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When Their Present Shades Your Past: When You Should Abandon Your Work

Clarke Condé - Pyragraph
Photo by Ted Eytan.

Sometimes I think about Lisa Bonet, but not like I used to. She was the beautiful young star of a groundbreaking television show for years. Now, because of her costar’s actions, her work takes on a different tone and her once-beloved TV show is rarely shown on television. Who would have ever thought it would suck to be a Cosby kid?

You may know plenty about the scandal that brought down your former boss.

What do you say about your work when the people you worked for become odious, or your successors run the beautiful thing you created straight into the ground? What do you do when their present shades your past? If you do creative work, especially project-based work, it is bound to become a problem at some point during your career.

It seems I’ve had more than my fair share of my work tainted after I was gone either by new editors that threw a publication in the trash, or companies (or worse yet, politicians) that publicly disgraced themselves, and with that, the good work that I did for them. It can be tricky for anybody to explain their previous work to potential new clients when this happens, but here are few ways I’ve learned over the years about how to deal with this scenario.

Skip It

Just like nobody wants to hear that when you grew up in Detroit it was nice, or that when you worked at Enron everything seemed fine, nobody wants to hear that the boss’s cousin fucked up the website you built after you left. Nobody. If the public perception is that the place where you worked is horrible, the simplest thing is to avoid the topic altogether whenever possible.

It sucks to basically abandon work that you have done, but consider the alternative—do you really want to spend time with a potential client talking about your work that is good, or talking about their work that is bad? I have found the best thing to do is to craft one sentence that explains your view of the situation succinctly and then try not to mention it at all. Remember, you are trying to explain your work, not defend someone else’s.

Focus on the Work

If you can separate your work from the greater (or rather, lesser) picture, do it. I’m not suggesting that you lie about the whens and wheres of your work, but that you focus your potential client on the actual work you did, rather than the current context of the people you worked for. The key is to reformat what you can to downplay the negative aspects beyond your control. If there is a way to leave out logos, names or other identifiers related to the neo-losers you are trying to downplay, do it.

Also keep in mind, while you may know plenty about the scandal that brought down your former boss, or the publisher’s mistress that took over your former magazine and started running pictures of her cat on the cover, your potential client may not even know (or care) anything about it. Even if they do, odds are they don’t know the details or they forgot them if they did. Again, focus on showing them your actual work and don’t remind them.


The single best thing you can do in this situation is to make new work. This has the advantage of not only creating work unspoiled by others, but also of being potentially better than your previous work. If you did it before, you can probably do it again. Probably better.

It is also worth being mindful as you enter a new work situation of any warning signs that things might go sour after you leave. When I think back, I could tell some clients were destined to fuck up in the future and some were a complete surprise. My advice is to trust your instincts, protect your work and don’t be afraid to walk away from a potential client you think might give your work a stink in the future.

Finally, as always, my best advice for any situation—quit your bitching and get back to work.

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