Mom was Right

By Carolyn Edlund

Many years ago I received some career advice from my mother. This was back in the 60’s (think Mad Men) and she gave her best recommendation for a suitable job. She advised:

“Be a secretary.”

Taking her advice, I enrolled in typing and shorthand classes in high school. Mr. Gatti, the typing teacher, would call out letters and his students would click and clack in unison on manual typewriters in grueling drill sessions, forcing ourselves to learn the keyboard. I studied three years of Gregg shorthand to become proficient, and took other office-related classes in the Secretarial Program.

Why was Mom right? Because although I didn’t have a long stint as a secretary, and ended up with a career in the arts, I took some very important skills with me that I am able to use to this day:

  1. I can type very fast (and we know that comes in handy).
  2. I learned how to write an excellent business letter, using proper form and grammar.
  3. I learned how to speak with people on the phone clearly and professionally.
  4. I learned how to stay organized, follow up and make a tickler system.
  5. From the smart attorneys I worked for, I learned some super-effective collection techniques. The results? In over twenty years running a studio, my uncollectible accounts totaled only $200. Yes, that’s right. 🙂
  6. I got a business background from the ground floor that enabled me to develop a mindset geared towards how to be successful.
If I was your Mom, I would make this suggestion to you:
“Be a businessperson.”

Yes, I know that you are an artist. But I also know that you need certain skills that will become an intrinsic part of how you run your career and will dramatically improve your chances of making it all work. I have also found this to be true:

The people I have interviewed who have become the most successful artists are people who had a background in business.

You don’t need to get a degree in Business, become an expert in accounting, or learn Gregg shorthand. But you do need a sound background so that you can do something with your art skills that will turn them into a money-making career. That’s because you are an artist and you are also a businessperson.

Love, Mom.

Do you have a background in something that has given you skills to enhance your art career, even something unusual? Please comment!


  1. Great advice as always and I completely agree that so many of us seem to have this natural aversion to learning any type of skills that smack of business (or in my case organization!)

    As much as we may resist it, however, it’s simply not enough to create our art and expect that paying customers will magically appear at our front door.

    You’re also right about the importance of developing our communication/people skills as well as our business sense.

    In this day and age of social media, we literally can’t afford to be the quirky reclusive writer or artist locked away in our studio and expect that our work will someday be discovered. Like it or not, we’re going to have to crawl out of our social shell and learn how to sell ourselves not only as a talented artist, but as a likable human being as well.

    Having said all of that, I still have a hard time admitting that Mom was right 😉

    • Drew, I think a lot of artists figure that somehow somebody else will do their marketing for them. Like an agent, a gallery owner, or maybe, even their Mom!

  2. This post made me chuckle because I got similar advice from my parents. I, too, learned to type and take dictation and used those skills during college vacations. But the most valuable skill I learned in college was how to write. With that I had a career in public relations, which now makes it possible to live comfortably, do my art, and handle PR for numerous arts organizations (in addition to my own business). And, yes, being in the business world for a while taught me how to run my own.

  3. That’s so true. Before earning my B.F.A. degree my first major was a B.S. in Finance. I worked as a fiduciary tax accountant, a sales tax accountant, a financial treasury cash accountant, a 401(k) administrative assistant, and a logistics analyst. This has all helped me be organized and professional in my art business — taxes, forecasting my budget, paying attention to details, dealing with clients and other art professionals, writing contracts, using the computer, etc. Although I wish that I had started my art career earlier in life these skills are a huge help now.[img]×10.jpg[/img]

  4. If my parents had had their way, I too would have gone to secretarial college but my German teacher persuaded them to let me have a go at Oxbridge! And I wouldn’t have missed that for the world. But I think I’ve picked up some business skills and typing here and there and have run a non-art business successfully. So all is not necessarily lost for those of us who missed out on being a secretary! 🙂

    • Judy, you didn’t miss out by not listening to your parents.
      BTW, I found out today that one of my kids just unsubscribed from my blog. He doesn’t listen to me, either. Sigh.

  5. A great entry, Carolyn, and spot on! My business skills learned in high school as well as college has really helped me to be a much better artist and a SUCCESSFUL one as well.

    The days of the art patron for the most part I think are long gone and artists need to be able to efficiently and effectively run their own studios and promote themselves as well as their artwork.

    Continued Success!

  6. Great piece! And I agree that most artists have to cultivate their business sense in order to succeed. I come from a business, technology and art background — I have come to believe wholeheartedly in the “new” marketing techniques of Inbound Marketing – I am using these to market my art and have opened up my art studio to the public – all using Inbound Marketing techniques. [img][/img]

    • Gil, Inbound Marketing is excellent – have you visited They actually have an Inbound Marketing University you can get a virtual degree from – and it’s free!

  7. I graduated from art school and wanted to be a painter, but I got divorced and had 2 small children to support and no help from the ex. I met someone, who 3 years later became my second husband, who was an illustrator. Through the antiquated apprentice system (which is unfortunate because it is a wonderful way to learn), I became a free-lance commercial artist for 10 years.

    It wasn’t what I most wanted to do, but I’ve always been grateful for the business skills I learned in those 10 years (actually 12 years, because the first two years were part-time). I learned about deadlines, and keeping records, dealing with clients, pricing jobs, and being flexible. A really huge lesson I learned was telling an art director, when they wanted an immediate answer to how much the job would cost and when could they have it, to say that I needed to look at my calendar and I would get back to them. Then, off the phone, I could think clearly without feeling pressured and give them an answer I would not be sorry about later.

    In the late 80’s I went on to learn how to use a computer, something that my husband had no desire to do. He was thrilled that I could help him email sketches to clients, and do all the other myriad tasks that became mandatory for computers in that business. I started doing my actual illustration jobs on the computer so I was forced to learn what I needed because I had jobs that were due! Learning to use Photoshop allowed me to create my own websites, which has been invaluable for when I became a full-time fine artist. Being able to create and maintain my own websites has been cost-effective and the best tool I’ve had to let the world know about my paintings.

    So yes, I’ve always been grateful for the circuitous route my career has taken. The lessons I’ve picked up along the way, especially in business, have been invaluable.

    Two maxims I like are;
    An artist is a small business person.
    To make wild, revolutionary art, and artist needs to have a calm, ordered life.


    Faces of Buddha Prints
    studio/home: 978-703-1133

  8. Wouldn’t it be great, though, if we could just get on with ‘creating’ and leave the rest to someone else! It’s not that I don’t enjoy the business side of the things but the time it all takes that I find difficult. I realised last week that I’m starting to feel guilty when I take ‘time off’ to paint!

  9. I too graduated from art school, therefore qualified to be supremely unemployed. I had a bunch of jobs but the best one was in outside sales with a graphic services provider. I learned to think on my feet, got over my fear of cold calling and worked with a lot of different personalities. Plus, having a sales background helped me deal with being told “no” (a lot!). It didn’t scare me after a while. Most of my clients were creative directors at ad agencies and publishers so I was able to understand the inner workings of a creative department and see how they fit into the company as a whole. When it came time to actually get a job as an in house illustrator I was already a fully formed business person that the company could trust out in the world. I have been happily freelancing as an illustrator and writer for the past twenty years and those sales skills still serve me well.

    • Ronnie, I agree that your sales background is the best training you could have received as a self-employed artist. Whenever I work with a client and find they have a business background, I’m thrilled! Good for you to have taken your skills and turned them into your dream job.

  10. I trained as a modelmaker, making architectural, special effects, pre-prototype and museum models. The head of department was insistent that we should learn techniques that we could apply to any future project, rather than just learning how to make a particular type of model. Hence we had classes in photography, calligraphy, woodwork, metalwork, spray painting, gold leafing, and puppet-making. There were even lectures on off-the-wall topics: the history of the nail, and different types of screw threads! Whilst I’ve never found the latter useful, the course had an emphasis on quality and accuracy, and we had work placements that gave us real world experience. So even though I’m now a painter, I’m glad of lots of the skills I learned as a student.

    • Jackie, thanks for this insight. You are so right. I remember a fiber class where the teacher was a strict stickler that the back of every project must be as finished and polished as the front, and hence I always used that standard going forward.

      And, who knows? You may be able to use your knowledge if you ever have a “screw loose” !

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