Recently on an Internet discussion board I participate in, a writer posted a tirade on how he was being "forced" to take a corporate writing job in the real world to make ends meet. The writer had put over a year of his life into what he thought was the next great novel. After another year of attempting to market the book to agents and publishers, he was unable to find anyone interested in publishing it. The writer then lashed out at the publishing industry saying that they only cared about profits and not publishing great works of literature.
Those who replied to the writer were sympathetic to his plight and agreed that it was a shame this writer had to settle for a corporate job. Many echoed the oft repeated sentiment in literary circles that writers in general were underpaid because society didn't appreciate them or the fine pieces of literature they created.
My response to the frustrated writer was different. Though I sympathized with his frustration, I asked if he had thought about an audience for his book before he started writing it. Instead of writing a book that you like, I asked, why not write a book that other people would like to read? The question was not meant to be offensive. It was my hope that it would start the discussion group thinking about how a writer could create value for others by brainstorming strategies to determine what people want to read. Instead, the responses to my question revealed why there are so many starving artists in the world.
One person said a writer shouldn't be forced to create something for those who don't know what great writing really is. Another wrote that a full time writing career was impossible unless the author was willing to write self-help books, maudlin fiction, or formulaic romance novels. In short, these writers weren't interested in writing something that others would find valuable. They were only interested in creating something that was valuable to themselves and a close knit group of their literary friends.
If you want to make a successful career from something you enjoy doing, you need to find a way to make it valuable for other. You may be the best writer in the world but unless people are willing to purchase the books you write, you won't last long as a full-time writer. There are many writers who can write books that are technically superior to a romance novel, but there are few who can convince people that their story, characters, and overall message is worth a consumer's time and money.
The folly of focusing on what is valuable to the writer instead of the consumer is not limited to writers or others in the creative arts. I've known many engineers and scientists who were "forced" to work for a corporation because the pubic didn't realize how great their invention was or because they were unable to obtain funding for the research they thought was important.
People who make a living as writers or artists are not necessarily the best at their fields. They are successful because they have learned to create value for someone else. For the writer it means writing a book with a story and characters that people want to read. For an artist, it is creating a painting or sculpture that people want to display in a gallery or their homes. A musician needs to create a song that people want to listen to. An engineer needs to invent something that will truly make someone's life easier.
The world is full of starving artists. What separates them from those who are able to spend their time creating what they love successful is that they have developed the ability to create and sell something that people want to purchase. There are many talented people who could do what they love full-time if only they tried to create value for others instead of merely for themselves.