When it comes to building an independent creative career, there’s no real guidebook for making things work. Most lessons are learned as you go, with failure and success both taken in stride.
Even though a trial and error approach to a career can be intimidating, most who go down this path accept the challenges that come with it. It’s just, well, part of it. But what if you could skip some of that uncertainty? What if you could learn from the people who’ve been there before, who have the advantage of hindsight?
The good news: You can.
I asked a handful of writers, designers, and artists their number one lesson from having and observing creative careers. Here’s what they had to say.
What They Wish They Knew
Let Your Choices Surprise People
“You don’t have to do the work that is expected of you or follow a straight path - staying true to yourself, your interests, and your tastes will always be the best path forward. Let your work and your choices surprise people.” - Breanne Thomas, Writer and Filmmaker
Don’t Be a Perfectionist
“Done is a myth and perfectionism will kill you. Learn when ‘good enough’ is good enough - because nobody will ever connect as closely to your work as you will.” - Rob Christianson, Creative Director
Just Keep Showing Up
“I think when starting a career or working on some kind of craft it’s easy to underestimate how important dedication and just showing up week after week is. The really successful people I’ve been lucky enough to observe close up are people who show up everyday and put the work in. Talent helps for sure but dedication and consistency is essential to really master something.” - Richard Laing, Community Director at Big Cartel
Build Your Own Stuff
“Nearly every creative will build a portfolio of projects that are doomed or never saw the light of day. That’s just the nature of consulting - you can’t save clients from themselves (and trying to do so is a recipe for mega burnout). The best way to get ahead and stay sane is to build and ship your own side projects with nothing but your own judgment and skill as a limiter.” - Amy Hoy, Consultant and Entrepreneur
Associate With Success
“Always seek out, work with, and choose clients who are doing well. The more successful clients you can work with, the more your name and your work is associated with success. And the more traction, growth, and publicity they get, the more that same light can shine back on you.” - Paul Jarvis, Web Designer
Pursue Meaningful Work
“Your successes and failures don’t define your work, so don’t let the past decide your future. When you find something meaningful to you, pursue it at all costs.” - Andy Newman, Community at Big Cartel
“There’s an app or YouTube video for any question you have. As long as you’re willing to learn and be resourceful, you can tackle any problem or question that comes along.” - Danny O’Brien, Educator
Try Things and Be Mindful of Pitfalls
“Diversify influences early on regardless of what you are working on (music, fashion, photography, etc.) and be sure to try every tool once. Also remember that alcohol kills skill development and you can make your own luck by doing projects that mean something to you with no agenda.” - Luke Beard, Creative Director
You Define Your Success
“I definitely fall into assuming that everyone else is wildly successful: that their creative thing is supporting them financially, that any recognition they get comes easy, and that in comparison I’m woefully behind. I wish I’d known from the beginning that a lot of people who look put together are also figuring things out, and that there are all sorts of ways to be successful in your creative pursuits.” - Sarah Anderson, Community at Big Cartel and Owner of City of Industry
It’s OK to Sell With Personality
“People hire just as much for personality as they hire for results - being the niched-down copywriter who’s actually fun to get on a call with would help me win and retain clients! Making up for lost time now by trying to ensure every single client call is fun and focused.” - Lianna Patch, Copywriter
Don’t Be a Doormat
“I eventually learned I am nobody’s doormat. Don’t let clients walk all over you.” - Michael Janowski, Writer
Your Process is Your Own
“I just had that realization recently: I’ve had “a process” for years, but I didn’t recognize it as such because it didn’t look like how I thought a creative process was supposed to look.” - Vanessa Wardy, Community at Big Cartel
Be Proud of Your Work
“When presenting options to a client, don’t be afraid to act EXTREMELY STOKED on the option you are EXTREMELY STOKED on. It’s OK to be proud of your work and confident in your skills.” - Rob Dobi, Illustrator
Charge What You’re Worth
“Don’t be afraid to talk about money and to ask for what you’re worth. Your rates should increase alongside your skills, experience, and results produced for clients.” - Daniel Nesbit, Graphic Designer
Learn From Those Who’ve Been There
These tips from veteran creatives who are well into their careers are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to lessons learned, but I hope they’ll help save you from having to learn a few key lessons the hard way.
Want more insights into lessons learned? Check out these posts:
- Lessons Learned With Longlive the Swarm
- Lessons From a New Medium
- Lessons From Running a Passion Project
Kaleigh Moore is a freelance writer specializing in ecommerce and software. She also writes for publications like Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur, and HuffPost.