Clients Want You to Repeat What You’ve Already Done

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

Review: The Progress Principle

Officially, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work is geared towards bigger businesses. Its authors, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, focused their research on creative teams within much bigger organizations — the guys who do R and D work for a big corporation, for instance.

But while the teams studied didn’t have as much on their plates as any good entrepreneur is juggling, there are still a lot of relevant concepts in this book for someone with a significantly smaller team. We may not be in a position where we need to motivate employees right this instant, but we need to motivate ourselves and anyone else that winds up working with us (even if they aren’t employees). That’s even more true when we’re talking about creative ventures.

The Research Behind the Book

Amabile and Kramer are, first and foremost, researchers. They’ve both done some pretty intense study of business and creativity. The Progress Principle is no different. Before writing the book, they collected more than 12,000 diary entries from individuals who work on creative teams and they did an incredibly in-depth analysis of all of those entries.

The Short Version

There are certain things that seem like common sense when it comes to working with a team. Little things, like treating your team consistently and not changing up the schedule underneath them, make a team work better. But Amabile and Kramer’s research demonstrates that isn’t quite as common a perspective as we’d like. Within their case studies, they identify some fairly depressing examples, like companies that don’t even give employees the necessary resources to do their work or that change projects with no warning. These may be signs of a bad corporate culture to begin with, but it also highlights how easy it is to skip over facets of working with real live human beings that should be second nature.

The name of the book, The Progress Principle, comes from a noteworthy find in the duo’s research: when a team member feels like she’s making progress, she feels much better about her work. Day in and day out support are nice, an environment in which a team member feels valued is lovely — but the real motivation comes in to play when someone is able to see that she’s moving forward.

It’s worth your time and effort to cultivate an awareness of the progress being made on any given project, whether it’s your own progress or someone else’s. Sure, there’s plenty of other really useful information in this book, but that’s a great starting point.

A Final Note

I’ll be honest with you: this book is dense. If you ignore the introduction, the appendices and everything else that isn’t the meat of the book, you’re only reading 182 pages — yes, I counted. But there’s nothing extraneous in there. It’s the results of an exhaustive research project. If you’re the type to geek out on big data sets, there’s a really interesting breakdown of Amabile and Kramer’s data collection in the appendix.

It took me longer than usual to make it through this book. I can normally pound through a business book, but for The Progress Principle I had to slow way down, reading just a section at a time and thinking through what it means. I do recommend the book, but not as light reading.

Review: 73 Ways to Fire Up (or Just Fire) the Muse

I write a lot. There are weeks when I feel like I do absolutely nothing beyond dream up new article ideas and then write them. That can be a bit wearing and I can’t afford writer’s block. To combat creative fatigue, I’m always on the look out for a little inspiration. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen’s ebook, 73 Ways to Fire Up (or Just Fire) the Muse provides some great tips to moving past obstacles in your writing.

Laurie divided the information into fifteen obstacles, from surviving the fear of rejection to waiting for publication. Each of the fifteen sections starts with an overview of the problem, followed by advice on how to work through those obstacles. That includes advice from big name authors, such Annie Dillard (a Pulitzer-prize winner), as well as from freelancers, writers with day jobs and other practitioners of the craft of writing. There may just be a piece of advice from me in there some where. Laurie winds up each section with a few quotes from the most successful writers out there — like Agatha Christie.

Different Opinions and Different Approaches

Considering writing is a creative act, the fact that there are so many different approaches to even something as simple as finding something to write about should come as no surprise. One of the strengths of 73 Ways to Fire Up (or Just Fire) the Muse is that it showcases so many different approaches. No matter your style or subject matter, you’ll find useful advice in this ebook.

The organization also makes it easy to use this ebook. If you’re having a specific problem with your writing, don’t bother with reading the book straight through — there’s great information in each section, but it may not be applicable to what you’re going through right now. Skip to the section that really reflects what you need to work on and see what tips and quips Laurie has collected for you.

You can purchase 73 Ways to Fire Up (or Just Fire) the Muse for $9.95. I’d like to point out, of course, that it will be a more useful resource for some writers than others. If you have a system that works for you, this ebook may be overkill — especially if changing your system would slow you down.

If, however, you need some help with the creative side of the writing business, this ebook can help you see how other writers are doing it and give you some ideas on how to up your game.