Your Best Year Yet: 5 Tips For Building A Successful Creative Career
There’s nothing like the start of a new year to have us all buzzing with ideas, dreams, and creative potential — and there’s no better time to seize the moment than when your energy and curiosity are at their peak. If you’re feeling that this year might be the time to take a leap and pursue some new passions, turn a hobby into a side hustle, or even take your creative practice to the next level, read on for tips to channel that excitement and set yourself up for success.
Why Embrace The Power Of Creative Independence?
Everyone who has picked up a paintbrush, taken photos on the weekend, or broken out into song knows the power of creativity, but these days we even have the science to prove it. Studies show that being creative on a daily basis has a positive impact on wellbeing. There is a range of drivers behind this, experts say, from giving us a sense of purpose to connecting us to the present moment, to the way that creativity can help us express and process emotions. These dynamics hold true for both personal and professional creative pursuits, and they underscore the special power in finding ways to integrate creativity as much as possible into our daily life.
That said, the benefits start to really add up when looking at creative independence and the growing class of creative freelancers pursuing work on their own terms. People who are their own boss are significantly happier than those working for others, according to a recent university study from researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and Exeter. This, the study shows, is due to self-employed people having control over their environment, being engaged in their work, and having the freedom to innovate.
Of course, while there’s no doubt that building and running a successful creative business can be hugely rewarding, it also takes unprecedented levels of drive, attention, ambition, and focus.
Tip 1: Find Your North Star
Defining your underlying mission and staying true to it is crucial for maintaining the stamina required to run a creative enterprise. That’s what Jeanne Hardy, founder and CEO of NYC-based consultancy Creative Business Inc, told Forbes last spring, explaining that the “why” of potential entrepreneurs’ ideas is more important to understand than the “how” during the early stages of setting up their business.
After identifying this “North Star,” Hardy says, “it will be easier to stay focused on what’s important to you and not be distracted by what others think you should be doing.” However, this deep sense of purpose isn’t always immediately obvious. If you haven’t figured it out yet, Hardy suggests volunteering as a way of exploring potential paths “without turning your life upside down.” The more you know what’s out there, the better you’ll understand exactly what you love.
The trickiest part? Especially in creative fields, one of the biggest distinctions is that your North Star is likely to be very unique to you — but that’s a special superpower that should be seen as an opportunity. The more differentiation you have as a creative, the more authentic your work will be and the more clients you’ll gain for that exact thing you do. So often we bog ourselves down with others’ expectations, but there’s no better time than a new year to really dive into what makes you excited and energized. (Side tip: Not sure if you’ve discovered your unique North Star?
Tip 2: Create The Work You Want To Be Hired For
To build a creative career, you often have to create opportunities rather than waiting for them to come to you. Clients tend to pay for what they can see, so building your portfolio early through side projects and personal pursuits is the best way to get attention (and eventual gigs) for the thing you really want to do.
No one knows this better than the graphic design duo. Their studio came about after Dan Kuhlken and Nathan Goldman started designing promotional materials for the band they were in together.
They thought it’d be fun to do more music poster work, but they didn’t have a wide enough body of work to be hired. But, why wait? They went to a local music venue in LA and looked at the calendar of upcoming gigs. They chose three bands who were booked to perform and designed bold posters for the events. The duo wasn’t commissioned or paid for this extra work, but they decided it would be the best way of showcasing what they could bring to the role. . . and they were right.
Their work caught the attention of the venue and other performers and, within a few years, they started hearing from bands directly who wanted to employ them. It was a gateway to launching their own design studio, which went on to create images for Star Wars, Radiohead, and Portlandia. Today they are some of the most successful graphic designers in the industry.
Ask yourself: what might be your dream client project? What type of work would you want to do every day for the next year? What version of that could you start today? Starting those projects for yourself today is the best way to give yourself the opportunity to be hired for those same kinds of projects in the future.
Tip 3: Set Clear Goals
Consider your most epic vacation, proudest school moment, or the last crossroads in your career. While sometimes we fall into luck, generally speaking, big achievements happen with conscientious planning and a clear idea of outcomes. When we force ourselves to articulate exactly what we want — and push ourselves to go beyond our comfort zone — we’re much more likely to achieve ambitious outcomes. Yes, the secret here is to set clear goals.
However, if you’re looking at a big career change, don’t try to tackle the next several decades at once. One effective method for goal setting is to reflect on where you want to be in just five years’ time— concentrate on everything from the amount of money you need for your ideal lifestyle to work-life balance and ways you can give back to your community. List concrete objectives such as publishing a book, putting on an exhibition, or creating a healthy roster of regular clients. The more specific your visualization, the better. It will help crystallize exactly what you’d like to accomplish and give you internal signals about what’s most important to you.
Then, with these long-term aims in mind, figure out where you need to be in three years to make each of these goals happen and then step back your timeline to one year. Continue to backtrack and, while you move backward in time, assign yourself tangible steps to complete on a month-by-month basis.
Now, pick a task simple enough that you can begin it this week. Ah, see what we did there? It’s all about taking action on your goals! This method ensures that you translate the energy that comes from creating a bold vision into immediate and focused action — and that will also create momentum so you can stay motivated to achieve bigger and bigger milestones.
Tip 4: Find Your Tribe
Relationships are the heart of any creative business, and not just because you need to network with clients. Running an enterprise can be isolating and fraught with challenges, and other people doing similar work should be seen as a potential support system, rather than the competition.
There are plenty of ways to build relationships online: figure out which social networks people in your industry tend to spend time on, from LinkedIn to Instagram to creative discussion boards, and start having conversations rather than simply promoting your work. Ask real questions, provide thoughtful input, and start to nurture relationships that will truly fuel your work.
Remember: you don’t need to be in every single space. Trying to do everything, everywhere, for everyone is a recipe for burnout. If you’re a writer, focus on Twitter. If you’re an illustrator, focus on Instagram. Being strategic about where you spend your time, energy, and creative output will likely be more effective and be something you see as an enjoyment, rather than a chore.
Tip 5: Never Stop Evolving
Once your creative business is up and running, build your schedule to give yourself the time and flexibility to continue experimenting and evolving. Today more than ever, industries evolve quickly and it’s important to know which trends, tools, and styles make sense for your business. Plus, growing in your creative achievements is likely to lead to the kind of personal satisfaction and fulfillment that is core to why you started a journey of creative independence in the first place. Our inspiration and energy are best when we are happy and healthy — and creative growth is at the center of it all.
The hunger to do more and improve and be curious is almost the sole reason why we’re successful.
— Dan Kuhlken
When reflecting on their career, DKNG credits that drive to evolve with many of their proudest moments. “The hunger to do more and improve and be curious is almost the sole reason why we’re successful,” Dan Kuhlken says.
Pushing your limits will do more than drive success, it will also keep things interesting. “It’s a lot more exciting to learn something for the first time,” Nathan Goldman points out, “than to fall back on the security of something we’ve done a hundred times.”
One of the easiest ways to take the first step towards new work is building on skills you already have in an adjacent discipline. If you’re a designer, try taking photos of your work in a new way. If you’re an illustrator, move from Adobe Illustrator into After Effects and give your illustrations some movement. Or, try working with everyday items that are easily accessible. Grab a pen and paper to try journaling, writing a short story, or even jotting some Instagram poetry. It can be an exciting opportunity to grow in your work, and you never know how embracing a learning and growth mindset in a new area can spark all kinds of new ideas in your core creative discipline.
With these five strategies in place, you can begin to transform the work you love to do today in your personal time into a thriving business built on the strength of your creativity. In between IRL networking and community building, take time to read the stories of artists who have come before you— 5 Artists On What It Takes To Make It — for a healthy dose of inspiration.
We’re excited to see what you do.