It was the summer of 2013 … I was approaching 30 years old and I started getting restless. My career was taking off. I was the Director of Web Design and e-Business Development at a high-end printing company. We worked with museums, galleries, and many well-known artists to develop their websites and printed promotional materials. We were in the process of rebranding our Studio’s website when things started taking a turn for me. I began taking notice to what made me most happy. I especially enjoyed doodling during customer service calls. Or when my co-worker, Brendan, would give life to a dying bug by sketching a speech bubble which read, “Where have you been all of my life? It’s almost over …” or “I’m dying to see you!” He would leave them on our officemate’s desk as a warm welcome. The hilarity was perfection. This makes it sounds like I was a slacker, but that wasn’t the case at all. I just knew I could be enjoying my work life a little more. So I started to discuss this idea with Brendan, “You know those people—the people who are always happy? I want to be more like that.” I knew that what had originally attracted me to a creative career was somehow lost over time. I wish I could tell you that I opened an Oreo and voila, my career changed in an instant but that’s not how it worked. Instead I’m going to give you some practical advice and references you can use to design your creative career for happiness.
Step 1. Make a decision to change.
Don’t just accept things as they are. Instead be bold enough to make changes. I have a friend who is an exceptional artist, illustrator, and designer—her talent and abilities far outweigh my own. She’s always commenting on how lucky I am to get the jobs I get. Luck has zero to do with it. Accepting things as they are keeps you small. It’s so easy to get comfortable and let fear get the best of you. If your initial reason to be in the creative field has become lost, it is time to make a change. For each person this will look different. I suggest digging through your local bookstore for some inspiration. What finally kicked me in the rear was Jen Sincero’s book You Are a Badass®: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life. The yellow book cover and the word “Badass” immediately made me happy so I went with it. Jen’s whimsical sense of humor and storytelling sucked me right in and I began taking action.
“When you up-level your idea of what’s possible, and decide to really go for it, you open yourself up to the means to accomplish it as well.”
— Jen Sincero1
Jen made it clear that I needed to make a bunch of uncomfortable life choices and stick with them. So I did.
Step 2. Identify what makes your heart sing.
In a world where we can be “all the things” it’s hard to narrow your focus and your expertise. I knew that I wanted to spend more time illustrating but that’s all I could really muster up. How in the world was I going to transition from a Director of Web Design to creating brilliant illustrations? What do I even want to illustrate? These were—and sometimes still are—the questions roaming in my brain. One way to identify what makes your heart sing is to think back on a time when you created something that made you happy. You love this “passion project” for its final form, and you enjoyed the entire process of creating it. Remember it by writing it down.2 It could be as simple as a napkin doodle or more complex like the invention of a portable computer accessory. You may not be able to recall these moments right away. In fact, I recommend asking yourself this question and then sleeping on it—maybe even for a few weeks. As you recall events jot them down so you don’t forget. Spending time focusing on and remembering what makes you happy will not only help you figure out what you should be doing but it will attract more of what you love in your creative career. For me it ended up being a blend of food and illustration. I landed a part time job where I created watercolor illustrations of food which allowed me to grow my business on the side.
Step 3. Write out your creative goals.
When you have a project to complete it’s easy to create a task list. You envision the final product and then work backwards—creating a schedule based on everything that is needed to get you to the final. When you’re redesigning your creative career to cultivate more happiness in your life don’t worry about having an elaborate Gantt chart. Take time to figure out what it looks like. Create a schedule or a list of goals if you need it, but I like to think this process is a bit more magical than a to-do list. Why not use your intuition to start the process? Ask yourself what you truly want out of your creative career and see what comes up over the next few months.
While I was at a conference in San Fransisco I visited Muir Woods National Park. It is such an incredibly beautiful place. After being awed by the enormous trees and how the light moved through the forest, I visited the gift shop to see what the local artists had to offer. I came across this beautiful little container. The top piece had been carved from the wood of the forest and inside was a little piece of paper that read, “The Legend of the Dreambox (often attributed to Lemuria) suggests writing down your fondest dream, greatest desire, strongest wish on a small piece of paper and putting that paper in a Dreambox and placing it beside your bed. Every evening as you retire and every morning as you rise hold your Dreambox and think of your dream believing with all your heart that it is so. Legend has it if done faithfully … your dream will come true.” Since then I’ve filled out two sheets of paper front and back full of my greatest desires. The first page has 15 different work and life desires that I wrote in 2013. All but 2 of them have been achieved. Ranging from paying off my debt and running my own creative business from home, to meeting/marrying the man of my dreams. I’m not sure it’s the “Dreambox” per-say or the mere fact that I simply wrote them down and had faith they would happen.
Step 4. Work on your passion projects.
What would happen if you spent time designing or illustrating for your own happiness—creating passion projects? Creatives are highly passionate individuals. Otherwise why would we subject ourselves to a career whose financial stability coined the phrase “starving artist”? We live and breathe to create. It wakes us up in the middle of the night. As designers we start our career inspired by our inner creativity. When we fill every last ounce of our working hours on client work we sometimes lose our initial inspiration. It’s worth carving out the time to create for yourself whether you are planning to make money or to simply gratify yourself. Jessica Hische launched her lettering career by working on her “Daily Drop Caps”—a true labor of love. She’s created a successful career by making the time to explore her own interests.
“The work you do while you’re procrastinating is probably the work you should be doing the rest of your life.”
My own personal projects receive twice the amount of attention as my client-related posts. I don’t know if the audience can sense my excitement or if they genuinely like what they see. Either way it’s clear to me that when I show passion for what I’m working on my customers are excited too. Nine times out of ten I generate more business from those posts. Slowly but surely I’m seeing my project list grow into work that I’m excited about. After 2 years at my part time job I was able to launch my creative business working from home doing what I love. It wasn’t until I took inspired action toward understanding my creative preferences that my career started to shift. While I can’t accredit one specific passion project I have a big list of tiny projects that made a notable difference.
Step 5. Move forward with perspiration and positivity.
Almost every time I create a time consuming piece of art I get to the midway point and think what’s the point? I enjoy the creation process it’s just that I can’t quite see how the piece is going to turn out and I’m not sure if it’s what I initially envisioned. Self doubt and fear start to cloud my judgement. I have to intentionally cheer myself forward. Something tells me I’m not alone here. The good news is that studies show creative people tend to have the ability to delay gratification.4 Thomas Edison conducted 2,004 experiments, using different materials before he invented a working lightbulb. Which explains his quote, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
So then how do we move forward and perspire? Through positivity. It’s so easy to give up and get distracted. It’s crucial to stay connected to your initial inspiration. When you begin a project envision how it will make you feel to complete it. Write it down so you can recite it when you lose sight of your original goal. Maintaining a positive attitude takes intentional practice. When you hear the tired, old sayings of negativity playing out in your mind use them as a trigger to remember the positive. Overtime it will become much easier. Not only will the attitude shift help you complete more work but you will expand your reach. In Stephen Covey’s book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People the first habit is being proactive. He shares specifically how proactive people have a positive energy and how that benefits their reach—in other words their audience. “Proactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence. They work on things they can do something about. The nature of their energy is positive, enlarging and magnifying, causing their Circle of Influence to increase.”5 When in doubt focus on what you can do right now in this moment and keep moving forward.
The first step is identifying that a change is needed. Don’t get overwhelmed by the tiny details of getting from point A to point B. Designers are planners so we tend to turn everything into a project to-do list. Start out by just recognizing that a change is needed and sit with it for a bit. Take notice of the little things that make you happy in your everyday life. Your brain will start thinking creatively for you in the background. Write your perfect day-in-the-life, or list major accomplishments or desires and keep them somewhere close by to review them when you start feeling lost. Start chipping away at your career dreams by working on passion projects that make your heart sing! This will lighten your mood and help your business thrive. Customers love seeing what you are doing outside of work and might even hire you to create something similar for them. Stay aware of the negative self talk and turn those stories into positive ones. When you are lost just do what you can with what you have in any given moment.
When Brendan started cutting out speech bubbles and placing them next to the dying bugs he was certainly living in the moment. The belly laughter that followed will never be forgotten. I’m still confused as to why there were dying bugs in our office anyway? The building was clean. The office was clean. I like to think they were dropping dead in our office to illustrate the impending doom if we chose to stay there. What hints are showing up in your life that it is time to make a change? They could be as subtle as a dying bug or as big as not having your mortgage payment. Make the decision to change and trust in the process.
1 Sincero, Jen. You Are A Badass, How To Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living An Awesome Life. S.l., Running Press, 2017.
2 Robert S. Kaplan (Author). What You’re Really Meant to Do: A Road Map for Reaching Your Unique Potential. 21 Sept. 2017. Referencing pages 69-70
4 Dacey, John S., et al. Understanding Creativity: The Interplay of Biological, Psychological, and Social Factors. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1998.
5 Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Provo, UT, Franklin Covey, 1998.