I am turning 27 this week, and whenever my birthday is coming up I tend to feel extra introspective. I used to dread this time of the year, because to me birthdays are reminders that I am getting older and I have less time to do what I want to do in life. In short, I see birthdays as deadlines. Not a very healthy opinion to have. This year is a bit different, though. I've been reading a lot about gratitude and well-being, and instead of thinking about things that are lacking in my life, I want to share 26 things I've learned so far. This is the first half of my list, all of which are lessons on making art and sustaining a creative business. Let's start?
1. Make art for yourself.
When I was starting out I never paid much attention to how people received my work. Mismatched colors, bad kerning, poor layout--I didn't really care as long as I was happy with the results. But when I turned my creative outlet into a business, I started being conscious of what was marketable, and in turn I lost my edge. I accepted commissions even though they are not the type of things I want to work on; I believed they were stepping stones to bigger projects. I started to hate lettering because I was doing it more for the audience and less for me. Late last year I decided not to accept commissioned work and focus solely on my own stuff. This was also the time when I was approached by several people asking if I was interested in consigning my products with them. I am glad I made that choice because I am starting to like my work again. If you work on things you love, the right opportunities will find you.
2. Work with what you have.
Check my bag at any given time and you will find a pencil case with the following: a pencil, a fineliner, a brush pen, and an eraser (Tombow Mono or Maped Formula Pink--I am very particular with erasers). Whenever my friends talk about paints and pens I cannot contribute to the discussion because I mainly use Prang watercolors and Uni Pin pens. Even with a limited arsenal, I still get to produce quality work. I am not saying that investing in materials is wrong; it just seems like people who are new to the craft tend to think that they must have everything in the market to come up with better artwork. It takes time to find materials that best fit your process, but it's not nearly as important as clocking in hours of practice. Which brings me to...
3. Art is work.
The first time I encountered this quote was a couple of weeks back, while watching a documentary about one of the most prolific graphic designers in the world, Milton Glaser. This line was plastered on the walls of his NYC office. Being an artist is not as easy as acquiring artist-grade materials. Art is a daily struggle. Art is showing up even when your muse refuses to appear. Art is story, perseverance, and skill, combined.
4. To find your creative voice, begin by copying.
Whenever I teach beginner workshops, I advise my students to copy provided that they have multiple sources and that they don't post their copied output online. Copying is a fundamental step to learning and is essential for two reasons: one, to learn basics and techniques from experts, and two, to determine which influences fit your aesthetic the best. Of course this doesn't mean we should stick to copying forever; eventually we need to deviate from your initial sources and inject your own experiences and worldview into your work. There is a great article on 99u about this.
5. No one gets rich as an employee...
Unless you live below your means, get promoted constantly, and save and invest your money wisely. (Come to think of it, this is good advice for freelancers and business owners as well.) I wholeheartedly believe that putting up a business is the best decision I've made in my life so far.
6. ...But you learn invaluable lessons from the corporate world.
I worked in an office for four years, and even though our company was creative by nature, my position dealt with numbers, systems, and bureaucracy 90% of the time. There were days when I wanted to pull my hair out because of boredom, but in hindsight I think these days are what shaped me to be the entrepreneur I am today. I've learned how to deal with people from different backgrounds, to work with deadlines, to follow project briefs, to think of unconventional solutions, to beta test my ideas, to speak up when I have something to contribute, to develop the patience for administrative work, and eventually to identify an opportunity for growth even if it means leaving a comfortable position behind. Whenever fourth year students or fresh graduates ask me for advice on starting a creative business, I always tell them to find a job first, because corporate life can teach you lessons in half the time it will take you to learn them by yourself.
7. The phrase "do what you love" is overrated.
Two years into my corporate job, I realized I didn't want to sit in front of a computer all day. I clung to the notion that I had to make time to do more of the things I loved, but as time passed I struggled with the fact that I really did not know what those things were. Serendipitously, I encountered Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You, in which he argues that many purveyors of living one's passion are misguided and end up miserable most of the time because they have no idea what their real passions are. They leave their jobs only to find themselves trapped in a world of ideals with no tangible results. He suggests that people should focus on skills over passion, because working on the former often leads to finding the latter.
8. Never use being a creative as an excuse to not know your numbers.
There's a prevalent stereotype that artists are averse to numbers, but knowing basic bookkeeping principles is imperative, particularly to those who want to pursue entrepreneurship. A creative business is still a business, and even though accounting is not your forte, it certainly helps to know a bit of inventory and expense tracking, pricing, taxation and all those left-brain things. There are online tutorials on these concepts, but if the learning curve becomes unbearable, consider asking help from an expert. Think of it as safeguarding your artistic output. You don't want to work hard on your products/services only to find out that you're not making any profit.
9. Networking is a necessary evil.
I dread social events like any cookie-cutter introvert; I'd much rather stay home and read or hang out with my closest friends (4 people max). I hate to admit it, but the phrase "it's not what you know, it's who you know" is true. As much as I'd like my portfolio to speak for itself and for art directors to throw commissions my way, the world doesn't operate like that. To ease my aversion to small talk and my general awkwardness, I'll choose to see event invitations as a chance for me to step out of my comfort zone and get my work out there.
10. Work on your idea and the resources will follow.
More often than not, what hinders me from executing my ideas is thinking that I don't have enough resources to bring them to life. One prime example is my masking tape. I launched it when I was just starting my lettering business. I had limited capital then, and masking tape is not cheap to produce. I weighed the pros and cons for a couple of weeks and ultimately decided to push through with it, because I believed in the potential of the idea so much. I had to take out a loan from my personal savings to pay for production costs. Within two months of launching I was able to pay myself back and was already making profit. Solutions are out there. What's important is to give birth to the idea and the details will take care of themselves.
11. Learn the difference between shipping and half-assing.
Prominent marketing guru Seth Godin uses the term "shipping" to refer to what we would otherwise phrase as "starting before you're ready." He's big on launching within a deadline, whether we feel confident about the project or not, arguing that delays eventually prevent the project from being launched altogether. I subscribed to this view for a long time, but being an incorrigible crammer, I launch on time but present half-baked work. I realized this when I was putting together my website last year. I wasn't wowed by my designs; honestly, I was disappointed. This year I am keen on building a body of work I can be proud of. I still have self-imposed deadlines, but I make sure I work efficiently to come up with results I won't have a problem putting my name on.
12. Reach out to your idols.
I am a huge fan of Jessica Hische, so when my friend sent me a link to her ask-me-anything session last year, I couldn't wait to jump at the chance to post a question. At that time I just quit my job so I was having doubts whether I made the right decision or not. I felt really small-minded and saw lettering as an unsustainable career, so I asked Jessica (wow, first name basis!) what she would do when the type hype goes down. Her answers blew me away, and I still go back to that page whenever I feel like I need to steer myself back to the right direction. After that I've made it a habit to write my idols, to remind myself that there are people who are better than me at what I do, so I can learn from them. So far I've received replies from Mary Kate McDevitt, Katie Daisy, and Sean McCabe, among others.
13. We only become great because of the people who came before us.
This one is inspired by an Isaac Newton comic on Zen Pencils. At the end of the day, nothing is original. No matter how much pride we have in our work, we must remember that it is the sum of all the influences we have. We should not take all the credit. The world is too vast and history goes too far back for us not to take advantage of the insights they have to offer. To inspire, we must always be inspired.
To be continued.