It’s only life or death. It’s always only life or death

The best thing that ever happened to me was the night an angry, messed up cab driver pulled me into the back room of a 24 hour diner and held a huge handgun to my head for over ten minutes, all the while describing in intricately fetishistic detail exactly what would happen when he pulled the trigger.

Why? Because it changes you, staring down a nutjob holding a gun. After that, the small stuff just doesn't get sweated. You either break, or break through to a mandatory satori of keeping things in proportion that most people never get to walk away from. It's an ice calm I wouldn't trade for anything.

The second best thing that ever happened to me was when the dot com crash of 2000 wiped out most of the design industry at the peak of my career as a freelance print designer. I went from turning away work every week to working exactly 7 days of the next year. I lost my girl. I lost my loft. I lost part of my thumb in an accident moving out of the loft. I pretty much lost it all.

Of course, the only reason I was working in offices was to fund the art career I wanted… materials, space, tools, etc. I worked eight hours in the office and ten in the studio, sleeping when I passed out involuntarily. I decided that if my industry had tanked, I was damned if I was gonna retrain to do something else I didn't want to do. I chose to make the art be my sole means of support. I built some monumentally scaled commissions working out of borrowed shop space, with borrowed gear, sleeping on borrowed couches.

It worked. I've been making my living as an artist ever since, and these days I earn triple the income I ever did from the best corporate gigs.

The third best thing that ever happened was the day my studio building collapsed under a load of snow while I was standing on the roof shoveling. I rode that roof to the ground like a gut-shot rodeo pony. The building and some pricey tools were completely destroyed, but I was unharmed… until I spent the next three months (December, January and February) without heat, running water or a stove because the natural gas line into the house had been severed in the collapse. The gas company refused to fix the line until they could bury it in the spring. I lost a few brain cells, I'm sure, by running an unvented kerosene heater inside the house to stay alive.

How was that good? The bank came out to assess the damage, saw my work and suggested I do a $10,000 commissioned sign as the down payment on the remaining two buildings I'd been leasing with an unlikely option to buy. Getting this place had a lot to do with making the art career fly. I had affordable space to work and a place for customers to find me. I don't think the deal would have happened without the disaster… They didn't want to take a loss on the property (or hold it) and I was willing to take it on at the cost of the mortgage before the building fell.

Bottom line:

The only way you can tell the difference between disaster and opportunity is to decide to make an opportunity out of every event.


During the second and third disasters, my friends were pretty evenly divided in their response to my choice to make the world work on my terms.

One camp said, "Dude, you're so brave to just bail on the day job and do your own thing. You're my hero. I wish I could do that." The other camp said, "Look, don't be crazy. Just take whatever work you can get until you're on your feet, even if it's fast food or something. You're never gonna make it without some cash." Really, both camps were wrong (though I love them all dearly).

I wasn't brave. Not the least bit. I was frickin' desperate, is what I was, but not terrified. I was back to that ice calm… you learn that it just ain't over till it's over, and that giving up never got anyone out of a jam. I didn't want a life of stability if it meant I had to do digital layouts of junk mail for a living. I wanted to do what I was best at, what I loved, and get paid for that. It was worth the risk. It was the only real way I could see to better my situation.

I wasn't crazy either. By the time I figured out that the design work wasn't just in a slump, that it wasn't coming back any time soon, I had about $5 in cash and $20,000 in debt. There was no way that a subsistence level job was gonna fix that… I ran full tilt towards the art career because I knew if I did it right, and worked my ass off, I could probably make enough to get out of the hole

I had to think about it again when the building crashed. That time, I almost did pack it in. It felt like my dream was a stupid idea after all, that I had just run everything into the ground betting on a long shot. But in the rural economy here, few jobs pay well enough to escape the poverty line and there are fewer and fewer jobs available anyway every year. A job wasn't gonna save me. It would just suck all the time and energy I needed to realize my dreams, while keeping me alive enough to resent it.

I remembered other businesses I had started on a shoe string earlier in life… each of them ultimately failed the first time something major went wrong because I hadn't had enough cash to keep them going. Or had they? Had money really been the only way to get them back on track, or was it a failure of creativity and nerve? Had they really failed because when faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem, I'd believed it to be what it seemed, bought into it, walked away because I didn't feel able to do the so-called impossible? I decided that what I really couldn't afford was to waste all the time and energy I had put into building an art career that was just on the edge of being sustainable. I'd come too far this time to back down.

Having weighed the pros and cons of sticking to my guns, I decided to force a positive change out of the crisis. Within a month, I unexpectedly sold a few major pieces, paying off the last of my old debts with the money and having cash left over. From that moment, the art has sold exponentially better each year. If I'd given up at the moment, none of the great things that have happened since would have come about.

If you enjoyed this story check out the related interview on Chris Guillebeau's Art of Nonconformity blog.