There is a fundamental conflict in working in a creative profession, especially as a freelancer, consultant or other flavor of individual working with clients:
Clients only ever want you to do something you’ve already done.
Clients are almost exclusively results-oriented. I’ve yet to meet a client who consciously prefered a specific service provider because of the style with which said services were rendered. Rather, most business owners will decide on what results they want and what project will get them those results — convincing them of another course of action is extremely unlikely — and then look for someone who is proven to be able to produce those results, usually because they already have.
This is Only a Problem for Creatives
This is a damn fine plan from the client’s perspective (except, perhaps, not letting the expert suggest more effective courses of action): when you have a limited budget and you need to achieve specific goals with it, why would you ever go with someone who couldn’t guarantee that she knew how to get the work done? Please don’t interpret my writing this as attacking clients in any way: I love clients and I’d like to think that I understand why a person hiring me for work does so. This soap box is only geared toward creatives.
But on the creative’s end of things, this is a less-perfect solution. That’s because most of us want to try new things, expand our repertoires, even go out on a limb with a new project. If we wanted safe, we would have gotten a day job in a more secure career path.
At best, constantly repeating the same types of projects that you’ve already done will let you grow in tiny increments, as the little differences between individual clients add up. That’s the main way that freelancers tend to build up expertise and a steady-stream of clients. It’s not necessarily a problem — it’s a very good thing to constantly have money coming in. Your landlord, at the very least, will be pleased.
When Client Work Becomes a Solved Puzzle
But, just the same, it annoys me that I am doing the same thing over and over. I have solved that particular puzzle: the type of projects that my clients generally want are something that I can do in my sleep at this point. That’s exactly the reason I started exploring working more on an agency model. If I’d already solved the problem at one level, why not optimize it for a broader level?
But even that means still working on the same puzzle over and over again. It’s like a jigsaw where you know that, once you’ve put together all the edge pieces, you can just put together the blue section and everything else will fall into place. It gets easier every time you open the box, as well as less entertaining.
Every freelancer, every agency and every creative in-between has these sorts of projects: ‘bread and butter’ work that pays the bills. There’s no way to give up this sort of work, and certainly no good reason to do so. It’s here to stay and I’m well aware that I should show some gratitude.
But Sometimes You Can’t Just Live on Bread and Butter
As much as I love a nice piece of fresh bread spread with butter, I’m well aware that the combination does not contain all of the vitamins that I need to live. And that, when you get down to it, is the core of this discussion. We all need at least a little work that is good for our creative growth, not just for the bottom line.
Even if your clients aren’t asking for it, you need to stretch yourself. Convince your clients to add a new module to a project. Create something of your own and sell it. Write a book (I follow Benjamin Disraeli’s philosophy that the best way to learn a subject is to write a book about it). Studying is not enough. You can’t just attend lectures or read books. You need to put your skills to use or they’ll wither away.
Right now, we’re living in a world of opportunity. With platforms like Kickstarter making it incredibly easy to get funding for projects that we’ve shown some progress on — whether or not we have credentials to proceed — there’s no excuse to not try something new. Crowdfunding isn’t the only option, either: there are more grants, angel investors and other sources of money out there today than ever before. And all that’s assuming that you can’t frame a project so that client wants to pay you for the work. If the only thing stopping you from trying something new is cash, you’re doing it wrong.
But I would get a move on. With every revolution, there’s a period when everything is in flux (just like now), but eventually everything gels. A hierarchy falls into place. It gets harder to do something without the right connections or credentials. Right now, there truly isn’t a better time than the present to pursue a new creative project.
Repetition Isn’t A Bad Thing — But Stagnation Is
Repetition can actually be a very good thing, especially if you call it by a different name: ‘practice.’ If you haven’t perfected your daily work, you should certainly do that before moving on to the next thing.
But doing the same thing, day after day, for the rest of your life, isn’t going to feel good, no matter how much mad cash it brings in. No matter what your chosen work is — whether you’re a writer or an accountant — you can’t mentally afford to stay in the exact same spot mentally for the rest of your life. Pursue those crazy side projects: create something new and finish it. You may even wind up repeating your new ventures if a client sees that you can get appealing results.
Image by Flickr user Yui Sotozaki