How Artists Can Transition into the Business World

The creator economy has given many young people an opportunity to eschew a more traditional career path and monetize their talents via social media. But, what if, you’ve discovered your priorities have evolved and you are now considering a job in the business world? The daunting process of reassessing your goals and then converting your value to this new space can feel overwhelming. Despite the challenges you may initially feel, your experience has likely yielded a lifetime of valuable skills that can be translated into any role you wish to pursue next. Among the top three are: a growth mindset, a bias for innovative action, and intrinsic motivation. If you can learn how to apply these skills to other roles, you’ll stand out from your peers.

We’re living in a golden age of opportunity for creative people chasing their dreams. With today’s social platforms, monetizing your creativity has never been more possible. As a result, tens of millions of young people who would otherwise be pursuing traditional career paths are instead employing themselves in the creator economy.  This is a new version of an old story.

For decades, musicians, actors, performers, and other creative people have been putting off traditional careers to spend their early professional years pursuing their passions. Many of those willing to forego other jobs to embrace this no-guarantees grind are passionate doers, and their experience can yield a lifetime of valuable skills.

But career transitions are never easy, and whether you’re moving from a career as an artist or creator into a role in the traditional business world, you’re likely to face some unique challenges. We know this from personal experience.

Both of us (Adam and Jesse) were full-time musicians before pivoting into more traditional business fields. Even though we reached some notable achievements — including major label record deals and high-profile collaborations — what we idealized from afar as teenagers became less appealing up close. As we aged, we reevaluated our priorities and futures. Years later, we met in the Wharton School’s Executive MBA program. We connected over our mutual recognition that the skills we’d cultivated could be translated into numerous roles. We both, however, also found it difficult to articulate why this was true.

If this is a situation you find yourself in — if you’ve discovered your priorities and interests have evolved and you are now considering a different career — we have good news to share. Your non-traditional work experience has likely given you skills that can help you stand out in any position you wish to pursue.

We interviewed 150 people who, like you, deliberately chased creative careers early in their life — from musicians, actors, and filmmakers to ballerinas, social media influencers, live streamers, and others. We asked them about their journeys as creatives, the motivations for their pivots, and their evolution into new professional roles. Our objective was to explore how these individuals — now CEOs, product managers, marketing executives, lawyers, and founders — converted their creative skills into the traditional labor market.

We believe our findings and the stories we collected can help you, the next generation of creators, achieve your potential in whatever you decide to do next.

How to Translate Your Creative Skills to the Business World

While some of the individuals we interviewed pursued art purely for the sake of creating, many had their sights set on commercial success and aimed to generate a sustainable revenue. To progress and bring their creative work to market, they began to practice and develop many entrepreneurial qualities that contributed to their later success in the business world. Here are the three core qualities we found during our analysis of responses.

Pursuit of a personal vision

During a formative life stage, many of the people we interviewed discovered a “creative calling” and envisioned a future defined by commercial success. They took a leap of faith, eschewed traditional career paths, and brought their creative work to market through the deliberate, self-directed action required to distribute, promote, and monetize it.

Learning through practice

A majority of the creatives we spoke with were incredibly disciplined and developed habits — such as repetitive practice and regularly seeking feedback — that enabled them to grow and master the skills necessary to stand out in their creative fields.

Identity in work

Most of the people we spoke with derived meaning and purpose from the pursuit of their callings, and work became a distinctively powerful part of how they defined (and still do define) themselves.

Each of these qualities can be tied to a business value that is necessary to gain a competitive advantage and excel in today’s job market.

In your own career, you can use this knowledge to rethink and reframe the entrepreneurial skills you’ve gained in a way that the business community will appreciate and understand. Let’s break down each business value and discuss how you can use it to stand out in a variety of roles.

Pursuit of Personal Vision → Bias for Innovative Action

Many of the individuals we spoke with were able to progress into their current roles because they had a natural bias for innovative action. Their initial pursuit of an (uncertain) creative career required them to a develop proactive attitude that persisted throughout their lifetimes.

Take Alex Burkhart, a drummer who founded a band and spent 10 years touring the world before eventually selling millions of records. He later became a startup founder and then a product leader at a Fortune 100 company where, among other projects, his team developed new ways to get groceries delivered safely to people during the pandemic.

As a creative, Alex learned that progress towards his personal vision would only come from his own initiative. Later, in business settings, this quality translated into his willingness to take action, challenge the status quo, and identify and act on opportunities to improve existing systems.

“In building new products, I view what I’m doing today exactly the same way as creating and releasing a record,” he told us. “If I want something to change, I’m responsible for making it happen.”

What you can do:

As a creative who is considering changing your career path, your capacity to define a vision and proactively start building towards it can be one of your greatest assets. But you must first understand and align with the mission and vision of the company you want to join.

As an example, let’s say you secure a role as an operations associate at a venture-backed startup. Asking questions like “What part of my role can have the most impact on company goals and why?” and “What are the biggest problems our team is trying to solve?” will help you learn and appreciate the strategy and mechanics of the business. You can then use your creativity to imagine new ways to improve old processes, develop innovative solutions to problems, and anything else you set your mind to.

Learning Through Practice → Growth Mindset

Just like our interviewees, if you’ve reached success in your creative field, you’ve likely put in countless hours of practice to continually improve your performance. We found many creatives effectively use repetition and feedback to build competence, strengthen skills, and gain confidence in their area of expertise. They develop — and internalize — a growth mindset, believing that they have the capacity to form new abilities at any life stage.

Jessica Nguyen, for instance, spent thousands of physically demanding hours developing her craft as a touring ballet dancer before moving into an administrative role at a medical investment firm, where she rose the ranks and is now a senior operations executive.  “I found myself aiming to strive for perfection, but without ego, and I was always open to refining how I worked to improve,” she said.

Similar to Jessica, many interviewees described feeling behind when they first entered into the business world, but found that their capacity to practice and develop new skills allowed them to learn faster than many of their peers, catapulting them into positions of increased responsibility.

What you can do:

Whatever you lack in tactical experience can be supplanted through the same grit and determination that propelled your creative career. Be real with yourself about the skills you need to excel in your new domain, and then develop a habit of disciplined practice to develop them.

One of the most daunting aspects of joining a new company or industry can be learning the jargon, tools, and ways of working your peers picked up through past experiences in the field. But these are competencies you can form quickly with the right mentality, and your core qualities will matter more in the long run. So, trust your process and accelerate your growth through the same focused curiosity and work ethic you’ve used to develop skills in the past. Your confidence will increase in the process.

Identity in Work → Intrinsic Motivation

Finally, we found intrinsic motivation, or feeling motivated to do something simply because you enjoy it, to be a major driver of creatives who gained long-term commercial success. The people we interviewed shared the early formative experience of deriving a strong sense of purpose and identity from their creative work, which fed into this motivation. As they shifted into later phases of their careers, they were able to transfer that mentality to other vocations. Many told us that they continue to express essential aspects of themselves through their work and leverage that sense of purpose to inspire and sustain their efforts in the business world.

This rang true for our interviewee, Aidan Connolly, who, in high school, found his creative calling in music and theater productions. After studying English and theater in college, he moved to NYC, got his actor’s equity card, and spent six years on the road, touring and acting in regional productions.

Seeking a more stable path, he eventually secured an unpaid internship with Al Gore’s presidential campaign’s New York finance team during a break from his tour. That role led to a consulting job, and then key fundraising and government affairs roles in the New York State Senate.

“I began to realize that I found meaning and motivation in projects that were worthy and inspiring, but somehow improbable, and derived personal identity from my ability to work hard and bring people together to drive them across the line,” he said. His entrepreneurial spirit later led him toward an effort to build a new Irish Arts Center — a $60 million state-of-the-art cultural platform for Ireland in New York City that he led from concept to completion in 2021.

What you can do:

As an artist or creator transitioning into the early stages of your professional future, it’s critical to maintain and sustain your identity. Note that this may also be one of the most difficult aspects of the transition. During our interviews, we found that some creatives struggled to reconcile their creative identity with the demands of the social and cultural environment of a more traditional workplace. Some felt as though they were selling out by pursuing other career paths. Others found it difficult to work in settings that lacked a sense of meaningful purpose.

But we saw that those who were most successful in new professional settings proactively sought out roles that aligned with their values in some way. This helped them continue to find a sense of identity in their work, rediscover a sense of purpose, and build confidence.

When thinking about your own career, remember that your work is an outcome of who you are, not the other way around. You don’t have to give up the self you discovered during your creative pursuit in this next phase. The identity you brought to your creative work can and should be expressed in many forms. Look for roles and companies that align with your values and use that sense of purpose to tap into the intrinsic motivation that has driven you forward in the past.

. . .

Creatives have been building rewarding professional careers for a long time. The lessons from their journeys are more relevant today than ever. As someone transitioning into a more traditional role right now, there are ways you can leverage your experiences to create continuity and succeed in the next phase of your career. Take it from us, two creatives who have grappled with many of the issues you may be facing.

Be authentic and embrace your story, lean into your capacity to master new skills, and acknowledge your core motivations. With the right mindset and approach, the qualities you developed as a creative can be the foundation of your future success.


Career transitions, Career planning, Careers, Early career, Digital Article

Jesse Feister,
Jesse Feister, Global Head of Creator Marketing at Twitch, shifted from a drumming career in bands signed to Island Def-Jam Records and Warner/Chappell to tech. He co-founded the music workflow platform Songspace (now a part of Downtown Music Group) before holding executive roles at Kobalt Music and AWAL. He has an MBA from The Wharton School.

Adam Rosenwach,
Adam Rosenwach, Chief Business Officer at Deerfield Catalyst and Coridea, blends his Berklee College of Music background with expertise in healthcare innovation. From first producing and touring with artists like Bon Iver and Florence the Machine, he has leveraged his ability to collaborate with creatives regardless of their industry. He has an MBA from The Wharton School.

Stewart D. Friedman
Stewart D. Friedman is an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School. He is the co-author of Parents Who Lead. For more, visit, find him on Twitter @StewFriedman, or on LinkedIn.

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