Monday, January 20, 2014

Don't Bother Me. I'm Working: How to Live the Creative Life


This month The Focusing Series offers Sustaining YourCreative Practice: Create the Conditions for Creative Ah-has by instructor, Julie Boyer.  She brings to the workshop her expertise as a professional organizer and an artist with a MFA.  I haven't seen her lesson, but I know it will be fantastic.

Having operated my business for over a decade, I can appreciate how much structure one requires to keep all balls in the air.  Anyone can tell you that those operating their own enterprise are generally far busier than those who work for others.  Unlike a 9 to 5 position, your work hours never really stop.  There is always something more that can be done.  And because I don't have employees, I have much to do beyond creating artwork. 

In both my blog and my professional development workshops I define one’s commitment to their art career as time/money/energy.  You need all three and here is how each is invested:

 Time + Energy

·         creating new product and/or offering services

·         promoting yourself through marketing & booking gigs

·         handling administrative duties such as accounting, customer service, researching and purchasing supplies, etc.

Money

·         buying art supplies, office supplies, marketing materials, etc.

·         paying exhibition fees

·         paying for marketing (advertising, packaging, visual presentation supplies, etc.)

·         professional services

Your level of commitment to your art career should match the amount of time/money/energy you invest.

With all that needs to be handled it is easy to allow creativity to fall to the wayside.

I can't stress enough how vital it is for artists to create a consistent schedule for creativity.  Incorporating studio time into your weekly schedule as often as possible reinforces your talent, making it easier to make high-quality work.  It helps you amass a sizable inventory, optimizing your chances for sales...and income. 

We all have obligations beyond our art, so don't beat yourself up if life too often gets in the way.  But it can be argued that more time is wasted than we appreciate.  To figure out where studio time can be found, do the following exercise:

Exercise I: How Do You Spend Your Time?
For two weeks keep track of everything you do in a twenty-four hour period.  Be as specific as possible and don’t fudge the results.

At the end of the two weeks assign each activity to a category (work, family, friends, health, sleep...). List the categories in order from those taking up the most of your time to those taking the least.

Analyze the data.  Is there time that could be put to better use?  Perhaps, for example, instead of 45 hours of television a week, you could designate 30 of those hours to art.

If creativity can't be a part of every day, create a weekly schedule where at least a few “art career” tasks are designated to each day.  And keep yourself accountable with smartphone apps, software, whatever tools work best for you and your “To-Do” lists.

Think Differently.
If you want to be creative, think creatively.  Having-however you want to phrase it-mindfulness, self-awareness or intention is the first step toward living the life you want to live.  When I don't have time to go to my studio, or when I am feeling creatively blocked, I find the following technique very helpful.

Exercise II: Do Something Creative Every Day
Give yourself the challenge of doing something creative every day.  You can easily accomplish this while going through your normal routine.  For example, during your lunch break commit to filling a page in your journal with sketches or writing.  While watching television, surf the internet for ideas, new opportunities for exhibiting your work or research what's happening in the art world (and see what your competition is up to).  Create inspiration boards.  Plan to take a certain amount of photographs with your phone or camera by the end of a day.  As you walk from errand to errand looking for subject matter, you will begin to see the world around you in a whole new way.

Even when I don't look like I'm working, I'm working.  While stretched out on my couch I note inspirational costumes and set designs in various shows and films.  When waiting for an appointment I flip through fashion magazines, making lists and taking photographs on my smartphone of trending patterns, hues, and fabrics.

You'll find integrating creativity into every day trains your mind to imagine.  You teach yourself to value creativity.

Carve out a Studio Space
Not everyone has the luxury of affording a studio, but that doesn't mean you can't designate a space for creativity.  One of my most productive periods was when I used a walk-in kitchen pantry as a studio.

Your studio should be a space where you can get into the creative zone; free from clutter and distractions.  Ideally the space should be marked for the purpose of being a studio and nothing else, though I realize this is not always possible. Make it clear to those around you that your studio time and space must be respected and that you are not to be disturbed.   If you have small children, arrange for them to be cared for while you create. 

I was recently told a beautiful story by a friend from Chile.  When she first came to America and was applying for a Green Card she asked her priest if she might clean the church where she, her aunt and mother attended mass.  The priest told her they already had a cleaning crew.  But she told me every day during the service she noticed how the sculpture of her beloved Virgin Mary was covered in cobwebs. The priest recognized how earnest she was and agreed to have my friend; her mother and aunt clean the church.  She said the first thing she did was lovingly wipe the webs from Mary's face.  She told me cleaning that church was one of the most loving, sacred experiences of her life.  She got to nurture the space, get to know it in a way she never would have had she not cleaned every inch.


We all need sacred spaces.  Your studio is no exception. The act of using your soul, heart, mind and hands to mold a new creation out of raw materials is a sacred act.  Treat it accordingly.  Set aside time to declutter, organize, and for goodness sake, clean!  I can't work in mess.  I get distracted and I find the dust can get into my paint while it is drying.  If you respect your creativity, if you value your output-Clean!

Be Honest with Yourself
As a full-time artist I know it is my responsibility to keep a studio schedule on top of all my duties as the owner of a company.  My clients deserve a steady stream of new inventory to select from.  Not surprisingly when there is a lapse in my studio schedule interest in my brand begins to wane. 

If you are finding other obligations keep getting in the way of your creativity, it may be time to acknowledge your art is more of a hobby than a career.  There is absolutely no shame in this.  I know many artists who intend to become full-time once things alter in the future.  For example, parents who have children still living at home plan creative pursuits once their children are grown.  In the meantime maintaining even a nominal schedule will hone your skills and keep the creative juices flowing.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Avoiding Amateur Hour: How to Protect Your Brand from the Wrong People


The summer before my junior year of college I worked at a movie theater. It was my first true insight into human nature from a commercial perspective. Going to see a film should be one of the most basic experiences of one’s life, but it was amazing how many people found ways to make it complicated. From not being able to locate the bathroom (under the big neon sign that said “Restrooms”) to not knowing what kinds of food we sold (despite the fact it was A) a standard movie theater with standard movie theater fare and B) there were huge signs at the concession stand that included pictures) the customers seemingly went out of their way to make what should have been a mindless excursion as stressful as possible.  

I quickly learned once I was working post-college, especially once I was working as an artist full-time, that this sort of person is everywhere.  And in order to keep on task and stay the course, it is up to you to avoid them whenever possible.  

What do you mean by amateur?                                                                                     
One definition of the word “amateur” is a person who engages in a chosen activity as a pastime (hobby) rather than a profession.  In my work as both an artist and educator (I am the director of a professional develop workshop series for creative entrepreneurs.) I work with hobbyists all the time. Most are lovely people who are happy to share their talent with the world.  It is a joy to interact with them.

I am referring to another definition of the word.  Amateur can also mean “unprofessional and unskillful”. This is the person you need to avoid in every facet of your life. These are the people who quickly become problems for you both personally and professionally.  

 

This post has been a long time coming, a topic I am reminded to write about all too often.  What inspired me to finally post this was an experience I recently had.  The past six months of my life have been about working with amateurs who were offering temporary commercial space for creative entrepreneurs.  More about this in a moment, but the stress of constantly trying to withstand the antics of these individuals was a painful reminder of how discerning you need to be when it comes to who you invite into your life, into your business.  
Who can these amateurs be?  In your personal life they are friends or lovers, coworkers, companies you do business with.  In your business life they are anyone you have the possibility of transacting with, from customers to co-ops, employees to event organizers.

We’ve all had bad romances and crappy friends; poor customer service experiences and psycho bosses, so for the sake of keeping this brief, I want to focus on the effects amateurs have on your career, particularly when you are operating your own company.  You can’t underestimate the potential damage these people can do to your brand.  At the very least they will cause you to waste your precious time, money, and energy.

What do Amateurs do? 
                                                                                                                                                 It is my experience, from over a decade of working as a full-time artist; small business consultant, educator, and creative coach, amateurs do the following:

They don’t value your time and energy. 

This is the bedrock of every issue you’ll have with amateurs.  Whether it is cleaning up after their messes, or following them down various rabbit holes, amateurs function without ever seeming to spare a moment to consider how much they demand of everyone around them.

They have a faulty network.

Amateurs tend to encourage you to work with other amateurs.  They urge you to participate in unwise endeavors. They truly believe these people and these endeavors are beneficial.  It is up to you to turn down these offers.

A friend of mine has such poor judgment in her suggestions about who I need to meet and what I need to do that I have done all I can to distance myself from her networking offers. As friends we now connect in other ways, avoiding these “helpful” attempts.

They can't focus.

The other day an executive director I was meeting with said one of his biggest pet peeves is people who go on and on about how busy they are.  It has been my finding that the people who whine about how busy they are tend to be the ones accomplishing the least.

I have a friend who is perpetually askew in his priorities, constantly misusing his time and attention.  Not surprisingly crucial opportunities are always just out of reach due to misdirected focus and missed deadlines. Yet he is truly perplexed about why he never seems to get ahead.  

They are well versed in finger pointing.

This is probably the one thing amateurs are the most skilled at. Forget accountability. There is absolutely no way these people are going to acknowledge their weaknesses and make any attempt to change.  As far as they are concerned the fault is never theirs.

As a consultant I came up with an idea for one particular small business client.  Why not have a team member do a presentation at each staff meeting, sharing tips about their strongest attributes, so that the rest of the group could learn from them?  

It was amazing how responsive the balanced, professional team members were to this idea.  It was equally amazing how resistive the imbalanced, unprofessional team members were. They argued that they already knew what they were doing.  There was nothing more they needed to learn.  Nothing more to learn? Really?  Shoot me the day I feel I have no room for growth and improvement!  At any rate, due to the few amateurs, the idea was scrapped.

They fail at even the basics.

Much like the bumbling movie goers, amateurs have a talent of bungling even the most routine of tasks.  My recent six month experience working with the company offering temporary workspace was one jaw dropping moment after the next.  The situation at times caused overwhelming anxiety because even the most mundane of details got screwed up. These were “what-ifs” I had not considered because they were honestly as rudimentary as switching on the lights.  For example after waiting over a month for my rent check to be deposited, I finally contacted the business owners (who never bothered to be in touch with me or their other tenants).  Instead of apologizing for the oversight I received an email lambasting me for pointing out their lapse in processing my payment, (emails pointing the finger were a particular favorite of this company).  They excused their lack of handling the details of operating the business as “human error”.  Trust me, from what I have witnessed from working with these amateurs, Human Error could be their company slogan.

They don't appreciate.

Much like the finger pointing, you should expect ingratitude from amateurs. I find thank yous are not forthcoming.  Because they believe there in no fallacy on their part, no room for improvement, they feel you should be grateful to them, not the other way around.  

Why do I need to avoid amateurs?

I’ll keep this short and simple.  You need to avoid involving amateurs in your business because they will mar your brand. Whether it is an unprofessional employee, an unpredictable client, or an unreliable partnership (anything collaborative: a business partner, business associations or co-ops, fusion marketing, organized exhibitions and events. etc.) aligning your brand with the wrong people, group, or activities damages your hard-earned credibility.

How can I protect myself?

We all make mistakes that we can learn from.  And there are people who are gifted at pulling the wool over your eyes.  When I met with the owner of the company who was offering temporary workspace, he had me completely fooled.  It took a couple of weeks before I realized I had been sold a whole lot of air.

In this particular case, as I figured out the truth I adjusted to the circumstances.  Call it damage control, but I was keen to do all I could to distance my brand while lowering my expectations. I decided to make lemonade with the lemons. I kept up my end of the bargain by marketing for their company and working the hours I had promised. But I also made it a point to win customers with the high-quality experience one can expect from me rather than the disappointment one would experience with them. The consistency and strength of my product, presentation, and professionalism superseded their business approach.  As a result, I engaged new loyal customers who will follow me as I go on to better things.

Make sure you know what your brand is about.  Who are you?  What is your mission?  What do you offer? Who is your audience?  The surer you are about what your brand is and is not, the less likely you are going to end up dealing with amateurs.  For example, I get countless offers to participate in this project or that art show.  Because I know what my brand needs for progress, I know which types of opportunities are beneficial and which ones I need to turn down.

The same goes for people.  My time and energy is valuable to me, so I am wary whenever someone approaches me.  Potential clients or customers who send a few too many emails, make a few too many calls, ask questions they could readily find the answers to on their own...these are the ones who raise a red flag.  It is also my experience that people who feel the need to share too much information, most of which is irrelevant to the transaction that is taking place, are trying to take advantage of you in some way, even if it is just to have you hold their hand.  People who have no consideration for your time, energy and other obligations are not going to pay off in the long run.  I handle these people by letting them know politely, but quickly, that they have everything they need to make a decision (whether it is to purchase artwork or sign up for a workshop) once I have provided all the necessary information.  I then ask them to contact me when they know how they want to proceed.  You will find this an effective way not to burn bridges, in case a person does indeed prove to be a viable investment of your attention, while empowering them to take control of their own life.

It is okay to stop having contact with amateurs.  For example, I had a student a couple of years ago who wanted email after email, phone call after phone call to handle the simple registration process for my professional development workshops.  Even after she would sign up and be provided a confirmation that included the date and time of the workshop, and the location, she would contact me repeatedly to get that information.  While attending classes she was a distraction to other students, staring at her phone and text messaging during the lesson (Again, because amateurs do not value one’s time, energy or money she was disrespectful to me while she ignored my presentation, and she was disrespectful to the other students attending the class.).  Eventually I told her she required too much.  I removed her from my database; therefore she was no longer notified of upcoming workshops. Losing her as a student was a winning situation not just for me, but for everyone involved in the program.

Another example.  When I was managing a fitness studio I got a phone call from a relatively new client requesting a refund for a fitness package she had purchased.  It turned out she and her husband had been picking up their instructor (they knew her prior to joining our club) from her home and driving her to the studio to train them. On a recent day the instructor forgot her studio key and asked the couple to drive her back home so she could retrieve it.  Up until this phone call I had no idea this was going on.  I assured the woman it was not our company policy to have clients play chauffeur for our staff. Understandably, the circumstances had become so uncomfortable the couple wanted to move on. None of my solutions appealed to her.  As far as she was concerned the damage was done. The instructor had tarnished our brand and lost our money due to her amateurish behavior. Because of this she was fired.

Am I coming across as an amateur?

At one point all of us were amateurs, either due to immaturity, lack of experience, or ignorance.  We have to begin somewhere.  I cringe when I look back on the way I handled life choices in both the personal and professional realms.  We can get away with being amateurs for only so long. It is up to us how much we want to invest in growth, maturity, improvement and development.

Even if you are just starting out, there are some key practices that will separate you from the amateurs.  Making these choices can serve to help you by attracting positive attention and opening up doors to opportunities.

 

·         Be considerate

Acknowledge others when they gift you their time and energy.  Before approaching people, decide what you specifically need.  Make it easy-and a pleasure-to help you.

 

·         Be focused

Determine what you want to do and what you can accomplish on your own.  Only seek help once you have singled out where partners, mentors and investors are needed to help your plan succeed.

 

  • Be appreciative

Thank people for their willingness to come alongside you, whether it is a customer who purchased from you or an organization that put together a well-managed event you participated in.  Spread gratitude!

 

  • Cross your “t”s. Dot your “i”s.                                                                                  

Most companies ask potential employees to have a “keen attention to detail”.  Do what you need to do to be a detail-oriented, organized individual.  Use Smart Phone apps, make TO-DO lists.  Whatever method works-learn how to run a tight ship.

 

  • Follow the rules.   

We were all supposed to learn how to follow the rules by the time we left kindergarten. Unfortunately many of us forgot this important element of making life livable not just for ourselves but for everyone who has to interact with us.  If an organization hosting an event asks you-the vendor-to arrive by a certain time for pre-show set-up, show up in their requested time frame.  If a group asks you bring three particular items to a meeting, bring the three particular items.  It goes back to the idea of making it a pleasure to work with you.

 

  • Stop talking about it.                                                                                                    

Much like the person who whines about how busy they are while not actually accomplishing much of anything, I find people who go on and on about what they do tend to be the most amateurish in the bunch.  Maybe it is a form of overcompensation but trust me, your chatter isn’t fooling anybody.  Close your mouth and harness your efforts into taking action and actually doing something. Let your work speak for itself.

 

  • Separate the professional from the personal.                                                  

During the holiday season I had a booth at a weekend art show where I and everyone else involved (the customers, the other vendors, the show managers) got to watch one of the artists make out with her husband. Why she felt this was the appropriate time and place I have no idea. It certainly didn’t do anything for her brand to behave so unprofessionally. 

 

Unless you operate a family-run business, or your partner collaborates with you on your commercial endeavors he/she has no place when it comes to marketing your brand.  Your private life should not play a role in your professional life.  It astounds me how many people lose sight of this.  The other day I visited a brand new, high-end café in my neighborhood.  After overpaying for over-extracted coffee I watched as a group of people came in off the street and was immediately invited to go behind the counter to play with the café equipment.  At first I wondered (or rather, hoped) that these were journalists writing an article about this new business.  Unfortunately it became clear these were buddies of the owner.  By having this private exchange occur during operating hours the business lost the facade of being an upscale café; the precarious beginning of building their brand was already weakened.

        

Remember, it is up to you to present your brand in the best light possible-your personal brand and your company brand. It is up to you to project the message you want people to gain when doing business with you (or dating you, or befriending you…).  Decide that the time is now to take your game to the next level and ditch amateur hour.  You’ll be pleased with the results.