The secret.

No, not that ridiculous book based on an even more ridiculous concept.

I mean if someone asked me what I thought the most important skill was to being a successful designer (or any other creative or artistic discipline), the answer wouldn’t be talent, or creativity, or even personality.

It would be time management.

Okay. The reality is that most projects, no matter how good you are at this will still have you screaming nervously at the printer before you dash into the shower having had no sleep and been living on caffeine, sugar and excedrin for the past three days (and provigil, if you’re really, really lucky. I am all for better living through chemistry.) But on a day to day level, *no* skill is more important for creative people, especially those who work freelance or largely solo than that of time management. Simply speaking- it’s the way your project and in a more macro sense, your life, gets *done*.

Some people have a better sense of time management innately than others. In one of life’s great amusements, those people don’t seem to wind up as creatives that often. They go into careers that take advantage of that natural organizational gift. Or they get really smart and go straight into project management where people pay them huge sums of fat bank in order to herd kittens.

For the rest of us, you have to learn how to herd kittens, and very often the biggest, most unruly kitten in the litter is yourself.

Many people who what is politely called “an artistic temperament”, frequently rail against the very notion of time management, as though by adopting and learning this skill they’re somehow selling out in their endless battle with “The Man” (great, I have to watch Undercover Brother again now…) .

I should note that people who have what is politely termed “an artistic temperament” spend a lot of their lives eating ramen noodles off of whatever friend’s couch they’re living on at the moment, too.

This is not a coincidence, folks.

There’s no one method for learning how to manage your time, your projects (and again, ultimately, your life.) What works for me won’t work for the next person. The important part though is that you FIND ONE. Invent one. Try different ones that work for you.

A long, long time ago I was inspired to write a primer on How to Be a Creative Professional, because my tank had been tipped just one too many times on this subject. Though it’s been on the web for years now, I think it’s time to resurrect it, because the advice is still solid.

Cursing follows, which you know, should shock no one, since it’s me writing this. You’ve been warned.

When, in the course of human events it becomes necessary to deal with The Real World, does it mean that in order to become a grownup that you have to sell your soul to The Man and live a life of drudgery and mindless conformism? Does being an Adult require you to become a slave to The Man, and stifle any inkling of creativity?

Answer: No.

But if you want to be creative for a living, and reap the benefits thereof, there are some small things that you should probably be aware of:

1. Being creative for a living is not easy. It’s very hard to be creative on demand, regardless of how much, or how little, you’re being paid for it. But if one more person comes to me with this whole “starving artist” idealism shit, I’m going to puke on their shoes. We no longer live in an era of patronage. In centuries past, artists of all stripes made a living through wealthy patrons, who supported their efforts. They did not have to deal with medical insurance, rent/mortgage payments, car payments, cell phone bills or any of the other interesting problems that living in the 21st century brings to the table. We aren’t going back to the Patronage system, folks, so if you want to Create for a living you can learn that lesson right now: you have to be able to create ON DEMAND. Not just when you feel “your muse” is calling your name. And sometimes your muse is on vacation when it’s called upon. That’s when having actual skill comes in handy. If your ability to create anything is dependant on the whim of your muse, don’t quit your day job. It’s okay to not be able to create on demand– just don’t kid yourself and everyone else that being an artist is your *job*, because it’s not, okay?

2. Being creative for a living means you have to be a businessperson as well as an artist. Just because you can make your own schedule doesn’t mean there’s never a deadline, or a due date. It doesn’t mean that someone is going to simply offer you top dollar for your skills. It takes time, effort, quite a bit of both trial and error and a hell of a lot of mistakes before you figure out how to market your abilities in a businesslike fashion. Much of what you do with your time is dealing with the “mundane” world. People who are not like you. People who aren’t creative in the slightest, and who do not share your particular “vision.” But you need these people, because they generally have what you need, be that money, or space, or time, or some ability to create an opportunity for you. That means you have to deal with them in a way they can understand. It’s okay to have leopard spots shaved into your head- but if you’re going to walk in looking like that you had better have the most straight, business-like portfolio and/or investment package in the world and some Prada shoes with a kickin’ suit. In general “normal” people can only deal with one level of serious weirdness in a person before they find them to be “too flaky”. If all you are is a hook and a look, again, don’t quit your day job. It’s a hell of a lot easier to get people to take you seriously with neon green hair if you have a degree that looks impressive on paper. Don’t like it? Again, don’t quit your day job. You have to accept the fact that there are more “normals” than there are “creatives” in the world and YOU HAVE TO LEARN TO DEAL WITH THEM. They are the ones who ultimately *PAY YOUR RENT*. Your defiance in dealing with the “normals” and their concerns is not impressive. it just comes off as cutting your nose off to spite your face at best and juvenile at worst. It certainly isn’t going to make you any money. Save the flying off the deep end of weirdness for *after* they write you up in Fortune magazine, since if you try doing it before you get there, you may as well kiss that opportunity goodbye.

3. For fuck’s sake, get an education. In something. In ANYTHING. It’s valuable. I don’t care if it’s in underwater basket weaving– but getting an education broadens your horizons in ways you may not understand until after it’s over. Take a class: in ANYTHING. But dammit, continue to *learn*. Everything you see and learn is fodder for your craft, no matter what that craft is. But to decide that the only learning anyone needs is the school of hard knocks is a good way to determine that’s all you’re ever going to get– hard knocks. After a while those knocks become wearing on a person. I lived through this one. I only wish I had gone back to school ten years earlier than I did, and I will probably continue to go to school in one form or another (even just to take one class for fun) for the rest of my life. Because if you don’t use your mind in new ways, you lose the ability to do so. Use it or lose it. But don’t turn up your nose at an education. You learn *far more* than what is taught within the classroom. There is always someone who is better at your craft than you are who can teach you something. Use that opportunity, and don’t shy away from teaching others– you learn from that experience too.

4.For those who live in the USA: We do not live in a socialist society, despite what the democrats might occasionally want everyone to believe. I have news: we’re not going to become one, either. You can just fucking BUCK UP AND ACCEPT that we live in a capitalist society and that in order to function you are going to need to be paid for your efforts, in order to pay your bills so that the people you pay can pay *theirs*. Being a creative person does *not* mean that you’re exempt from that reality. It means you need to figure out ways to incorporate your abilities into cash. You are not interesting or special for “holding true to your beliefs” when those beliefs are going to make you homeless. And believe me, at some point they will, because there’s only so much bailing you out your friends are going to be willing to do. There’s only so much couch surfing you can do before people want you to just grow the fuck up and take a “real” job. And if you’d rather cut off a limb than deal with a “real” job (like me, for example), you had better figure out right quick how to pay your bills using the skills you have, or get new skills that will enable you to make money without wanting to strangle yourself with an errant ramen noodle.

5. Codependency is not friendship. If you think your friends should “support you no matter what” regardless of the self-destructive choices you make, then really, hightail it to a co-dependent’s anonymous meeting. Good friends will be there to help you out, but when you’re proving the very definition of stupidity is to repeat the same actions expecting different results, people are going to get tired of saving the day for you. For creative people this generally has to do with money. I will refer you to point #4 on that: deal with it– we aren’t a socialist nation. If you need help putting together a killer resume, then ask for it: but understand you’re going to get a “normal” resume. Not one on neon pink paper with Hello Kitty with a knife through his head in the upper right hand corner. Being defiant for the sake of being defiant is NOT INTERESTING. It’s tedious, and an amazing bore.

6. No one should get something for nothing. Don’t work for free– ever. Don’t ever do something on spec-ever. If someone wants your stuff, make them pay for it like everyone else. No one would dream of saying to Macy’s “Well give me the dress for a week and if I like it I’ll pay for it.” No. You pay for the dress before it walks out of the store. If you let someone take advantage of your skills without paying for them they are *stealing* from you. It’s intellectual shoplifting. And *NEVER* believe the “Oh if you do this for me for free I can get you “so much” work from all my friends.” Forget it. I promise you, in the history of the universe, this scenario has *NEVER* once happened. Charge them. If they’re serious they’ll pay your happy ass and if not, then they weren’t serious. Your time is valuable. Stop letting people steal it from you. You can sleep and not be paid. You should not create for someone else and not be paid. That’s just bullshit.

7. Stop giving real artists a bad name by being a flaky piece of shit. If you can’t get to a meeting on time, make a deadline, put out work on demand, then stop billing yourself as an artist/musician/writer/whatever. You’re only validating the stereotype of artists as complete flakes and morons. I can assure you that every time you pull a move like that there’s artists of all sorts all over the world that hope you’re hit by a bus– because you’re making our jobs that much harder. We put up with enough shit from the real world as it is.

8. Trade things out with your fellow artists. Use the barter system to get creative shit from other people. You know a jeweler? Great! Trade your website creation skills for a necklace for your significant other. Need an article written? Super! Trade it out for a mural on the wall of their office. Want tickets for that play? Easy- trade it for a dance lesson. Artists love to trade with other artists. Use this to your advantage. Make “normals” pay cash. “Creatives” have other skills to trade with, and they’re valuable to you.

9. The real world still exists. If you have kids, or pets or an elderly parent or any living thing that depends on you for survival, I’m sorry, but they come first. Not your dreams of fame and stardom, but their needs. I can assure you, my cats eat better, overall, than I do. If you have kids, there’s just some things they should not be exposed to. Just because you’re a musician does *not* mean it’s okay for you to get drunk as a lord every night and subject your children to that behavior. The real world is not going to understand that “you’re an artist, so it’s okay.” Fuck you. It’s NOT okay. Take care of your family, even if that family consists of a cat and a houseplant. Get over yourself. Sid Vicious wasn’t interesting either.

10. Stop making fun of your friends with “real jobs”. They’re not sellouts. They’re not the enemy. They are, actually the people who could help pay your rent if you would stop treating them like shit.

If you can’t deal with the points raised in this primer, then seriously, I urge you to reconsider being a “creative” for a living. I *AM* a “creative” for a living: 100% of the money I make comes from my ability to be creative, so I know from whence I speak. And though my life is far from perfect, when I’m working I make a good living from being one. If you aren’t willing to do these things, and still want to cling to whatever eighteen year old fantasy you have, don’t be surprised when you’re asking if you want fries with that at the age of 34.

Here endeth the lesson. And now, I am off to do the other 9 things I have scheduled to do today.

Time management. It works. Get you some.

And for those of you who are really good at it? What works for you?

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7 Comments

  1. Blackness confirmed. You have soul.

  2. That’s still one of the funniest movies I have ever, ever seen. I’ve seen it *well* over 200 times now and I still laugh until tears roll down my face every single time. i just think if you’re too young, you just don’t *get* it.

  3. Proving once again that we share a brain, I was just reading Colleen Doran’s completely kick-ass series of posts on time management, and writing up my own post on the same.

    http://adistantsoil.com/blog/?p=1484

    I’m one of those creatives who now gets paid to herd other creatives at my day job. And I am not, despite all appearances to the contrary, a detail person, or naturally good at any of it. I had to learn it the really hard and painful way. I’ll post a link when I’m done writing my ‘how I do it’ post.

  4. Obsessed is just a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated.

    Word.

  5. Counter offer for that “I’ll get you jobs from my friends if you’ll do this free for me”: “Pay me now, and I’ll give you a 10%finders fee for each friend you steer my way.”

  6. What I’ve heard most often (and don’t even *remotely* fall for anymore, even a little) is “Oh this neighborhood has SO MANY people looking for designers. If you do my house, EVERYONE will want you to do theirs!

    First of all, why would you want everyone’s house done by the same person? Second of all, this *never* happens. Ever. Ever. Ever. Ever. Ever.

  7. Cheers and applause! That was an excellent lesson, and not just for creatives, either. The rest of us can learn from it, too. I’ve seen tasks for many different types of work completely screwed up because of poor time management, idiotic prioritization, thoughtless “organization,” etc.

    Undercover Brother was lots of fun, and I’m not apologizing for enjoying the shower scene. Nope.


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