There’s a familiar sensation most creatives feel at the start of a new project.
It’s a mix of excitement tinged with fear. A writer stares at a blank page, a maker contemplates how to throw their next pot, and a cinematographer plots out their next film. Unfortunately, your last piece of work won’t help you, and nothing can be created without action.
This is why it’s critical to have an ‘activation mentality’ to create your work by any means necessary. For visual artist and photographer Delphine Diallo who launched a personal project, Women of New York (WONY), and plans to turn it into a book, an activation mentality looks like this: “I’m not going to wait for someone to reach out to me if I feel they’re aligned with my vision. Instead of keeping an idea in my head, I’m just going to do it. I don’t need permission.”
Sometimes, creatives don’t even realize when or how they’re counting themselves out. Like when a photographer decides not to apply for a portfolio review, a writer misses the deadline for a residency, or a maker doesn’t pitch her wares to a retailer or publication (because who’s keeping track anyway). But by doing (or not doing) this, they’ve closed themselves off to potential opportunities.
Creatives of all stripes can benefit from employing an activation mentality in their pursuits. I chatted with Delphine Diallo about her process of bringing WONY to life, and her top three tips to spur your own activation mentality.
Create a Plan and Act
As an artist, you have your own concept and vision for what you create. However, you can’t wait for supporters to join your vision. You must be ahead of them and show them your vision. Delphine does this through photography. WONY inspires girls and women to picture themselves as part of a rising tide. It also seeks to break accepted archetypes of beauty that are ascribed to women.
When she made enough images to solicit sponsors and funders, Delphine knew she’d need a professional WONY presentation deck to secure commitments. “People need something tangible to understand how they can help,” she says. “My strategy is to focus on people who are aligned with my vision and won’t waste my time.”
She didn’t know who she’d enlist for the job, but the universe has a way of working in your favor when you take action. While attending a dinner, Delphine chatted with someone from a creative agency and told them about her project. At the end of their conversation, she asked if they’d be willing to create her presentation deck. The next day, she followed up and sent them more details and images from the project.
The creative agency believed in Delphine’s project enough to create the presentation deck pro bono, and Delphine gifted them one of her prints. “The exchange doesn’t have to be monetary, but it must be meaningful,” she adds.
IDEO’s Tom and David Kelley call this a “Do Something” mindset. “People with creative confidence are not passive observers. They live in the active voice. They write the scripts of their own lives, and in doing so, they have greater impact on the world around them.”
Delphine also recommends replying to time-sensitive emails or inquiries right away. “If you already know you’re interested in an opportunity or it’s in line with your vision, why wait?”
View Rejection Differently
On the road to chasing your vision, rejection is part of the game. To move ahead, you have to see rejection for what it really is: a myth. Jack Canfield, author of The Success Principles, views rejection differently and says, “The reality is, you lose nothing by asking; all you have is something to potentially gain.”
Delphine wholeheartedly agrees. “I believe the people who say no to me are not on my path and don’t match my vision. It’s not rejection, but a long journey of people not understanding me,” she says. Other times, people are busy. “I know it’s a matter of giving them space. The fact that I’m trying my best to bring WONY to the world keeps me focused.”
It’s important to remember that it’s never personal. If a brand or publication or gallery rejects your pitch or application, they’re not saying, “I don’t like you.” They’re saying, “This isn’t a fit for us right now.” There’s a difference. Knowing this keeps you focused on the work - it only takes one yes, but it may take a hundred tries to get there.
The most important thing is to develop your work with others who value you and your work. Luckily, the world is huge and opportunities abound.
Build Your Creative Tribe
Building a tribe is crucial to your success as an independent artist. Because, when you’re in activation mode or launching a new project, your creative tribe will have your back. “NASA, the United Nations, MIT, and other institutional networks don’t apologize if they need help - they just ask between themselves. It’s time for us to build our own creative communities,” says Delphine.
New York is Delphine’s primary platform for WONY. She’s been raising funds for WONY while finding unique ways to build her tribe. She recently hosted a DJ MOMA party in her Bushwick neighborhood, and 300 people came out. She’s also planning panels and an intimate dinner for 20 people to nurture and grow her creative family.
“I’m truly grateful that people are understanding my work and vision at this moment, and not when I’m gone,” says Delphine.
The best thing about an activation mentality is that it’s available to us all, but only if we use it.
First, create a plan and take action, whether it’s sending an email, making a cold call, or starting a conversation. Putting yourself out there invites rejection, but remember to reframe it as opening yourself up to more potential opportunities. Finally, even if you have thick skin, you still need a trusted tribe who will encourage you when you’re down, and root for your projects and endeavors like their own.
To see more of WONY and support the project, follow Delphine Diallo on Instagram.
Jacqueline Lara helps entrepreneurs and artists share their stories and art. She creates content at Color Wheel Media and is a contributing arts and culture writer for 99U, i-D Magazine, and OkayAfrica. You can follow her on Twitter.