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10 Famous Creative Minds That Didn’t Quit Their Day Jobs

Kurt Vonnegut worked at a car dealer after publishing his first novel, and Philip Glass worked as a plumber while crafting his music. So while you may be itching to ditch your 9 to 5, take a lesson from these legendary creatives and pursue your passions while still collecting a pay check.

No matter what line of work you’re in, chances are the daily grind of schlepping to work (even if it’s just down the hall) and toiling away in an open office to do a job that doesn’t exactly tickle your fancy every day is enough to stifle your more creative urges.

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Rather than pull the plug by abruptly pressing send on a resignation letter, consider the possibility of pursuing your passion while still having the security of a steady paycheck and benefits. Scientific research suggests it will boost your brain’s ability to multiply the neural connections responsible for understanding how different things relate to each other–critical for analyzing data and mapping strategies in any field. Spending time on a creative pursuit also lets you imagine new ideas more easily, get into a flow state, and–most important–silence that pesky inner critic we all have whispering in our ear.

So how do you find the time for your creative pursuits while still working your 9 to 5?

We know that part of the secret lies in seizing the time other people waste. Even if it means resetting your body clock to rise with the birds or eating the same thing daily to allow yourself the headspace for a productive hour of practicing your craft.

In case you need further inspiration, here are 10 legendary and contemporary creatives who continued plugging away at their day jobs while fanning the flame of creativity on nights and weekends.


Robert Frost

Forget the road less traveled, Robert Frost was still changing light bulb filaments in a Massachusetts factory when he sold his first poem, “My Butterfly: An Elegy” in 1894 for a whopping $15 (that’s about $400 in today’s value). Frost eventually moved to a farm in New Hampshire where he worked the land and used the early morning hours to work the page.

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Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t so hasty to rest on the sale of one item. He went on to manage a Saab dealership on Cape Cod after he’d published his first novel Player Piano. The dealership eventually failed, an event which Vonnegut once quipped was the reason he “diddled himself out of a Nobel Prize.”


Charles Ives

The American composer Charles Ives never let music get too far from his mind. After graduating from Yale in 1898, he secured a position in New York as a $15-a-week clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Company. Though already an accomplished and talented organist as well as composer, he was looking to create beyond the conservative musical establishment of his day. So staying in a steady job made sense. As Ives put it, if a composer “has a nice wife and some nice children, how can he let them starve on his dissonances?”

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Wallace Stevens

What is it about peddling insurance that helps encourage the creative spirit? For Wallace Stevens his daily commute–walks to the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, allowed him to free up the thoughts that led to winning a Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems in 1955.


Charlotte Brontë

Sometimes, a day job can inform a creative passion. In Charlotte Brontë’s case, generations of readers have been drawn into the harsh worlds of Jane Eyre and Villette thanks to her work as a poorly paid governess that had to pay her employers out of her own pocket for using their facilities to wash her clothes.

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William Carlos Williams

It may have been the same for William Carlos Williams. His poetry invokes simple, stark imagery (red wheelbarrow, anyone?) is just as appropriate for children as for adults. Williams was a career pediatrician in New Jersey, working long hours and no doubt carefully observing and absorbing his patients surroundings and penning phrases on the back of prescription slips.

Photo by Raymond Meier

Philip Glass

Plenty of musicians would consider their hands their most treasured instruments. For Philip Glass, working with his hands as a plumber, furniture mover, and taxi driver, was integral to his artistic process. “I was careful,” he explains, “to take a job that couldn’t have any possible meaning for me.” In fact, he didn’t earn a living from his music until he was 42.

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Richard Serra

Another creative to use his hands in both his day gig and creative pursuits is contemporary sculptor Richard Serra. His day job was an entrepreneurial venture dubbed Low Rate Movers which employed the likes of Chuck Close and Philip Glass. Of their solid day job Serra once said: “It was a good job because none of us would work more than two or three days a week, so we had the remaining days to do our own work.”


Dustin Hoffman

During the decade before hitting the big time with The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman had a day job while taking roles as he could in the New York Theater scene. Not surprisingly, Hoffman did do a stint as a waiter. But he gets points for the other odd work. Among his duties: an attendant at the New York Psychiatric Institute who held patients down for shock treatments, demonstrating toys at Macy’s, and typing for Manpower. “I type 65 words per minute on your average manual typewriter, and I was usually the only male in the offices they sent me to.”

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Kate White

In case you were wondering if a chief executive could hold down a day job while making time for mental flow, meet Kate White. The former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine who recently stepped away from the corner office managed to juggle the demands of steering the ship while penning a pile of books including seven New York Times bestselling thrillers and a career-advice book titled I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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