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38 Things I’ve Learned as a Creative Professional

Updated: Jun 26

Learning and growth go hand in hand in our creative work and in our development as creative professionals. Looking back over my career of 38 years and counting, I’ve gained a lot of wisdom and grown in ways that I wouldn’t have anticipated. I’ve learned a lot through my work experiences, about what works for me, how I want to connect with others through my work and what’s important to pay attention to. 

Here’s 38 things I’ve learned as a creative professional:

Things  I’ve learned to pay attention to as a creative professional:

ONE - My presence. Our presence matters - meaning the energy, attentiveness and mindset we bring to situations, tasks and interactions. These things have a huge impact on ourselves and others. For example, we can bring a nervous, chaotic, high, low, measured or fun energy to our work. We can bring a big picture or detail oriented, people oriented or experience oriented focus and attention. We can bring a positive, negative or open mindset. The presence we bring to situations, tasks and interactions  impacts our experience and the experiences of others moment-to-moment and day-to-day.  Over the years I’ve had lots of opportunities to observe and experience the  impact of the presence of others - my bosses, colleagues, collaborators, mentors and peers.  And over time I’ve become more aware and mindful of the energy, attentiveness and mindset I bring. I’ve seen how the presence we bring can contribute to ourselves and others feeling valued and empowered and create a positive and enjoyable experience. I’ve also had many experiences, as I’m sure that you have, where someone’s presence has the opposite, even damaging effect. The energy gets sucked out of the moment, the situation becomes stressful, people feel dismissed, unappreciated or resentful. Our presence matters as leaders, as collaborators, as colleagues, as peers. It matters in meetings, in communications, on social media and also in our solitary, independent work as artists and creatives. 

TWO - My pace. Our pace of work can vary and that’s ok. When we’re focused on building a creative practice or business, it's easy to get caught up in maintaining a constant hustle mode, trying to work quickly and efficiently or cramming too much work into our days. For many years, I prided myself on working at this kind of pace. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate that sometimes slower is better. I can achieve better results or create a better experience for myself and others if I take my time. I am working on more consciously choosing the pace I want to work at and that best serves what I want to achieve.

THREE- My work environment. It has a huge impact on my productivity and creativity. I learned early on in my working life that I need to work in an organized space with colour, artwork and plants. These days working from home I choose specific areas of my home to work on specific types of work to support my focus and creativity. I often choose to work outdoors if the task and the weather permits. I find myself paying more attention to and appreciating details big and small in my work environment. It’s not just me who’s learned this. There is a lot of recent science to support this. 

FOUR - My connections and sense of connection. I am an introvert who enjoys working independently.  But over the course of my career I’ve learned the importance of building and maintaining meaningful connections. I’ve come to appreciate that my professional connections and relationships provide me with a sense of belonging, inspiration as well as many opportunities and professional friendships. Having a greater sense of personal connection through my work, building and maintaining connections in the creative community at large has become one of my top priorities and Big Rocks!

Things I’ve learned about making time and space to do creative work:

FIVE - If we aren’t setting time aside consciously, we leave our time up for grabs and get left with scraps of time to do our creative work or not doing it altogether. 

SIX - Having routines around doing my creative work is key. I have daily routines, weekly and monthly routines that support the time and space I need to do different aspects of my work. Personally, I’ve come to love creating routines around my worklife. It has become part of how I  live my life as a creative.

SEVEN - Many parts of our work take longer than we think or plan for. (Confession: I still fall into this trap sometimes!) Underestimating time to do our work and the space we need to give ourselves can be really detrimental to the quality of our work, confidence and mindset. I find myself working with clients at all stages of creative careers to help them become more aware of and realistic about how much time and space they truly need. And I continue to work on it for myself as well!

EIGHT - Conversely, some parts of our work take way less time than we anticipate. 

NINE- I need time and space for exploration, play, experimentation, planning and connecting with other creatives and audiences - not checking off tasks. I didn’t always appreciate this so clearly.  Now I try to approach building and sustaining my work and creative practices from this holistic perspective.

Things I’ve learned about getting started:

TEN - Start big or small and build on but commit fully to getting started. 

ELEVEN - It’s never too late to start but “a year from now you will wish that you’d started today”. This is a quote from Montreal writer Karen Lamb. Alongside this, I would add you are never too old.

TWELVE - How I TRANSITION from ending one thing to starting the next matters. This is something I’ve become more aware of recently after spending most of my working life jumping from one thing to the next with no space to breathe or reset. Over time, I have learned to be more thoughtful and intentional about how I transition from one task to the next. For me this often means moving my body. Doing something physical to clear my head and making sure I’m set up with what I need at hand.  For example a cup of tea or notes I need to review before I jump into the next thing. I draw inspiration from Adriene Mishler (YogawithAdriene). She encourages her yogi followers to “move like you love yourself”. I now aim to take Adriene’s philosophy off the mat and to work like I love myself. Even/especially on my busiest days! 

Things I’ve learned about creativity and creative output:

THIRTEEN - I am not a machine and neither are you or any other artist or creative. We can’t just flick a switch and be creative.  I’ve learned to be aware of what supports and fuels my creativity and what hinders or derails it.

FIFTEEN - Creativity isn’t just for making art. I AM a creative. I aim to bring my creativity into all aspects of my work and life as a creative.

SIXTEEN - Taking breaks from our creative work is extremely valuable and necessary. Early in my career as a creative I used to take pride in not “needing” to take breaks, pushing through and being constantly productive. Stepping away from my work even for a short time gives my brain time to absorb ideas, to have unrelated experiences that provide fresh inspiration, and create a sense of distance so I can look at my creative work or business challenges with fresh eyes.

Things I’ve learned about balance:

SEVENTEEN - Building and sustaining a creative practice, business or career necessitates balancing a lot of things Creativity, productivity, finances, admin, visibility and promotion, professional development and building skills and techniques, a few aspects of our work  that need our attention. We don’t necessarily have to work on all of these things  at the same time. I’ve learned the importance of regular reflection, looking ahead and prioritizing to balance everything that I want or need to balance.

EIGHTEEN - Balance is always a moving target. Circumstances change, new opportunities or demands appear that we weren’t expecting and we find ourselves needing to make adjustments. What we need or want to balance in our work and lives as creative professionals changes.

NINETEEN - Balance is an ongoing practice that requires self-awareness, prioritizing, setting boundaries, flexibility and self-compassion. I’ve learned it can be helpful to look ahead at the week or month to consider not just all of the things I have to get done or juggle, but also to consider how I can be intentional about creating a sense of balance for myself.

TWENTY - Balance looks and feels different for everyone! People have different energy levels, physical and mental capacities and different things they are trying to balance. 

Things I’ve learned about rules:

TWENTY-ONE - As artists and creatives we get to make  a lot of our own rules and best practices. Especially if we are self-employed. 

TWENTY-THREE - I’ve come to appreciate that sometimes it’s better to bend the rules, make an exception and be flexible. Especially when it comes to rules or policies of our own making or that we have authority over within our roles and work environments. In fact sometimes our success, the success of other creatives and the best outcome depend on our capacity to make these choices - not recklessly,  at our own expense or disrespectfully but discerningly, compassionately and with consideration of what’s at risk or to be gained either way.

Things I’ve learned about control and choice:

TWENTY-FOUR - There are some (even many) things that we can’t control. For example, a global pandemic, the behaviour and decisions of individuals we work for or with. Whether people like our work or not. Whether our proposal or application for some professional opportunity is chosen or not. We do however have control over how we react and what actions we take when something happens that’s out of our control. 

TWENTY-FIVE - We have control over a lot more than we sometimes pay attention to.

TWENTY-SIX - Choices are rarely if ever binary as in either or. Good or bad. Right or wrong. Never/Always. Success or failure. If we choose to see the world, our options and abilities through a binary black-and-white lens, it limits our ability to even try to understand the complexity of important issues, to create compromise and find solutions. 

TWENTY-SEVEN - It’s ok to say no. 

TWENTY-EIGHT - It’s ok to change our minds.

A few other things I’ve learned:

TWENTY-NINE - Where there is a will there's a way. Whether we think we can or think we can’t - we’re right! Not my words, but I have seen and learned this can be true at an individual, organizational and community scale.

THIRTY - Communication cannot be assumed. A few years ago I came across something that George Bernard Shaw said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”.  

THIRTY-ONE - Put it or get it in writing - if you are agreeing to something that involves a commitment of time, money, deliverables, professional credits or acknowledgements, partnership, or representation of your work. Document what’s agreed on even if it’s just via email but ideally in a letter of agreement or formal contract depending on scope. Conversational agreements can be misinterpreted and specifics can be forgotten. 

THIRTY-TWO - No one reads or remembers anything. At least it can feel that way sometimes. I’ve learned to be patient and appreciate that we all have a lot going on in our work and lives and sometimes we need to remind people or be reminded ourselves. (Which is where having things in writing can be helpful!)

THIRTY-THREE - It’s a small world. I’ve noticed that I’ve crossed paths in many different ways with different people and organizations over the course of my career.  

THIRTY-FOUR - You never know what opportunities or collaborations might develop (sometimes years later) from the most casual interaction. For example from some quick introduction or conversation at an art opening, a connection on social media or from meeting someone briefly at a workshop or even on the street. 

THIRTY-FIVE - Be mindful of what you are seen as “good” at, especially things you don’t actually love or want to be doing.  Be mindful of what is good enough. This can vary depending on the context and time allotment and fit with our priorities.

THIRTY-SIX - It’s important to take yourself and your work seriously, but not so seriously that you don’t enjoy it or have fun.

THIRTY-SEVEN - Trust your gut. 

THIRTY-EIGHT - It’s worth trying, taking risks and learning new things. That’s how we grow. That’s how I’ve grown as a creative professional.

This is far from a complete list of what I’ve learned in 38 years. I could add many more and know that I still have a lot to learn. 

What would be on your list of things you have learned 

through your work as a creative professional?

Image Credit: Cylla Von Tiedemann

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