J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Why Money Is Bad For Art

How do you measure the value of your time?

How do you measure the value of your time?

As usual, I’ve been juggling things I need to do, things I want to do, and things I end up doing that are neither, and feeling like there isn’t enough time for all of it.

You might think that the “answer” to this “problem” would be to increase my efficiency (maybe using the Pareto principle, or David Allen’s GTD system). Or, I could reduce the number of commitments and activities in my life. I’m a dad, husband, database developer, blogger, music producer, label runner, event promoter, radio show host, and aspiring novelist — mostly by choice. Nobody is making me pack my dance card that full.

An alternate solution — one that occurred to me after reading Elizabeth Dunn’s essay “Why We Feel Pressed For Time” — is to instead consider and evaluate the conditions and assumptions that lead me to feel pressed for time in the first place.

One of these conditions in affluence.

Dunn hypothesizes that we feel pressed for time because of our high hourly rates (and/or high salaries). People who don’t make as much money feel less pressed for time, because they actually don’t perceive their time as “precious” like high earners do. They’re a bit more casual in the way they spend their time, and they don’t worry about “wasting it” so much.

In Western culture, the more affluent you are, the busier you get. This is a self-imposed psychological trap. Quoting Dunn, “simply perceiving oneself as affluent might be sufficient to generate feelings of time pressure.” (Dunn cites research by DeVoe and Pfeffer that backs up this claim — it’s worth reading her essay).

So why is this bad for art, as my title asserts?

Art takes time. Time where you walk in circles, explore blind alleys, and spend entire mornings working hard only to throw your results into a literal or digital wastebasket.

In my own experience, making art only feels productive about one session in three. In fact you are usually making progress (exploring blind alleys counts), but it doesn’t feel like it.

This feeling was easier to tolerate when I was young and broke. My time didn’t feel as valuable. What else would I be doing? Delivering pizzas? In college, when my part time work earned me about $12/hour at most, I would often spend six to ten hour stretches studying synthesizer manuals and plugging MIDI notes into the sequencer on my MacPlus computer. Now, as a professional freelance consultant and business owner, I find it much harder to dedicate large chunks of time to meandering creative work.

The way to escape this trap is to define my purpose in life explicitly. My chosen life purpose centers around creating artistic works, and I remind myself of this daily. It’s always “worth it” to pursue my life’s work, even if my efforts don’t lead to any kind of obvious gains (piles of gold coins, fancy cheese and wine, the respect and admiration of my peers, and beautiful women wanting me).

If you don’t define your life purpose, mainstream cultural values will seep in and define “value” for you. In today’s environment that means money. Valuing your time only in terms of money will paralyze you as an artist.


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  1. I really liked this post. So true. Artists need to value their time in life purpose terms, not pure monetary terms, because as we all know, money values things other than art much more highly than it values art. Money is a distortion field.

  2. I can’t help but feel this would have an impact on those other roles as well. (Father, Developer, etc., not only Artist)

    For example, I see friends or family dismiss their children’s needs because they feel they “don’t have the time”, and feel they should be doing something “productive” instead. Productive almost always means generating income and somewhere along the way, they convinced themselves the high income was so rare/valuable, that generating it is what is best for the child.

    I definitely know that trap for myself and my job (web engineering.) I start rushing what I’m doing and I don’t take the time to “enjoy” what it is I’m being paid so well to do… and programming is something I started doing because I liked it, not because it was a good way to pay the bills. I will spend a day “tinkering”, and feel horrible, because I have nothing to show for it… but in reality, it’s those tinkering sessions that make me a better engineer, and a happy person.

    Excellent post as always. Made me stop and consider new ideas. 🙂

  3. Just as you feel less pressured when you’re young, sometimes you feel less pressured when you’re older. I live on the edge of the woods and can easily spend a few hours sitting on the back porch watching the birds at their feeders, taking my kitties on a walk through the forest, or watching the sun rise or set. Somehow, I’ve never seen that as time wasted. “Take time to smell the roses.” is really such excellent advice. Running the vacuum around can wait.

  4. Pam Hodges

    we make the mistake of equating “viable” with “valuable”. not the same at all. art requires time. business requires that art take no time. as an artist, i’ve struggled with this my entire life.

  5. Boo

    I agree, not having to worry about a high-paying job in one’s youth allows one to see time differently. However, there is also that in middle age we are more aware of our own mortality, but still have not accepted it.

  6. Thanks for the comments all. I would respond individually … but there’s too much to do today. 😉

  7. Great post, resonates strongly with me. Love the point about values and “value” – definitely important to be conscious about that connection.

    Another bit this brings to mind is the influence marketability can have on art and creative process. Can be a difficult tension between making things you think people will like/want/buy vs. making things you just want to make. That dilemma seems to come up for a lot of artists. Would be curious to hear some of your thoughts on that, maybe a topic for another post…

  8. Enjoyed the post- I’ve found the affluence bit to be true in my own life and years ago downsized possessions, then income (which was my art – that I had stopped enjoying because it was my job) and life became much less hectic. I don’t make near as much as I used to or have near as much “stuff” yet my life is as close to perfect as I could hope for. It’s very interesting that (for me, in my own experience) what society says will make me happy, rarely does. Cheers!

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