Dostoevsky’s career advice to an aspiring artist

Yashvardhan Jain
2 min readMar 14, 2024
By Vasily Perov — kgHBFHS7SpcayQ — Google Arts & Culture, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13499483

Anyone who has ever felt a pull toward any kind of art, there is always a moment, ultimately, when the person must ask: But how will I make a living from it? And if you don’t ask, the other will ask you. While the question seems innocent and simple, it is also the death of many artists in figurative infancy. A traditional stable-seeming job or your heart’s true passion? That is the question.

To those, Fyodor Dostoevsky offers his advice, both timeless and timely. The short version: why choose one? Who says one has to give up one to pick the other. The long version is in his letter to someone struggling with the same issue sometime in the 19th century.

I might come to occupy in literature; in my soul was
a certain flame, and in that I believed, troubling
myself not at all as to what should come of it.
There are my experiences, since you ask me for
them.

How should I know your heart? If you will hear
my counsel, I advise you to trust without hesitation
to your own inward impulse; perhaps destiny may
point you to a literary career. Your claims are
indeed most modest, for you ask no more than to be
a worker of the second rank. I should like to add
this:
my own youthful impulse hindered me in no
wise from taking a practical grasp of life; it is true
I was a writer, not an engineer; nevertheless, during
my whole course at the College of Engineering, from
the lowest to the highest class, I was one of the best
students; later I took a post for a while, although
I knew that sooner or later I should abandon that
career. But I saw nothing in the career itself which
could thwart that to which I aspired; I was even
more convinced than before that the future belonged
to me, and that I alone should control it. In the
same way, if an official position does not hinder you
in the pursuit of your literary vocation, why should
you not temporarily undertake such an one?

Naturally I write all this at random, since I do not
know you personally; but I want to be of service to
you, and so answer your letter as frankly as possible.
As to all the rest, it is, in great part, exaggeration.

Permit me to press your hand.

Your
FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY.

Explore more of his letters on Internet Archive.

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