“I just want to do the creative work.” If you find yourself saying this, then please think again. It’s a sign you might have just gotten in the way of your creative success and built a fortress around you. It’s one of the most common things I hear from clients, but the process of learning the disciplines of business is the process of the creative journey itself.
Wanting to do only the “creative work” is like wanting to have a baby, but not wanting to deal with the throw-up or poopy part, or deal with the baby when it cries endlessly for a number of unexplained reasons, or care for it because it is ill. You simply have no choice. It’s called parenting. It’s the same in having your own business, there is no choice if you want to see it grow tall and strong and be healthy.
Most of us face disciplines at some point that are often uncomfortable, whether we work at home or in a designated space. I’m really referring to the discipline to focus on any part of the project or business that we don’t want to.
The struggle and realities of facing real issues like keeping the books in order, building a business plan or putting in the time to understand the processes — all the while being our best creative selves — is somewhat counterintuitive and demands attention (just like the baby).
When building a business, there are a few key steps that get in the way of most creative people and I’ve hit all those walls along various stages of my journey. I expect I’ll hit more. With practice, however, those walls get easier to climb.
How do we face a large hurdle if we don’t believe we can learn new things because it doesn’t interest us? It isn’t easy. My son is currently learning fractions and algebra — this is a comparative torture to me because I have the mindset of a dumbstruck school child when confronted with his math homework. I have to spend some time working on this. (I was terrible at math at school until they let us use calculators — it has come back to haunt me.)
When I started my first business I didn’t know a gross margin from a gross mistake. It took lessons and sage advice to understand fundamental business strategies essential to making a living, such as learning smart manufacturing techniques in design.
Other enlightening and rather daunting tasks also had to be learned, most importantly: A business plan was not an automatic menu for success, but a map towards helping me focus on the goal of what I wanted. I also learned it was a shape-shifter; an abstract and tricky tool that relied on the user and was not always friendly (although it always made sense when I was writing it).
Within it all I had to learn the process of things I didn’t want to: inventory, payroll, taxes, management, budgets, cash flow reports and computer programs like QuickBooks, Excel and Word, communication skills, marketing, press releases, product pricing and margins, licensing, negotiations, contracts and of course mandatory office cleanings and filing.
I realized that without these basic skills, I was going to be really reliant on others — but others didn’t own my business, I did. I wanted to learn to drive the tractor (not forever, but for as long as it took to learn) so at the very least I knew what the job entailed, and how to use the information it gave me so that I could improve and grow.
Therein lay the responsibility to myself to be on top of my game and to be honest about my weaknesses and shortfalls and the things I didn’t understand, so that I could reevaluate my knowledge and get the right help and advice when I needed it.
I’d spent my childhood hearing how talented I was, but these turned out to be empty words when it came to helping me be a business person. Understanding my vulnerabilities helps focus the inspiration to find the discipline to learn what I need to be better at.
My brother Mark, a record producer with a recording studio in Glasgow, caught up with me the other day — we talked about our struggles through the journey of these parts of our business lives. He reminded me of the Sufi saying, “A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step,” and how he uses this in times of facing (or avoiding) any difficult task.
When a task is so daunting because our creative selves are looking to avoid anything that might involve uncreative tasks, our minds form an underlying dread of discipline and organization and we become frozen to the point of not dealing with it. It’s a rabbit hole we can easily all fall into and it can be hard to climb out of.
Mark told me that on the day we spoke, he had specifically put on socks and shoes while working at home. It made him feel more organized and capable than doing it in his old sandals and helped him focus on the task he was working on that he really didn’t want to do. Whatever it takes, we have to find tricks along the way to help us through what could be mundane and torturous tasks.
Years ago, when I first faced this harsh reality of self-employment and its ebb and flow, I decided to teach myself some basic organizational skills. There were many things I needed to understand so that I could have a foundation to build my work and creative life. Computers where a thing of the future.
When I was learning touch typing, I pretended I was learning the piano. It made sense to me then and I found I could type much faster without looking at the keys — this resulted in learning to type as fast as I thought which has been a great tool. Similarly, the only way I could find interest in bookkeeping in those earlier times was to treat it like a crossword puzzle that I was determined to finish.
I had to throw myself into the process as a creative task so that I could enjoy it and understand the results. Each element I learned stuck like glue and led me through to the next place. Now I actually enjoy the financial processes and understanding P&Ls so that I can see problems happening in real time, which allows me to work on fixing them.
Artist Warning: “Real-life business skill sets are vital to your health.” It’s a hard truth for us who like to think the creative part of our work is the most important part, and who prefer to compose images or record music or make beautiful things, rather than prepare, strategize and map our business plan for the next five or 10 years.
So the process of learning seems the most poignant of all on the road to building a successful creative business, in any area. And hopefully, we don’t get stuck in the comfort zone of standing still and believing our friends and family when they tell us how much potential we have or how talented we are, where we are afraid to reach out beyond the safety of our own worlds.
In times when the phone rings less, the emails slow down or you have just finished a project and have a break between the next, don’t sit around panicking about the slump. While you prepare for the next project or update your portfolio, get that learning hat on. It is challenging, it’s fun and I bet you’ll be quite surprised at yourself.
It’s one thing to be able to design great art, write great songs or have a great idea, but without the knowledge of how to follow through and implement a process, it’s a pretty limiting talent. Improving business skills is a vital tool for improving the quality of our work productivity and our creativity.
“I just want to do the creative work” will never sound quite the same again once you start this journey. Then you see it’s not about that great idea, or being focused only on the creative output, but about the process of getting there, that every step of your journey has led you to a better and smarter place. It’s the foundation for a successful future in whatever creative endeavor we take.
Photo by Nicola Freegard.