This last year made a lot of people I know reevaluate their jobs. There seems to be this collective urge to actually enjoy some of the 40-50 hours a week we spent at work. Many were laid off, many had to quit or scale back to be with kids when they weren’t in school, and for some more privileged it’s just an existential shift. I’ve had this massive influx of people asking me lately about how to get started in a creative career. Five years ago I wrote the below post based on a couple of keynote speaking engagements that I had just given and after rereading it I figured with some updates it’s actually still very applicable. So if you are toying with starting a creative career, if you secretly really want to take the risk but you are scared or you are having trouble pulling the trigger, this post could be helpful.
Now I’m not a professional motivational speaker; furthermore, I’m actually someone who has made 1 million mistakes in my business, but as far as putting myself out there? I did that and I continue to do that which I think is one of the reasons for the success of my company.
But those of you who are hesitant are certainly not alone. I find this especially among my generation. Millennials are much more entrepreneurial and confident than those of us who went to college in the 90s likely because we were raised pre-internet and didn’t see firsthand how you could actually make a living being an artist. What I see most in people that aren’t fulfilled creatively or career-wise is the inability to pull the creative career trigger – to put themselves, their service, or their product out into the world. This inability holds them back, keeps them unfulfilled, and deprives them of much-needed creative expression. And it’s such a cycle – the longer you wait, the less confidence you have, right? Because you see all these other people starting all over the place and you think, gah, I’ll never catch up!! It’s sucks, I get it. But why?
My theory is that this lack of “starting” is attributed to two stupid things: perfectionism and fear.
Perfectionism is a dangerous demon, and trying to capture it in any facet of your life (career, relationship, or even design of your new English cottage kitchen, for instance) is a fool’s errand that will cause you so much stress, make you less happy and no matter how hard you try, you will still fail to be perfect. So stop trying!!! Sure, I believe in being detail-oriented and having a high level of quality in both styling/photography and my design work. However, as everyone who works for me or knows me knows, I’m truly not a perfectionist and I think this is one of the keys to creative success – especially in the digital age. I believe producing something good is more important than perfecting something ’til death. I know that it’s hard if you ARE a perfectionist, and I’m not a psychologist but it seems to me that perfectionism was touted as some sort of good quality – like being a workaholic – so many people identify with it (by the way it is an actual disorder for some people) but ask yourself if you are truly a perfectionist or is it just an excuse because you are scared.
What I hear the most is that someone’s product or service isn’t quite ready to be put out there. Maybe it’s that their font isn’t flushed out on their site yet, or their portfolio isn’t robust enough, or perhaps their product needs a few tweaks. But this tweaking/obsessing/flushing out process can go on for years. YEARS of you not starting and therefore not feeling fulfilled.
Fear Is Even Worse.
I get it. I’m held hostage way more by fear than perfectionism. I’ve told you over and over that there are some posts of which I’m terrified to push publish. Fear of criticism, backlash, or negativity is something I still battle a bit on personal posts and I have to really force myself to be brave and power through (luckily most of you are really nice).
But I see what fear does to people – it totally paralyzes them and stops them before they ever start. Just remind yourself what I tell myself all the time – the worst thing that can happen is you fail, and failure doesn’t actually kill anybody. No one will die if I blow this speaking engagement. No one will die if I reveal a project that I, too, fear is sub-par. No one will die if I start a design series for the blog that you guys all think is insane. I’ll simply adjust and move on. In the digital era, people forget so much faster than they used to and I promise you, you have many chances at a first impression.
So here’s my advice to “getting started”:
1. Focus On QUANTITY Over Quality For A While.
This is KEY and opposite of what we have always been told. When I started the blog it looked like this.
It was barely above average at best and I knew it but I had put off starting the blog for over a year at that point and one day I just needed to push publish (I have hasty little sausage fingers that often just press send when my brain is busy trying to deal with fear – thank god my fingers are much smarter than my brain). The inspirational photos were pretty but not perfect, the copy was personable but not even that professional, and the site itself was absolutely mediocre at best. I had built it by myself on Blogspot with zero photoshopping skills and a serious frustration towards choosing fonts (which I still have – I’m strangely bad at 2-dimensional design).
But I started.
Sure, this was in a time when there weren’t that many blogs and the content was mostly inspirational photos scanned from magazines or DIY projects with bad cameras and even worse lighting. As I started to create content in my home I didn’t obsess on perfection either and instead created cute vignettes that had personality and partnered with up-and-coming photographers who needed to practice their craft, too, to shoot random stuff in my house. This is how I created a portfolio and a blog and while neither were perfect, I did it. I started.
2. Create A Website With Your Company’s Name That Says “Coming Soon!”
Add your contact/social media handle – then get on social media instead while you “tweak” your site (you could tweak your site for a year, meanwhile “not starting”). It’s so easy. People accept a “coming soon” website for months, I promise.
3. Start Posting On Social
If you want to be a potter but are intimidated by creating so much social media content or Instagrams every day then simply find photos of pottery that inspire you and post them, obviously crediting the artist. Say something like “So inspired by @BenMendansky’s work – I love how graphic his mugs are and it’s making me get back into the studio this morning. Just add coffee.” Then tag him (which will get his attention). You don’t have to create all your own original social media, you just need to CREATE SOMETHING and then remind people that you, too, are creating something. Pretty photos = likes, and likes = more followers. I used to only put original photography on social media but since I’ve been promoting other people’s work I’ve seen a huge amount of success as they feel flattered and followers love the inspiration. (2021 update: I’m currently on the fence about posting a lot of other people’s work that work in your field as many people don’t read the captions so they can easily just think it’s yours. However, it’s more important to create the account which allows people to tag you. So many times I’ll be at a store and see something that I love and want to tag it, knowing that my follower count is super high and could definitely lead to them having more business, so when they don’t even have an account I get so bummed for them). Put their work on insta-story and tag them there – it’s a more appropriate place to show who inspires you and looks less like YOUR portfolio.
4. Use Your Facebook/Instagram Friends As Your Focus Group.
These are people who probably care about you and want you to succeed so ask their opinion so they will help you promote and might give you the feedback/encouragement you need.
Over the weekend I was talking to Maxwell (founder of Apartment Therapy), Justina (Jungalow), and Jaymie Derringer (founder of DesignMilk) and all of us chatted about our lack of perfectionism and our instinct to just “create and present” rather than “create and obsess.” I was glad it wasn’t just me – they absolutely ditto’d this theory. Done is better than perfect.
What Happens When You Finally Start? These Four Things:
1. You practice your craft and get better. For me, it was writing, styling, and posting to social media. I had a moderately distinct voice when I started but I’ve certainly honed in on it over the years by writing every. single. day. Like an athlete with a muscle, just exercising guarantees progress if not success. You have to practice your art whether it’s making pottery, interior design, writing, etc and by putting it out there you are forced to practice again and again and again and every day you’ll get better and better.
2. You receive feedback. The internet is one big free focus group – AT YOUR FINGERTIPS!! Companies used to (and some still do) pay so much money to show a product to a group of randomly selected people to get their arbitrary base thoughts. Now you can ask your friends/followers on social media and you will know how people feel about your product immediately. Yes, this is terrifying. One time somebody told me that my designs looked like a child had smeared shit all over their walls. He apparently really, really didn’t like my work and my decorating style apparently angered him A LOT. But most of the time that feedback is absolutely helpful. A few years ago I was getting a lot of feedback that my work was starting to look all the same and as I looked at it, like an objective reader I realized they were right and I started to diversify. If you want faster results and more engagement then ask a question. You can say something like “Excited to finally start showing off my work, but I need feedback – should this mantel have more personality or is it already full enough?” Or if you are a maker you could say, “Thinking about opening an Etsy store (coming soon!) and wondering what price point you would spend on one of my hand-thrown pots?” If you don’t have a social following then ask your Facebook friends. If you aren’t on FB, then get on Facebook (and Instagram).
You don’t need to make a huge announcement that is like “HEY WORLD, I’M NOW GOING TO CALL MYSELF AN ARTIST AND HERE ARE 147 PAINTINGS FOR YOU TO PURCHASE.” No. Baby steps are good! Create one product or publish one project, and ask for feedback – honestly, this will probably make you feel really good. As you get feedback you can tweak your product or service and make it better. Maybe everyone overwhelmingly says that things feel too busy, or that you need more color – then you know what the market is feeling and if you want to listen (p.s. you should) then you will probably create a product that will be more successful.
3. The third thing that could happen if you put your work out there is that you just. might. succeed. No one can buy a product they don’t know exists and no one will hire you for a skill that they don’t know you have. What if you start creating, putting it out there and it turns into your dream job?!
You simply won’t know until you start.
That’s my Monday morning wanna-be-Ted-talk for you. Maybe an Em-talk? Charlie just slapped me (deservedly) for writing that – he’s very sensitive to self-righteous know-it-all advice-givers. But here’s the part where I encourage you to START and I selfishly want to be part of the process. So if this motivates you at all, please post on social and tag me in your project/art/creation by using this hashtag #EHDjuststart.
Our web-based world is always ready for more makers, creators, and artists. And with the internet being such an easy and accessible platform for all services and products, you, my friends are in the perfect time/era to put away that “How to obsess over everything and make sure it’s perfect” self-help book and instead, JUST START.