How to bring back the passion – 5 key conditions for fulfilling creative work

Published by Nela Dunato on in Mindset, Tips for creatives

This post is the second part of yesterday’s post When your passion becomes a chore (My love-hate relationship with design). The previous post gives you some context around my graphic & web design career, and tells the story of how I lost and then found my passion again.

Today’s post is the practical part on what to do if you feel like you’ve lost your passion.

I believe there are certain conditions that our work has to meet so it can give us creative fulfillment. When these conditions are not met, we’re unhappy. We resent our clients. We get burnt out easily. We find it hard to get up in the morning. We don’t have the energy to set bigger goals for ourselves.

When I examined what was different about the projects I’m doing now, as opposed to projects I was doing in the past that were leaving me unfulfilled and drained, I’ve identified 5 key conditions that weren’t just different, but polar opposites.

Here are these 5 key conditions, and what each of them means for a creative professional.

How to bring back the passion – 5 key conditions for fulfilling creative work

1. Values

I talk more about the concept of matching values between a client and a contractor in this post. In it, I share this graphic that illustrates my point:

Recipe for a successful collaboration - Complementary Skills + Compatible Values

If you’re the sort of person who strives to live with integrity, you won’t be able to look yourself in the mirror if you keep doing projects that go against your values.

You wouldn’t expect a vegan photographer to work for McDonald’s, or an atheist developer to work for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If they told you why they refused the job, you wouldn’t second guess them or say “oh, money is money”. (Well maybe you would, but in that case you probably don’t agree with anything I write here.)

These are extreme examples that make sense for us, but we tend to dismiss our values when it comes to things that are “not such a big deal”. Oh, a fashion magazine that perpetuates unrealistic female beauty standards and makes me feel like crap? No problem! A website of the most profitable telecom in the country with the absolute worst customer service? Sure, where do I sign?

And then there’s even subtler cases where there’s nothing wrong with the project or people running it, but it doesn’t make your heart sing, either.

While my ex clients were pretty decent people (well, most of them), we didn’t share the same values, and it was difficult for me to get fully on board. Back then, I didn’t know why, because I had no idea what my values were and why they’re important.

I felt like a mercenary, not a partner because honestly, I didn’t want to be associated with those projects.

When you’re not enthusiastic about helping a project to succeed, that’s a huge red flag.

This applies even to projects you do for yourself! Check in with yourself and look at what values may be driving you to do it, and if it’s really the kind of values you can fully get behind.

If you’re doing something to get recognition and earn some cash, when what you actually value is creative freedom and connection, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of frustration.

I wrote a lot more on the theme of core values my post Why you can’t separate “business” and “personal” – Introduction to Core Values, where I also share how to find what your personal core values are.

2. Purpose

Some “thought leaders” will tell you that purpose is the only thing you should focus on – that passion is a fake ideal to follow, that it doesn’t mean anything, or it can even lead you astray. But Purpose with a capital P is a magic pill that solves every problem you have, including your skin condition.

Yeah, I never really bought that, either.

To me, purpose is one of the important components of a life well lived, but it’s not the only thing you need.

And purpose often set takes the focus away from your own needs, and we somehow get into our head that we need to be selfless and neglect our own desires.

The sweet spot is somewhere in between. It’s great to be motivated by a higher purpose and making the world a better place, but you also need to make sure you’re meeting your own needs at the same time.

That said, purpose is key if you’re spending your precious creative energy on others.

If you do this day in and day out without being able to see how this will make a difference for anyone, and especially the kind of difference you’re personally interested in making (because of your values), your work is going to be a chore.

When you clearly see the purpose and can stand behind it, you’ll be motivated to see the project succeed and will give it your best.

3. Variety

Creative people have this tricky tendency to love the thrill of the new, and get bored easily when things become repetitive.

There are some obvious problems with this:

  1. Working on long term projects is difficult so we tend to leave stuff unfinished
  2. Locking yourself into a niche of any kind feels crippling

It was difficult enough for me to focus on design professionally, now you want me to specialize in web design, and not only that, but web design for business coaches?

Yeah, forget about it.

I don’t offer half a dozen of different services because I’m afraid I won’t get enough clients otherwise, I do it because doing the exact same type of project over and over again would drive me mad.

In my jobs, there was usually one type of project I was always working on: online travel booking websites.

I know way more about online booking and tourism than I ever wanted to know, and I could design a booking site in my sleep, which is exactly the reason I don’t enjoy doing them as much.

Variation and novelty is what inspires me. If a client suggests a project I’ve never done before, I’m on it. I learn whatever I need to learn in order to do it. I’m not intimidated by unfamiliar technologies or industries.

Some people may have more opportunity than others to find variety and novelty in their work. It doesn’t always have to be as drastic as completely different client type, subject matter or technique.

But if you’ve found yourself losing steam, this is one place I’d look.

4. Leadership

The lesson I’ve learned about leadership is that it’s claimed, not given.

All those years in agencies I was waiting for my boss to hand me over the reigns of the projects and resented them for not doing so when I was obviously capable of more. The problem was, I wasn’t doing anything to demonstrate my leadership skills.

I didn’t take initiative and do stuff on my own, without being asked. I was so burnt out and passionless, that I felt like there was no point. Perhaps doing it would have changed everything, but there’s no way for me to know that.

Luckily, I know that now.

If you position yourself as a leader, most people are glad to let you take things off their hands and make their problems go away.

If you tell them “this is how we’re doing things around here”, they believe you.

If you tell them “oh, we could do this, or that if you like that better, I don’t know, tell me what do you want?” they don’t take you seriously, because what kind of professional would ask them their opinion on a subject they don’t know anything about?

They’d doubt your expertise, they wouldn’t be as ready to give you control, and they’d second-guess every decision of yours and ask you for a dozen samples to choose from.

There’s a tricky thing called the Dunning–Kruger effect that works against us in this matter.

“The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate. […] Conversely, highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks that are easy for them are also easy for others.”

What this means for us is that as professionals in our craft, we tend to underestimate how good we are and don’t claim the leadership we deserve to have.

At the same time, some of our clients who know nothing on the matter, think anyone with half a brain could do our job and are full of ill-informed opinions and suggestions that inevitably ruin the quality of the work.

I know that this is pressing some people’s buttons, but frankly, good design is not a matter of taste or personal opinion, and if you’re paying several hundreds or thousands of dollars for professional’s expertise, then for heaven’s sake, let them do their job.

Luckily, the clients I work with now trust me, and they don’t have as many revision requests, which is why I confidently implemented a “one revision” rule, and I’m even considering a “one concept approach”, as per Sean McCabe’s suggestion.

5. Ownership

Ownership comes from leadership – you can’t have one without the other. But ownership feels different. In a sense, it feels like pride, yet with none of its negative connotations.

I own the work I do for my clients as much as they do. When they pay the final invoice and my intellectual property is in effect transferred to them, I still retain that feeling of “my baby” that you have when you create something of your own.

I didn’t have that in my former jobs. I’d feel like the project was so butchered with everyone’s input, from the CEO to the janitor, that there wasn’t anything of my vision left in it.

Most of the projects I did at the time never made it to my portfolio, and I’d rather no one knows I had anything to do with them because I’d be embarrassed.

If you feel that way about the work you’re putting out, is it any wonder we lose our passion?

Having a sense of ownership, that feeling of having done something good for other people, plays a key role in maintaining interest in your field.

When you’re constantly being pushed out of your creations, you reject your ownership on purpose, because you don’t want to feel hurt all the time. You turn it into “just a job” because the pain of showing up every day with a full heart, only to be rejected again and again is unbearable.

Protect your passion fiercely

Everything I wrote about above is hard work.

If it was easy, I never would have gotten off the path in the first place – it took me 10 years to learn this. Hopefully, for you it will take a lot less, and I hope this post helps you in that.

The reason it’s hard is that we have bills to pay, and we feel the need to compromise in order to be able to do that.

Nobody wants to work with a primadonna, right?

The clients want to boss you around and make you go against your values and better judgement, right?

Nobody wants to work with a creative professional who has her own vision and wants to get you on board, right?

Well, wrong.

Not all people are the same.

While my experience has taught me what some of those clients are like, there are so many people in the world who truly appreciate having me by their side.

Not a pixel-pusher, but me. Me who will sometimes oppose them and suggest a different solution. Me who wakes up in the middle of the night with an idea that I frantically scribble and suggest the next morning. Me who shares their work with my own community because I stand behind them and I want them to succeed.

There’s much fewer of those clients than it is of the former ones – but that doesn’t matter. I don’t need a million of them, I only need a few every year.

If you crunched some numbers to see how many people you actually need in order to make a living, the number would likely be much smaller than you think.

There’s that “1000 true fans” story, but I think it only holds water for artists who sell things like paintings, prints, books, music or films, and don’t do any custom client work that usually requires a much smaller pool of prospects.

It’s hard to take leadership and not to compromise on your values – but it’s so, so worth it.

I would go as far as to say that it’s not even possible to do it any other way. Not if you want to continue loving what you do, at least.

The economic cost of burnout and fatigue that’s inevitable if you keep pushing against yourself far outweighs the discomfort of growing into your real body of work, and gathering the people who care around you.

Start your path toward your growth today by identifying what your values are and what you’re absolutely not willing to compromise on.

Clarify what the real purpose of your work is – not what other people think that you do. Trust me, your purpose can look pretty different from what you thought you were doing all along, and that sure has been my own experience.

Examine where in your work you’re relinquishing your leadership and giving up your ownership.

And last but not least, spice it up a bit! You’re not a robot – you’re a highly talented human being with so much to give to this world.

Don’t let others convince you that you’re not allowed to play however you want.



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2 responses to “How to bring back the passion – 5 key conditions for fulfilling creative work”

  1. Beautiful post Nela. The push-pull between purpose and paying the bills really resonates with me. The term “pixel-pusher” made me smile. I think we all kind of feel like we’ve sold out when we take the wrong client or compromise on our values and it’s so rewarding to realize we don’t have to do that.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Renia!

    Yep, that’s exactly what my personal definition of “selling out” is – making a compromise on our values.

    A lot of people think selling out means charging for your creative work, but that’s not true. You can earn money and still live with integrity, if you’re careful about who you work with.

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