Brian Eno’s Advice for Those Who Want to Do Their Best Creative Work: Don’t Get a Job

“Once upon a time, artists had jobs,” writes Katy Waldman in a recent New York Times Magazine piece. “Think of T.S. Eliot, conjuring ‘The Waste Land’ (1922) by night and overseeing foreign accounts at Lloyds Bank during the day, or Wallace Stevens, scribbling lines of poetry on his two-mile walk to work, then handing them over to his secretary to transcribe at the insurance agency where he supervised real estate claims.” Or Willem de Kooning painting signs, James Dickey writing slogans for Coca-Cola, William Carlos Williams writing prescriptions, Philip Glass installing dishwashers – the list goes on.

Waldman suggests that we consider day jobs not just bill-paying grinds but delivery systems for “the same replenishing ministries as sleep or a long run: relieving creative angst, restoring the artist to her body and to the texture of immediate experience.” Brian Eno thinks differently. “I often get asked to come and talk at art schools,” he says in the clip above, “and I rarely get asked back, because the first thing I always say is, ‘I’m here to persuade you not to have a job.'”

That doesn’t mean, he emphasizes, that you should “try not to do anything. It means try to leave yourself in a position that you do the things you want to do with your time, and where you take maximum advantage of whatever your possibilities are.”

Easier said than done, of course, which is why Eno wants to “work to a future where everybody is in a position to do that,” enacting some form of universal basic income, the general idea of which holds that society will function better if it guarantees all its members a certain standard of living regardless of employment status. But if that standard rises too high, might it run the risk of softening the rigors and loosening the limitations needed to encourage true creativity? Musician Daniel Lanois, who has worked with Eno on the production of several U2 albums as well as ambient music projects, describes learning that lesson from his collaborator in the Louisiana Channel video just above.

“At the peak of my sonic experimentations with Brian Eno, we only ever used four boxes,” says Lanois. “That’s when we started getting these really beautiful textures and human-like sounds from machines. We got to be experts at those few tools.” The limitations under which they worked in the studio may not have followed from any particular philosophy, but the actual experience taught them how a richer artistic result can arise, paradoxically, from more straitened circumstances. Since the beginning of art, its practitioners have always had to find innovative ways around obstacles, whether those obstacles have to do with technology, sides, time, money, or anything else besides. As Lanois reassuringly puts it, “I can imagine that if you have limitation, even financial limitation, that might be okay, man.”

Related Content:

William Faulkner Resigns From His Post Office Job With a Spectacular Letter (1924)

Charles Bukowski Rails Against 9-to-5 Jobs in a Brutally Honest Letter (1986)

Brian Eno Explains the Loss of Humanity in Modern Music

The Genius of Brian Eno On Display in 80 Minute Q&A: Talks Art, iPad Apps, ABBA, & MoreBrian Eno on Why Do We Make Art & What’s It Good For?: Download His 2015 John Peel Lecture

Brian Eno Lists 20 Books for Rebuilding Civilization & 59 Books For Building Your Intellectual World

The Employment: A Prize-Winning Animation About Why We’re So Disenchanted with Work Today

Hear Alan Watts’s 1960s Prediction That Automation Will Necessitate a Universal Basic Income

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • Cmc says:

    Bryan Ferry gave Eno a job

  • Thorb says:

    As a would be artist or sometimes artist that worked. I kind of agree in that I was taught to have something to fall back on, in case that art didn’t provide a living.
    Problem I found was that having something to “fall back” on, is that you will have a tendency to fall back.

    If you wish to keep moving forward it is best to not have anything to fall back on and then you will have that need to keep moving forward.

    Now this might just lead to oblivion but you will have spent your life moving in the direction you wanted to go.

  • John O'Toole says:

    It might be a little bit easier in the UK to exist without a job. In the US not so much.

  • Paul Inman says:

    Amen! <3

  • Gem says:

    In an ideal world. I agree, problem is stuff costs lots of money, and the arts and musicians arent getting paid very well, ideally we would get some sort of basic income, but realistically the powers that be are geeedy, and people who are creative and dont want to do a (often mindless) job are seen as ‘doing nothing but scrounging’

  • Susana Rosende says:

    God provides. BUT…It’s difficult to stay healthy and fed with music equipment and Art supplies and writing supplies when you are homeless, and your songs, paintings, books, or poetry are downers about despair and hopelessness.

    Sorry, dude, unless you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth or have a spouse who is willing to support you and your Art AND your children, you need a J.O.B…at least part-time or contract to contribute to the expenses that come with having a family.

    Or…stay single forever and live in a tent in the woods with your Art and learn to fish for your dinner.

  • John Masters says:

    Its an interesting article. Seems focussed on the young. There is another perspective, for example, Richard Adams, who had been a civil servant and wrote Watership Down. I doubt that I will be famous, but I hav espent a lot of my time writing comics and am planning on semi-retiring and doing more. I’m 48. I can afford a tent, as you put it, or rather a cheap house in a ‘bad’ neighbourhood that I own outright and have sort of enough to live on forever now, if eating noodles makes the grade. Each year that passes the prospective becomes greater. I am self employed so I already have my own time and so I am sort of already doing so, but i’m not committed to my art and dont do much, at the moment. There is always the perspecctive that I wasn’t that good when I was young. Unfortunatly some of my stuff was and I lost 15 years not doing it, but Inow have the potential to think about starting up again. Point is, the dream can happen much later in life, especially in writing where life experience can have an impact.

  • raindrops says:

    in other words, only the privileged may have a chance to be a real artist

  • Graham Hughes says:

    I think its about the fire within you. That is not culturally or economically bound to some extent. Society needs a shake up so what is truly valuable is ‘valued’….and all the unique contributions…..but I have no faith in that happening with all our conditioning and greed…….a human condition. We are still living with the values of the industrial society………..simpler societies are perhaps more creative…less is more. Is there creativity when survival consumes every minute of the day?

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