[Note: This is an excerpt from my book, Creative Freedom: How To Own Your Dreams Without Selling Your Soul, that's coming out later this year. If you haven't already, take the quiz to determine your creative type. Be sure to get on the notification list to stay up to date on the book's release date!]
One of the conversations I have pretty regularly with people is around what it means to be a creative entrepreneur. Contrary to what you might think, it has nothing to do with what or how you create. Everyone is creative in some way. EVERYONE. The indicator, then is whether or not you choose to be an entrepreneur around your Great Work.
Not all creatives are entrepreneurs, and that’s okay. Elizabeth Gilbert wasn’t a creative entrepreneur when she wrote “Eat, Pray, Love” and her work impacted millions around the world. She also made some pretty good money, I’d be willing to bet, or she’d never have quit her day job. But you don't have to make good money to be a creative entrepreneur - in fact, you might not make any money when you start.
So how do you know for sure? Here are five signs that you’re not a creative entrepreneur:
For the purposes of this book, if you create as a hobbyist, or for side income and don’t ever plan to make it your primary source of income, you’re not a creative entrepreneur. It doesn’t matter if your Great Work is sculpture, business analysis, architecture, or video game walk-throughs on YouTube. The type of creativity you express has nothing to do with whether or not you’re a creative entrepreneur. It’s your intention around that creation that matters.
As a creative, you can create for yourself and not care what anyone else thinks about your work. As a creative entrepreneur, you have to listen to your audience and respond to their changing needs. That doesn’t mean you can’t create for yourself and your own enjoyment, but it does mean you have to have clarity around what elements of your Great Work will respond to the fluctuations of the market. Jim Henson did a lot of commercial work to have the money he needed to be able to make movies like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. He had his own “shrine to the almighty dollar” as a reminder that you can’t make art unless you have the money to do so. Money is freedom for a creative. It gives you the ability to do what you want without having to bear the criticism of others.
Are you creating for a specific audience? Did you establish a legal structure for your business? Are you reporting income and paying taxes? Are you actively marketing your Great Work in the world? If so, then you’re probably a creative entrepreneur, even if you’re just getting started in “jobby” mode (a hobby disguised as a business). If your aim is to make this a going concern, and you’re focused on growing your company as a business owner, you’re most likely a creative entrepreneur. You might not have a profitable business yet, but you’ve got the creative entrepreneur spirit that is needed to grow.
Thomas Edison devoted himself entirely to business. According to author and archivist, Leonard DeGraaf, Edison “vowed he would not invent a technology that didn’t have an apparent market; that he wasn’t just going to invent things for the sake of inventing them but… to be able to sell them.”
Edison himself is quoted as saying “All my life, I’ve been a commercial inventor. I have never dabbled in anything that was not useful.”
Edison was very clearly a creative entrepreneur. If you are actively trying to serve a particular market, sharing your gifts with them, and making sales offers to them, you are also a creative entrepreneur.
Income and expenses. Cash flow. Profit. Do you have your finger on the pulse of what your business is actually doing? Chaotics struggle with this sometimes, because they have an aversion to numbers and structures in general.
In her autobiography, Put On Your Crown, Queen Latifah tells how, due to a clerical error that went unchecked, all her money was out of whack. She was scrambling to pay bills not because anyone was intentionally trying to screw her, but because she stuck her head in the sand and didn’t pay any attention to the numbers.
Latifah then revealed a secret she learned from an episode of Oprah: “always sign the checks.” This was a simple way for her to keep a finger on the pulse of her business.
By reviewing your numbers consistently - even if they’re not where you want them to be - you keep yourself in the know. And knowledge is power.
This is another sign of creating a jobby for yourself, by the way. Each of the type can suffer from this issue for different reasons. Chaotics don’t trust that other people will rise to their (impossibly) high standards. Fusions are so used to doing everything themselves that it feels painful to slow down long enough to get or train help. Linears will micromanage deadlines and budgets, which tends to drive people away.
At some point, if you’re growing a business, you’ll have to ask for and accept help from others who may not do things exactly the way you would. Like when I ask my son to clean his room, it may not be clean the way I would do it, but it meets my criteria for a clean room. If I don’t want to be stuck doing all the cleaning, I have to be willing to let go of the trivial things - like how he folds his socks. So long as the clean clothes fit in the dresser, I’m happy.
That doesn’t mean compromising on what really matters, but chances are good you’re worrying about more than you need to at this early stage in your business growth. Nobody expects a young business to deliver at the same level as a fortune 500 company. Use that to your advantage to surprise and delight your audience - but don’t let it keep you from delivering at all because you’re too mired in doing ALL THE THINGS!
To be clear, EVERYONE is creative in some way. It could be the way you solve a problem or spot patterns, it could be the way you dress up a gift bag with ribbons or paint. The fact that you use your imagination to see or bring something to life that wasn’t there before makes you a creator and therefore a creative.
Entrepreneurs are especially adept at seeing a need and creating something to fill it, but not all creatives are entrepreneurs. The dictionary definition of “entrepreneur” is someone who takes on a “greater than normal financial risk” to organize or operate a business.
Many creatives I know don’t want more risk, they want stability. They’re freaked out by the notion of the starving artist. Like Gilbert, they’re content to rely on their day job and dabble in their creative work during their hobby time. If that’s you, then you don’t need this book.
On the other hand, if you’re ready to make a transition plan from the day job, if you’re already knee-deep in your creative work and need some clarity and direction to make it a profitable and sustainable business, then you’re in the right place.
I developed the Creative Freedom Entrepreneur Type Spectrum to give creative entrepreneurs the clarity they need about how to best set up and run their business - in a way that works with their unique quirks and traits. You’ll get clear on how to use the ninja skills of your specific type to make your business more productive and profitable, and how to clear up your blind spots so you don’t end up stuck like I was, doing things that will only make you miserable.
Does it take longer or more effort to build a business doing something you love? That depends on you. But my experience and that of my clients shows that it’s worth it. You’re building a long-term asset instead of looking for short-term “low-hanging fruit”. And it’s often easier because your efforts are bolstered by the fact that you’re doing something you love, instead of something you dread.
Here's the replay from my Facebook Live on the topic:
You may have heard the story about Walter Matthau. An aspiring actor approached him at some function and said that he was looking for that one big break. Matthau, in his caring, yet cynical style, says , "Kid, it's not the one big break, it's the fifty."
Overnight success rarely is, and most creatives that have been toiling for years can attest to that. But there comes a time for most when the heat is on - from well-meaning family and friends - to think hard about doing something else. I'm sure you've probably heard one of these famous quotes before:
Mom spoke those well-meaning, heart-crushing words when I told her I wanted to be a professional musician. I think the words I actually used were "rock star", which may have prompted her advice. After all, being a rock star in the 90's wasn't as easy as it is today. You actually had to have talent and compete for a record deal with a major label in order to see real financial success.
Back then, during the "golden age" of music, who could have anticipated the collapse of the industry, the shift from physical to digital media, and the rise of the "Internet Star"? Heck, I recorded my first album just over 10 years ago, when social media was still a glimmer on the horizon.
Today, all you need is the Internet, a webcam, and a dream, and stardom is yours, right?
See it's not about the big break, it's about the fifty. I might even go so far as to say it's not even about the fifty, but the hundreds, if not thousands of little breaks that happen almost every day.
Showing up every day to script and film your show, create your art, teach your audience, reach YOUR right people. Even if there are only five people in the room... even if no one shows up for your workshop.
When I decided to start teaching online classes, I didn't have a large list. Like everyone else, I started at zero. I remember when I got my first seven subscribers and I didn't know ANY of them! I felt like a rock star in that moment, for sure. Here were seven strangers who had signed up for my newsletter and wanted to learn what I was teaching.
I felt like I arrived. Over time, my list grew, and then came the day I posted my first event announcement and sign up form for a teleclass I was teaching. Three people signed up, and I was thrilled! I didn't have a big list - probably less than a hundred, but here I was leading my first workshop for three lucky people!
No one showed up on the line.
At this point, I had a few choices. I could cancel, reschedule the call for a better day and time, or just record the thing and share the recording.
I figured it was good practice, so why not just go ahead and record the thing? If anyone showed up late, they'd be able to ask questions to get caught up.
No one showed, but I recorded that class. And it was a good thing, too, because once I shared the audio, people listened, commented and shared. That led to more classes and a growing audience for my business.
Six years later, I got a call from someone who found that old recording online and hired me to speak at her event.
You just never know which one break will lead to the next. I guess you could say every break is a big break in waiting.
Creativity is about sharing your truth with the world. It's not about the medium, it's not even about the message. It's about being willing to be vulnerable enough to share yourself and let the world inside your brain for a minute or three... no matter how long it takes.
He was 51.
He wrote his first novel when he was 24. That in-between time was all about the little breaks, as Pressfield writes:
"It wasn't all wilderness. Within those twenty-seven years, I earned a living for at least a dozen as a professional writer. I worked in advertising. I had a career as a screenwriter. And I spent six years writing unpublishable novels (which counts as work, too)."
Which brings me to that other iconic phrase:
It's often something we hear when someone isn't up to the task of their dream. A guy who wants to be a singer, but can't carry a tune in a bucket. A gal who dreams of being a dancer, but has two left feet. A kid with rotten comedic timing, who desires more than anything to have a spot on Saturday Night Live.
"Don't quit your day job" has been equated with failure.
I say it's time to reclaim the phrase. There's nothing wrong with a “day job” - if you're clear on your priorities and pursuits. Having a financial cushion will help you live more confidently and BE more confidently. It's easier to be your creative self when you're not afraid of how you'll get by if your Great Work isn't paying the bills.
They day job can a double-edged sword, to be sure. When I was jobless, I had plenty of time to create, but I also put an inordinate amount of pressure on myself to make my Great Work pay because I had kids, bills, and lifecrap that needed financial support or it would all fall apart.
With so much riding on everything you produce, you can imagine how much perfectionism and comparisonits can set in – two traits common in us Fusion-type creatives. I looked to “formulas”, “blueprints” and any other “surefire” approach that would help me generate an income. Trying to scrape by without the financial means that a day job could provide held me back for many years. I didn't say, do, or act on what I knew to be true, but followed the herd instead. My results were mediocre, at best.
When I let go of that fear, and gave myself permission to earn my living in the way that worked for me (and took the pressure of my Great Work) things shifted. I let go of the “shame” and “stigma” that most creatives ascribe to having a day job. As a result, I was able to be more creative AND make more money doing what I loved.
Funny how that happens.
Elizabeth Glibert, in her book “Big Magic,” confessed that she held down a job until well after “Eat Pray Love” made oodles of cash (she had written several earlier books). She never wanted to pressure her art into being the source of her survival.
Letting go of fear doesn't mean being “fearless”. Far from it. Letting go of fear means being willing to experience fear and not let it stop you.
I don't mean the "feel the fear and do it anyway" tripe that people like to profess. THAT is easy to say and hard to do. What I mean is being willing to own your fear and find ways to navigate it - support groups, or taking even smaller steps than you think you "should" be taking.
Like Confucius said "It doesn't matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop."
That's what I mean. It's not about jumping head first into the thing that scares the pants off you. It's not about speed to market. It's about doing what you can, as you are able, and just not quitting until you're done.
Instead of giving up entirely, and resigning our creative selves to life under the thumb of "The Man," let's take a page from the likes of Pressfield and Gilbert - who both held down other jobs while they relentlessly pursued their creative work.
Recognize your "day job" as your biggest sponsor, your Sugar Daddy, your benefactor - the one who keeps you clothed and fed so you can hone your craft.
And keep showing up for your Great Work, too. It might take you a dozen years, or three decades, or more. But does it really matter if you're doing what you love?
Someone asked me if there ever comes a time to quit. I'll save my full answer for another day, but here's the spoiler:
Don't quit your day job, and don't quit your dream. That next little break could be your big one.