was watching a Disney movie with my kids last Friday evening. It was called Ulysses and Flora. It wasn’t very good, and I don’t remember the exact plot. What stood out to me was the glaring representation of a harmful myth: that of the starving, struggling artist.

The dad in the movie is a graphic novelist. His daughter thinks he’s brilliant; she loves his stories and relates to his characters, namely one of the main superheroes. But sadly, no publisher has accepted the dad’s work. He remains unpublished, unappreciated, and obscure. He is waiting for the approval of the gatekeepers. Meanwhile, he makes nothing from his art, and so he works at Walmart, oppressed by his obnoxious store manager.

What bothers me about this setup is that there is no in-between. The artist is either approved and accepted by the gatekeepers, and therefore a success, or a bottom-of-the-barrel nobody, a failure. His skills have one home, and that is in his narrowly conceived idea of his art, namely an industry-approved, published graphic novel. Unless he achieves this specific kind of success, he must suffer in one of the worst imaginable situations for an American—a subservient, powerless job making minimum wage.

While your best work remains unappreciated, what else can you be doing to advance your position as a leader?

If everyone approached “making it” in commercial art—or any creative field—in this way, there would be very few of us to go around. Almost all artists who find a way to earn a living with their art have had to make do with available opportunities, regardless of how well they fit their ultimate idea of success. Part of our creativity is in seeing opportunities in unlikely places.

In this myth of the starving artist, the most tragic element is in the perceived limited utility of the artist’s skills and talent. The artist can see no value in what they can do outside making a certain kind of art. They fail to see how their creative abilities apply to all kinds of different situations. If the starving artist is creative, it isn’t a very intelligent kind of creativity. Creativity is about solving problems within constraints. Not being accepted by the gatekeepers (yet) is a constraint. Not being well-known or appreciated is a constraint. But on the other side of a constraint is opportunity. Intelligent creativity says, “I may not get to do this one thing, but I can definitely be useful in doing those other things.” Seeing an opportunity, taking an interest in a wider view of life, being curious, being driven by the challenge of solving problems—these are the hallmarks of true creativity.

The [mythical] starving artist can see no value in what they can do outside making a certain kind of art. They fail to see how their creative abilities apply to all kinds of different situations. If the starving artist is creative, it isn’t a very intelligent kind of creativity.

Very few of us win the “creative lottery,” as Andy J. Pizza puts it. We don’t get the dream job right away. We don’t go viral with our first effort. We don’t gain hundreds of thousands of followers by only chasing one narrow vision. Not 99% of us anyway. To those who do, I tip my hat, but to everyone else, I would say don’t hang your hat on your dreams. Instead turn the ordinary, everyday opportunities that come your way into something that might one day build up to your dreams. For a lucky few, dreams come while sleeping. For everyone else, they are seized with our eyes wide open. Creativity is alchemy: we turn lead into gold. We transform the untenable into the unbelievable.

Practically speaking, if you are at the beginning and are hoping to make art for a living, here’s what you can do: yes, have a dream job in mind. Have that as your driving vision. But also have an open mind. Be prepared for a winding, unpredictable path to that dream. Do not merely tolerate this compromise as some kind of necessary evil; find ways to transform it into something good. Find ways in which your skills, whether directly artistic or not, find value in the everyday work world. Understand that commercial art is not just about taking pictures; it’s not just about having talent or technique. It’s about other skills and traits: problem-solving, writing, administration, communication, facilitation, leadership, empathy. A miserable, underpaid, unskilled job is not the only alternative scenario to making it as an artist. There are many in-between opportunities if you can open your mind and be positive about your ability to bring value outside of your art skills. And there is tremendous value in being able to see every detour as a necessary part of your journey. See stumbling stones as stepping stones.

For a lucky few, dreams come while sleeping. For everyone else, they are seized with our eyes wide open.

Making it a successful commercial artist is hard. It’s not guaranteed, especially if you have a narrow vision of what that means. Every illustrator, designer, or artist, has to forge their own path, which is different from many more “typical” jobs. The career path of an artist, even a commercial artist, is not as straightforward as that of, say, an engineer or a police officer. This is a setback because it means there are many unknowns. We often grope about blindly, for lack of a clear map from where we are to where we want to be. But it is also an advantage because we can reroute any path a little bit more toward our vision. It’s more strenuous and less clear how to do this than “regular” jobs, but that’s what makes commercial artists a rarer breed.

Your creative abilities don’t make you special. But in the sense that we forge our own careers around our unique art, we are extremely special. We seem to forget that being special takes extra effort. It is our ability to forge our own careers, often from ordinary, unremarkable situations, that makes us exceptional. Our true power is in finding value for our abilities outside of what we originally thought of as “art.” We’ll find success wherever we go because our skills are transferrable. The ability to thrive in any soil is how most become successful. On the other hand, struggling, starving artists are probably more commonplace. Sadly, they are not the exception but the rule. The myth becomes reality because so many artists believe it.

While your best work remains unappreciated, what else can you be doing to advance your position as a leader?

Are you the struggling, starving artist I am writing about? What is your dream? What are you doing to get there? If the path you thought would take you there has come to a dead-end, what will your next step be? How can you reroute or retrace your steps to get you in a more advantageous position? Is it possible you have been too focused on one kind of outcome, and that is why you feel so stuck? Have you made it an all-or-nothing scenario? Is it possible you have more than just your art to provide value in the work world? While your best work remains unappreciated, what else can you be doing to advance your position as a leader?

Your exact dreams may or may not come true. But you certainly can come closer to some kind of happiness if you open up to more possible scenarios. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, etc. It’s not all or nothing. It’s not just one way or the highway. It’s not approved by the gatekeepers or a part-time job at Walmart. It’s not either/or no/but—it’s yes/and. Yes, you can make your art career happen, and it’s going to look different than what you expected. And yes, it might look even better.