How your day job can inspire your art

I wanted to be an artist. As a little boy my favorite pastime was drawing. I loved receiving Academie sketchpads for my birthday and Christmas. The margins of my school books and homework assignments were adorned with drawings and cartoons.

I used to devour the artwork in Mad magazine and collected all the Frank Frazetta fantasy art books. For me, artwork opened a door into another world of creativity and personal expression.

My father was an administrative law judge who endured a two hour commute every day to his office in San Francisco. He’d rise each weekday at 5:30 AM and drive to the Santa Clara train station. From there he’d ride the Southern Pacific train to San Francisco, where he caught a bus to his office downtown.

Dad arrived home most nights around 6PM. He’d unload his leather satchel, loosen his tie and sit down in his living room reading chair. Mom would bring him a re-heated dinner.

The work lives of our parents are not lost on us. I admired my father in his judicial career, but the commute and long hours seemed crazy. “No thanks,” I used to think to myself, “I’m not going to have a job like that. I’m going to be an artist.”

Too soon old, too late smart

There used to be a local palette artist in our town. Dad admired his work but said the artist had to hustle to make a living. “Being an artist is a tough racket. On the road traveling to shows and galleries. Dealing with commissions,” he said. “Go to college, get a degree and find a reliable career that interests you,” Dad counseled.

In other words, follow a conservative career route.

At the time Dad’s advice didn’t sound very exciting. After all, I watched his long work commutes my entire childhood. But I couldn’t deny that we enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle.

After graduating high school I decided to forego art school and get a degree in criminal justice administration. Maybe it was all those Starsky & Hutch TV shows, but law enforcement seemed like a good paying and adventurous career. So I went off to college and grad school. Afterward, I joined a small-town police department where I spent the last 26 years.

I drew cartoons on the side for various newspapers and later studied landscape painting with various artists. I found it was possible to have a career and still chase one’s passions.

What I didn’t expect to discover was how my day job as a police officer inspired my creative side.

The accidental police chief

My law enforcement career taught me many things. How to deal with shift work, difficult people, fear and responsibility. I was exposed to death, tragedy, loss and violence. But I was also exposed to grace, forgiveness, hope and the joy of helping others. All of these things taught me about life. Lessons that inform my writing today.

My department sent me away to composite art school and I learned how to do police sketches. Report writing taught me about precision and the value of succinct, clear writing. Police management and executive school taught me about leadership, public speaking, budgets, politics and more.

I once wrote an article titled The Accidental Police Chief. I used to feel like an artist trapped in a policeman’s body. But what I finally figured out is that I’m a police chief, artist and writer. We don’t have to be just one thing. We are meant for many things. Our day jobs teach us useful skills that can inform our art.

Author Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You makes the argument that skills trump passion. As Newport’s website states:

“Cal Newport debunks the long-held belief that “follow your passion” is good advice. Not only is the cliché flawed — preexisting passions are rare and have little to do with how most people end up loving their work — but it can also be dangerous, leading to anxiety and chronic job-hopping.”

The portfolio life

I studied writing and creative entrepreneurship with best selling author Jeff Goins. One of the things that Jeff talks about on his blog and popular Podcast is the “portfolio life.” The idea that we were meant for more than one thing. And that we experience these things in different seasons of our lives.

Jeff interviewed me recently about all of this on his Podcast. We go into more depth about my police career and how I juggled it successfully with my writing, cartooning and landscape painting. Listen to it here or by clicking on the photo below.

Last December I retired from law enforcement after 26 years. The last ten I served as Chief of Police. Looking back, there was so much the job taught me. About myself. About people and life and the world around me.

Illustrations by John P. Weiss.

Had I stuck it out for five more years, I would have maxed out my pension. I can hear my father’s voice now, urging me to work a few more years. But I was ready for that art career I used to dream about as a boy.

At 52 years old I’m still young enough to transition into a full-time career of writing, painting and cartooning. Enriched with everything my police career taught me, I’m ready to dive into this new creative chapter.

Wherever you are on your journey, remember that there is dignity in work. Even the simplest jobs teach us stuff. My son is in college and works as a busboy for a local restaurant. He comes home from his job with all kinds of stories about people. He’s learning a lot.

Stay the course with that day job. Become a pragmatic juggler and keep pursuing your artful passions. Your day job will inspire your art, if you let it.


I’m John P. Weiss, fine artist, and writer. Get on my free email list here to receive the latest artwork and writing.

This article first appeared on Medium