful for what you have, will you be blessed with more. Plus, I have to remind myself that “stuff” isn’t important. Every year I give away so much of that “stuff” to the Brown Elephant, I never even miss it (except that Nintendo that I gave away without the permission of my husband…).

One thing all of the actors that were interviewed for this article had was profound gratitude for their artistic careers. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

8. Stop comparing yourself to others. If you’re going to compare, compare yourself to the “you” of five years ago. Comparison is all about meeting your need for significance. “I am better than you”, or even, “I have it the worst” is a way for us to meet this fundamental need of feeling important. The ego thrives on separation from others and comparison. Try meeting your need in a more positive way like volunteering or lifting the spirits of others.

9. Change your definition of starving artist.  HALO voice over actor, Tim Dadabo, says, “It means one is HUNGRY for their craft; hungry for knowledge; hungry for improvement and outside-the-box thinking. And of course until we find that, some are content to be physically hungry until they make their way.” How can you redefine starving artist to a more empowering definition?

10. Treat your art as a business. Dadabo continues, “We all must (treat it as a business). It IS a business. It can be a BIG business. Like any business, it needs nurturing, thinking, and action. I don’t have a side business. This is my full time job. If I’m not thinking about it (on Paper), practicing, listening, or working, I’m doing the stuff of life. I do coach on the side, but I certainly don’t do much of it. And, I certainly learn as much or more than I could ever teach!”

Thank you so much to the artists who contributed to this blog post. Your work is inspiring! 

Now it’s YOUR TURN. What’s one small thing you can do today to change your mindset from starving to thriving?

Courtney Rioux, The Whole Artist coaches actors and other creative talent who feel stuck in their career and want more out of life. She's here to help you shift your mindset from stuck and unhappy to empowered and joyful  — all while making it feel fun and easy. It’s like therapy without the therapy.