12 uncomfortable truths about doing creative work for a living

Published by Nela Dunato on at 11:52 in Tips for creatives, Thoughts, Mindset

I started earning money with my creative skills when I was 19 years old, and have been running my own design consultancy since 2014. I admit that I got into this career with some unrealistic expectations, and I learned many lessons that no one warned me about.

If you’re still early in your career or studying in a creative field, consider this post as a warning so you can decide whether this is something you’re willing to accept as a part of your life.

Even though some of these facts are unpleasant, I still wouldn’t change my career for any other. I’m happy and fulfilled by my work on a very deep level, and see the less glamorous parts of my job as the price of admission. Every career has them. These are ours.

12 uncomfortable truths about doing creative work for a living

1. Dealing with people is an important part of creative work.

Whether that's clients who order custom work, buyers of your products, gallery and consignment shop owners, your fans, your contractors... Making money from your creative work means nurturing relationships with people.

You can do art as a hobby for fun and never have to talk about it to anyone, but if you want to make a living, you can't avoid it. I know, there’s a big chance you consider yourself an introvert. There are ways to make this easier on yourself. This is what I do to maximize my focused quiet time:

  • I only work in my own office. (No coffee shops or coworking spaces.)
  • I limit the number of client meetings I attend per week.
  • I limit the number of events I attend per month/year.
  • I encourage my clients to email rather than call if it’s not time-sensitive, or to schedule a time to have a longer conversation in advance.

Having boundaries is good. Isolating yourself from people all the time is not—you won’t make any friends or money that way.

2. Things always take longer than planned.

A good rule of thumb is to triple the original time frame you've had in mind. I’m not exaggerating.

It’s not about things going wrong. (Although they might, like when an international book self-publishing service I planned on using didn’t work in my country, so I had to sign up with another one which asked me to fax them some signed agreements... Fax. In 2018.) It’s about the scientifically proven fact that people are bad at planning.

It’s not just you. It’s all of us. The sooner you accept this, the better. Add more buffer to your schedule. It’s a much better when you complete a project ahead of time, than feeling you’re constantly running behind.

And speaking of things taking their sweet time...

3. Sustainability is a long game, and you might need other income sources along the way.

People are going to try to sell you tips and tricks that will speed up your biz growth. Don’t fall for it. They can’t guarantee you anything, and speedy results are very rare. If there’s one tip I can give you on choosing your teachers and mentors, here it is: learn from people who promise you a realistic outcome. People who pump up the hype have as many dissatisfied students as they have happy ones. Don’t give them your money.

If you’re able to hold onto a part-time job as your own creative venture is getting more stable, do it. The peace of mind a steady paycheck provides in that tender time period is totally worth it.

I know, you’d rather go all in and devote 100% of your time to your own dream. I’ve been there. I struggled. I got depressed. I recovered. I struggled some more. I had no idea why—I thought I was doing everything right. I worried that I might be doing something wrong.

Then I got a part-time teaching gig and kept working on my own business. I no longer struggled, I no longer worried or felt bad, I just kept doing the same things I’ve been doing before. It took more time than I thought it would, but eventually I got to where I wanted to be: I had achieved the career of my dreams.

When I launched my freelance business, I thought that this achievement would come in 6 months. It was more like 3 years. I busted my butt working long hours, putting myself out there, networked like a mofo, did a ton of speaking gigs, wrote a blog non-stop, actively managed my newsletter and social media, and it still took me 3 years!

I’ve heard from other business owners that this is a very typical business growth trajectory. The ones that do it sooner are anomalies. Don’t feel bad if things are moving slow—it’s not because you suck.

4. People expect freebies.

While no one in their right mind would go to a store and ask for a free item, people have no qualms about asking artists and creative service providers for free work.

Just because someone asks, it doesn't mean you should say yes. Give freely when you're inspired, and when your own needs are met. Reward kindness and loyalty—don’t try to win new customers by giving stuff away, that usually doesn't lead to paid work.

(For more on this, read my post Real friends pay full price.)

5. No one knows how much effort your work takes (unless you show them).

When it comes to judging other people's work, we regularly downplay the amount of effort and skill it takes, and usually use “talent” as an excuse for why we’re not doing something similar. People have no idea what's involved in your process.

Ways you can show them what your work entails:

  • Write case studies.
  • Photograph stages of your work in progress.
  • Film videos of your creative process.
  • Give live demos.
  • Give talks and explain your process.
  • Show your old work alongside your newer work so people can see how much you’ve progressed with practice.
  • Teach your techniques to others!

Nela Dunato teaching a workshop at STEP-Ri
Teaching used to be something I did just for fun, but later I started earning money doing it.

Teaching may look like shooting yourself in the foot because “you’re giving away all your secrets”, but it’s not. So many times I’ve heard from students “You make it look so easy, but when I try it, I can’t seem to achieve the same result.”

Well, duh. Something that’s easy to me because I’ve been doing it for 20 years is not easy for a novice. This should be obvious to anyone, but it takes trying it yourself to really understand it. Your audience and buyers will appreciate your work more once they know what went into it.

6. Some clients assume they can do your job.

It’s incredibly frustrating when that happens. You have a choice to either convince them that they hired you because they can’t do it properly themselves, or turn them down and let some other freelancer with poor boundaries deal with them.

Every time I’ve taken on a client that said something along the lines of “I’m a creative type myself and have a knack for design”, I have regretted it. Now when someone says that they have an idea and they just need someone to draw it on the computer, I tell them that my expertise is not redrawing someone else’s ideas—it’s coming up with new ideas of my own.

It’s much more satisfying to work with clients who respect and value your work without you having to explain to them why they should. Save your energy for people who get it. I call them dream clients, and they are very real.

7. Your biggest priority is protecting your creative flow.

Creative flow enables you to create great work and earn money. If there’s no creative flow in your life, no amount of marketing and networking will make your work sell. You need to be able to work without interruptions. (Read my post on eliminating time suck here.)

This sometimes means getting into arguments with people in your household who think that just because you work from home, they’re allowed to drop in and bother you with irrelevant things. Be polite, but firm with your boundaries—your livelihood depends on it.

I’ve found that adhering to fixed working hours makes it easier to keep family members at bay. If they know there are certain hours when they absolutely cannot bother you, but that you’ll be available after X, you have a stronger case. If you’re seemingly always working and literally never have time for them, then they kinda... have a point?

Some people get up early in the morning so they can work in peace while everyone else is still asleep. Others stay up late after everyone has gone to bed. If going to work at the library with noise canceling headphones is the only way to get your work done in peace, do whatever you have to do.

8. Your family won’t treat your creative profession as a real job (unless they’re also in a creative field).

I hear this all the time from fellow artists, designers, writers, musicians... Parents keep asking them “But when will you find a real job?” It’s soul-crushing when the people who are supposed to be the closest to you don’t support your career choice, but it is what it is.

I envy creatives who had their parents’ full support and went to fancy art schools while I had to defend my every decision tooth and nail. I’d love to think that this struggle has made me stronger, but honestly... it was just exhausting. I know I’m not the only one. I want you to know that you’re not the only one. Some parents just suck in that regard. They may be wonderful people otherwise, but they don’t get it. At least they’ll get used to it eventually.

9. If the inspiration isn’t there, you need to work for it.

Some days you wake up with ideas pouring faster than you can write them down. On other days, you stare at your blank canvas or screen feeling like there’s a huge empty space behind your eyeballs. If we were amateurs, we could just skip creating anything today. But we’re professionals, so we need to be able to work even on the days when it doesn’t feel easy.

When things aren’t working out without a ton of effort, take control of the situation. There’s not just one best approach to becoming inspired and productive. Each unique situation calls for a different method.

The worst enemies of inspiration are physical and mental exhaustion (aka burnout), and out-of-control distractions. Get enough sleep, eat well, and explore different personal creative avenues to get away from the routine of paid work. I find that just doodling in my sketchbook and experimenting with mixed media can open up pathways to new ideas faster. Sometimes I come up with an idea that can be used in a work project without even intending to!

Sketchbook fragments by Nela Dunato

When we feel like our well has run dry, we often turn to distractions to pass the time: TV shows, social media, video games, reading advice columns... Those are a slippery slope and can turn into a whole day of doing nothing, yet still feeling exhausted.

Instead, try activities that are restful and put you into a contemplative state of mind. Take “strategic walks”—basically normal walks, but tell yourself you’re doing it for the benefit of your creative work. You may also enjoy a cup of “strategic coffee/tea”, rest in a “strategic meditation”, or switch to working on a “strategic distraction” while the project you’re supposed to be working on simmers at the back of your mind.

Do not give up on a problem if you don’t get ideas on how to solve it immediately. Some problems just take more time than others. Always keep your sketchbook or other recording device with you, because inspiration often strikes in the most unlikely of places.

10. You’ll need to decide where you sit on the “taking it too personally” and “not giving a shit” spectrum.

Imagine this spectrum like this:

Taking it personally vs. not giving a shit spectrum

I sit much closer to “taking it personally” than recommended, but I find that it’s precisely my passion that makes me good at what I do. If I didn’t have a stance, a vision, a point of view, I wouldn’t be able to stay in this career for so long.

A long time ago, I worked at a job where I got much too close to “not giving a shit”. I felt like a design mercenary. That was bad for me, for my agency, and for our clients. The clients didn’t know it though, they were happy to get exactly what they asked for. But what they asked for sucked, and I didn’t have the confidence to try to make them see that we could do better.

There are creative professionals who take their work personally, and put their integrity above money. There are creatives who are fine with doing whatever their clients ask of them, as long as they pay on time. Neither of them is wrong. You need to decide which one you are.

If you’re attached to your work so much that you can’t deal with critique and rejection, consider whether you actually want to be doing it for money. Maybe you’d rather want to keep it a hobby. There’s no shame in that.

11. The self-doubt never goes away.

As you gain more experience, you will become more confident and have fewer moments of anxiety about your work. The issues that used to bother you before will no longer feel like issues. That’s something great to look forward to!

But... it’s in the nature of creative people to constantly push our boundaries and seek new frontiers. When we keep doing things in the same way, we get restless and bored. We want to shake things up. We want to improve. We want to know if there’s a better way. We want to learn more.

Every time you’re starting something new and different, you’ll encounter self-doubt. No matter how many successful projects and awards you’ve racked up, you’ll feel like this one might go wrong because you’re trying something you’ve never done before, and it has a non-zero chance of failing.

Creative challenge cycle: Challenge, Fear & self-doubt, Success, Satisfaction, Complacency & Boredom

If it’s the prospect of doing something new that causes you to lose your wits and want to crawl under a blanket, that is normal. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you’ll realize how hilarious that whole game is. When I realize this is happening, I try to calm myself down with positive self talk like:

“I’m capable and I’ll figure things out, like I always do. It will take time and I may need to try a few different things until it works, but I’ll get there eventually.”

However, if typical, everyday tasks that you’ve mastered a long time ago still throw you into fits of panic, seek help. An experienced coach or a therapist can help you find the root cause of this issue and manage it, so your work life can be more peaceful and satisfying.

12. Embrace the seasons.

People call it “feast of famine”, but I find “seasons” a more useful framing.

There are months when you’re getting so many orders you can barely fit them all into your schedule, followed by weeks of silence. It used to bother me when I was earning less and had no savings to fall back on (see point #3 on how to avoid that). Now that I feel comfortable about my finances, I welcome the quiet periods.

Track the busy and lean periods in your industry for a few years, and you’ll see patterns. By doing this, I realized what months get particularly hectic for me, and when I’m able to take a month-long vacation without anyone noticing I’m gone. Knowing things will get hectic at a certain point allows me to prepare: I take extra time off for fun and self-care when I’m able to, knowing that soon that option won’t be on the table.

I also keep a list of all my passion projects and internal business projects, so that I can work on them when clients don’t need me as much. This enables me to accomplish my goals even if I’m not “working” for anyone else. Working for yourself totally counts!

To recap, here’s a two-step method for enjoying your lean times:

  1. Save up as much money as you can (ideally to cover 3-6 months of expenses).
  2. Keep a list of things you’d love to accomplish when you have time to spare.

This alone helps you eliminate any worries because you’re not sitting around doing nothing (which can trigger rumination), and you know your basic needs are met. For tips on what you could do during the lean seasons, check out my article Top 10 things you can do when your creative business is slow. But I’m sure you already have plenty of ideas.

What uncomfortable truths have you learned on your journey?

Would you add anything to this list? Feel free to share it in the comments.

There are no easy paths through life, but I’m happy that I’m able to choose this one which brought me lots of fulfillment, despite the challenges. I wish the same or even better for you.

Stay creative,

Nela

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...


Your comments

  • Jen Wagner

    Jen Wagner
    2019-12-17 at 19:38

    Awesome post! So true about it taking 3 years to really get a steady business going. In 2016 I was laid off from my corporate art direction job and couldn’t find a new position. It seemed that my 25 + years of experience were too many. I started picking up small freelance jobs while looking, then realized, why not work for myself? I have experienced most of the challenges you mention especially the depression and uncertainty. Fortunately this past year has been the best ever, financially as well as staying busy with a good variety of work. I still have my moments of course, but it’s helpful to know that it’s “not just me”. You definitely have to be resilient, persistent, and adaptable to be a freelancer! Have a great holiday—

  • Nela

    Nela
    2019-12-17 at 19:58

    Thank you, Jen!
    I'm so glad that you came out on the other side of this challenge and are reaping the rewards of your resilience and persistence. It's a rite of passage, for sure. Thanks so much for sharing about your experience. Switching to freelancing after 25+ years in corporate is a big deal, kudos!
    May the new year bring even more great clients and projects your way, happy holidays! :)

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