Photo by Janie Hanson, from the series, "Flyover Country"
It's easy to equate entrepreneurship with images of Silicon Valley tech startups and venture capitalists, but entrepreneurs can learn a lot from two professions that don't fit the stereotype: artists and farmers.
Working to sustain an independent business and career without the structure and safety net of an established employer requires dedication, perseverance, tough decision-making, and resourcefulness. For farmers and artists, that's part of the job.
One of the challenges of farming, art, and entrepreneurship is being at the mercy of forces outside your control. Farmers' success depends on both the market and Mother Nature: The weather affects crop yield from one year to the next, and commodity prices are constantly fluctuating. Artists, too, are dependent on market trends and access to funding; their income can vary unpredictably from month to month and year to year.
Though agriculture and art are often romanticized and associated with nostalgic images, both also require complex technical expertise and sharp-eyed decision-making. For crop farmers, mechanical and chemical knowledge of equipment, seed, fertilizer, and soil health are essential to the work that they do. Livestock farmers must know details of animal biology and behavior.
For artists, their technical knowledge varies by medium, but might include how to prepare pigments for use in a painting, how to properly light a stage for a performance, how to calibrate a camera's exposure to properly light a photo, or how muscles and bones are affected by repeated dance movements.
Another challenge for artists, farmers, and other entrepreneurs is that their livelihood is part of their identity, and their personal and professional lives run together. Independent farmers oversee the complex operations and finances of a major organization, often managed by a single family. They must find the right people and organizations to work with that serve businesses: bankers, lawyers, insurance providers, suppliers of equipment and materials, and so on. They must keep track of the financial statements and decisions that determine their livelihood. And on family farms, they must navigate the overlap between business and family, making decisions that account for personal well-being as well as the bottom line.
Artists, too, find the lines between their personal and professional lives blurring. Art is often the expression of personal emotions and community desires, but artists must also do the work and make the decisions necessary to sustain their careers. Independent artists must find ways to market their artwork and earn income, often piecing together day jobs, teaching positions, grants, and commissions. Like farmers, they must secure services from accountants, lawyers, and other professionals to support their work.
The blurring of personal and professional lines is often hard for other people to understand. Even when they know it's part of the deal, friends and family can feel the burden of a loved one who's unavailable for hours and days at a time – whether it's a farmer in the crunch time of harvest, an artist hunkering down in the studio, a musician on tour, or a startup founder getting ready for a big product launch.
Recognizing the affinity among these seemingly disparate groups can help them learn from one another. For farmers passing land to younger generations, for example, it can be hard to articulate the knowledge and experience they've gained over years on the job, because they're so used to working independently. Artists, who often have to put their practices and processes into words while teaching or writing grants, could help farmers share their wisdom with younger generations so that it doesn't get lost. Meanwhile, farmers' ability to manage the stress of unpredictability could offer a valuable lesson for artists and other entrepreneurs facing career setbacks that feel catastrophic.
For all of these individuals, it often feels like they have to go it alone, because they have chosen to chart their own path. Acknowledging what they share, however, can help them forge connections and learn from each other. Even when we feel alone, we can find common ground in unlikely places or unexpected peers who understand the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.