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How to Land a Creative Career

A business grad-turned-poet shares tips to turn your passion into a day job

By Sharsvarnee Kundasawmy

February 16, 2022 •

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a standard question to which “poet” is rarely the answer. Enter spoken word artist, full-time poet and 2020 Alumni Award recipient Nisha Patel, ’15 BCom, ’15 Cert(Leadership).

Patel started writing poetry around the age of 12 but stopped for fear of failure. When she picked up the pen again ten years later, she realized that poetry was her true vocation. Since graduating from the University of Alberta, Patel has made art her full-time gig in 2018, with stints as writer in residence at two libraries in Greater Edmonton and as the City of Edmonton’s eighth poet laureate.

Switching to an unconventional career, as Patel did, is daunting. It’s scary. And more importantly, it can be hard to know if the risk will pay off. In an episode of What The Job? with host Matt Rea, ’13 PhD, Patel shares her tips on how to build your passion into a creative career. 

Rethink the artist’s role

“As an independent artist, you’re a contractor, an entrepreneur, a freelancer,” Patel says. You’re as much a business person as you are an artist. Be careful not to romanticize the idea of creative work by thinking it will be all art all the time. It’s just as important to figure out how to schedule shows, market your work and balance your business and personal life. Make time to deal with the business side of your artistry and learn relevant skills.

Dust off that degree

As a business economics and law graduate, Patel realized in retrospect how much her degree helped shape her poetic trajectory. Business school, with its focus on relationships, helped her sharpen the interpersonal skills needed in the artistic space. Marketing turned into community connection. Cold-calling artists, pushing beyond rejections and building brand presence became easier. Your degree may not directly translate into the type of creative work you’d like to do, but chances are it has prepared you more than you think. “These are all transferable skills, just under different labels,” she says. 

Snap out of the scarcity mindset

Creating is stressful — even when you’re putting out impressive work. Underlying this stress is the fear that what follows won’t live up to your previous achievements, she says. “It’s based on this idea that there’s a limited amount of potential or time for any one person to be good at something.” But Patel is long past that. She focuses on dividing her time and energy into the many projects she wants to try and isn’t fazed if they don’t all pan out. “I’ve achieved a bunch of goals that I wanted to,” she says. “There are a whole bunch more that I haven’t, and I have to be OK with that.”

Play out your passion

A career reset can mean leaving behind a stable job — and the transition to your dream career may be less-than-dreamy. So how do you overcome the “what-ifs” that threaten to stop you from switching? Follow your passion, says Patel, but be smart about it. Take a course in something you like. Find a mentor to guide you. Reach out to working artists. Attend open mic sessions or other opportunities to showcase your work. Make an effort to connect with people and cultivate a nurturing community. And slowly build your way up to your passion. “The big secret is that the number one source of gigs or other opportunities is going to come from other artists,” she says. “It’s all referrals.” 

Figure out your fears

If you’ve never performed or been published before, putting your creative work out there can be a struggle. But it’s a necessary part of turning your passion into your career. Ask yourself why you’re holding back. “If the fear is that people won’t like your art,” she says, “then I don’t think that’s a good enough reason not to be vulnerable.” Being an artist means putting your work — and often your heart and soul — out there for the world to see. “Keep yourself safe,” she says. But don’t let fear stifle your dreams. 

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