For most creatives, the biggest challenge isn’t doing the work, it’s getting the work. Few of us are natural marketers or adroit at selling our vision, so many creatives live in a state of constant anxiety about where the next project (and paycheck) is going to come from.
Because of that, it’s tempting to jump on any project that comes your way, especially if you’re — as I was at the beginning of my career — barely stretching the money you get from one gig to the next.
But instead of thinking solely about where next month’s rent is coming from, I want you to think of your career as a path, and each potential project has one of 3 potential outcomes: (1) it can move you forward; (2) it can move you backwards; or (3) it can simply keep you stuck in the same place – treading water.
With that in mind, it’s not just important that you are deliberate and strategic about the work you choose to do– it’s absolutely critical to realize that the work you chose NOT to do is just as important as the work you do take on.
My own framework for evaluating a project is pretty straightforward but has proven very effective for my professional development and my career. Here’s my not-so-secret sauce: if it doesn’t have at least 2 of the following 3 components, my answer is “thanks, but no thanks”:
Only take on projects that check at least 2 of these 3 boxes
1) Good Money
Note that even if money is not your primary motivation, it’s definitely worth your attention– and here’s why: money can’t buy happiness, but it does buy freedom.
With money in the bank you can turn down projects that aren’t interesting, fund personal projects and focus your energy on improving your craft (rather than worrying about bills looming in the background). Money gives you optionality; it gives you the freedom to do things on YOUR terms– and that freedom can be like steroids for your creativity.
With that said, we’ve all had to take on less-than-inspiring projects to put food on the table–sometimes with some moderate pain associated — and that’s just reality. Do what you have to do to pay the bills, but remember this: there are merits to this kind of work. First, you gain experience in a sub-optimal environment. This builds up both awareness and tolerance. Millennials – I’m talking to you here. Whether it’s just getting better at the process part of your job (invoicing, client management, etc) there are other muscles you need to exercise besides just your creative ones and mediocre jobs for good pay are a nice way to strengthen those other skills. Second, OCCASIONALLY doing this kind of work reminds you what you don’t love to do. Sounds funny, but it’s true. Just like a tough day makes a great day even better – some less inspiring work can serve to remind you to keep your eye on the prize.
Most importantly, pay attention to these 2 DON’Ts:
Don’t start chasing the money because the price for short term money is destroying your long term dream. Yes – I’ll say it again: if you get sucked into chasing money, you’ll get pulled off your path. Score a gig that pays well but eats your soul? Don’t chase it – USE it. And use it sparingly – just to create freedom. Do not pursue $ gigs without soul. Do not make a special “portfolio” on your site or start a side biz focused on that work, unless you care about nothing but money. If you care about your career trajectory, chasing the money will kneecap you sooner than you will know.
“Don’t” #2 = remember you don’t have to put everything in your portfolio (actually, let me be a little more prescriptive here — DO NOT put everything in your portfolio- include only your very best work and the work you ultimately want to get paid to do more of. A portfolio with just 5 pieces of amazing work targeted at your dream gig is better than 5 amazing pieces mixed in with 10 mediocre ones to show “depth” or “breadth”. In the creative worlds those are weak-ass approaches that will leave you short of your dreams).
Bottom line: don’t reflexively say no to unpaid projects, and don’t reflexively say yes to projects just because they do pay. Be strategic with your ‘yes’ on these projects (and keep reading this post to get all the context….)
I built my career largely off of projects like this one: self-initiated (and self-funded) projects that flexed new creative muscles, became the highlights of my portfolio and caught the attention of world-class clients
2. Portfolio Value
Sometimes a gig comes along and the money is mediocre or low, but the creative is amazing. The guiding principle here is one of the fundamental laws of creative business – and one that I hinted at above: the kind of work you put in your portfolio is the kind you’ll be asked to do more of.
Ultimately, in order to put a YES in this box you need to ask yourself if having this project in your portfolio will make it better than it was before: Is it a chance to try a new medium, style, subject or voice that will open up new opportunities in the future? Will it be a venue for you to do something that may be familiar, but executed at a higher level than you’ve done it before? Be self aware here that you’re not just saying yes because of some other reason. Being deliberate and understanding the ‘why’ behind your yes is crucial.
Countless designers, photographers and artists have made their name off of passion projects – album covers, posters, t-shirts for their friend’s band, etc – where the “pay” wasn’t more than a few beers, but that work built an amazing portfolio which turned into high-dollar client work or the foundation for their own entrepreneurial ventures.
3. Cool People
And last but absolutely not least, what kind of people are involved in this project? Are there legends involved? Do you get to work with people way above your pay grade or experience level? People who will inspire you, teach you, or help you open doors in the future? A great company with people who you vibe with?
Don’t overthink this– if your rationale for taking on a project is literally just “sounds like it will net out in something cool for my portfolio and it’s always a blast working with these guys/girls,” then full steam ahead! I’ve jumped into more projects than I can count for exactly those reasons, and they’re among my fondest memories (as well as some of the highlights of my portfolio, like the Seattle 100 book I did a few years back). Again, what’s important is the intention behind your decision. Did you consider the pro’s and con’s and say yes because there are great people involved? Are you living by the mantra that you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with … and you’re trying to move that average UP on the “amazing” scale? Then say yes. Just don’t say yes out of laziness.
Be intentional with your work and your life. You’ll thank me later.
Lastly, on the people front, trust your instincts here. If you’re feeling a connection with the people involved, then go with it. If your spidey sense is telling you that something smells funny/off, then listen to it and gracefully bow out.
A few CRITICAL notes/caveats:
Full rate or free? This is an advanced move and tough one to master, but it shows grit if you can stomach it. I encourage people to work for full rate (or a fair, higher than average rate) or zero, and avoid doing projects “on the cheap”. Something you love, but the budget is stupid low? Say yes, do a killer job, but tell them to keep their money. Here’s why. Full rate or free sends the message that you’re thoughtful and critical as hell. I know you’ll be tempted to take “some” money (…”we only can offer you $500 despite your day rate quote of $5000…), but this is ultimately a losing proposition to accept the $500 for two reasons: (1) what I call “the middle” is toxic. It’s beige. It shows tolerance for mediocrity…just getting paid like the average Joe/Jane creative and being ok with that. Hell no.
I’d rather get all the money or shift the job to free – but more on YOUR terms. You might even be able to trade more creative freedom that insultingly low dollar amount and get an amazing portfolio piece outta the gig; and (2) when someone knows you as the person who said yes to $500 when they originally quoted $5000 – you’ll NEVER and I mean NEVER get that client to think of you as a high end X or Y (whatever your professional identity might be – designer, photographer, director, whatever. When they do have real budget for some future project, they will not call you back (despite what you think) because they’ll be looking for the person who turned them down at the $500 rate out of principle… the creator that has vision, confidence and clarity about their intentions of what their services are worth.
You love life. You play in creativity. You’re easy to work with. That’s why doing it for zero dollars allows you to bank your badassery for the next time they have a project with real $$$. You didn’t cave – you told them to keep their measly $500 – and now they think of you NOT as desperate and will-work-for-anything, but rather as a real talent who knows the value of your work.
Always say “no” gracefully. This is a skill you need to learn. Getting bitchy because rates are low or people are weird or the brand/job isn’t “cool” — and showing that side of your opinion to the person or group trying to hire you is a ticket to the back of the line. People move jobs. Somebody might love your work, but have low budgets at their current job…and then suddenly get hired at [insert your dream client here].
So be cool for your own damn good. Be positive and polite. Even if you think the job is wack as hell…. Explain that you appreciate being contacted, but are unable to do the project for their budget and/or that you don’t have capacity to take it on/you’re fully booked, and if possible give them a suggestion on how to find someone who can (a personal introduction, a site where they might be able to find someone, etc). Being a jerk is never ok. For one, it can bite you. Your reputation is all you’ve got.
For two – and the real reason – being lame is… well… lame. Mean people suck.
The concept of a “portfolio” reaches far beyond art.
While I’ve spoken mostly in terms of visual arts, the idea of a portfolio applies to nearly all professionals today. We’re increasingly defined not by where we did or didn’t go to school, or our resume (which is just words on a page), but by the work we’ve done and who we’ve worked with– and a “portfolio” is simply some sort of documentation of the above. It’s a collection of proof (products out in the world, sites you designed, well known things you worked on…) that show off that you kick ass at what you do, whether that’s a literal portfolio, a Soundcloud account, YouTube channel, a company you helped to build, or a Github profile. You get the picture.
In summary – your time and your life are resources. These are things that literally can’t be purchased by anyone at any price. And given that we’re all limited to just 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, you should be very deliberate about which projects you choose to invest your most precious resources into.
In many ways — whether you’re a self-identified creative, entrepreneur, or other kind of professional — you are your portfolio and your portfolio is you. School is less relevant now than ever before. So consider each project carefully, curate your portfolio and life path with the utmost care, and don’t waste a single second of the time you have on this planet.