One of the most valuable lessons of working as a freelancer over nine years has been the importance of doing work for myself, rather than for others.
This sounds selfish, because I suppose it is, and I get that this seems to go against a lot of what I’ve written about before, which it does not. The key thing I want to drive home is that selfishness is the root to selflessness (and great work and money).
This can be a hard concept to grasp, and I had trouble putting this into words before I wrote this. I will try to put all this in the simplest way I can.
Often, our intention is to gain admiration from people. We want to be liked by others, and we want to feel good that others have validated our creations.
We think that being liked for our work is what will save us, because we think being liked gives us protection and a sense of superiority.
However, when we work towards what we assume others will like, it stimulates zero creativity, because the end result is dependant on the judgements of others.
You must create for only one person in anything you do. And that person is you. You must work to satisfy not the judgement of others, but purely our own judgement.
Our work should not be to impress others, only ourselves. That is when work of real value and meaning gets made.
I’ve produced a lot of stuff where I put the judgement of other people over my own, and it’s led to work that, frankly, sucks.
So when the poet writes words that bring her real pleasure, she creates value that others will benefit from.
When the furniture-maker crafts a chair for himself, his focus is on value within his own realm of judgement. He makes the best chair he can as a result, even if he’s using an Ikea manual to put one together. Others will naturally benefit from this chair, because it was made with love and self-awareness.
You might be wondering how this approach works in the world of client work or producing for the customer or a wider audience. It still applies.
If you are creating something based on a client brief, you are still working for yourself, not to impress others. The brief creates structure, but you are working for you, in the confines of the instructions you were given.
If you’re an illustrator for a living like I am, your work will (hopefully) be used, enjoyed and paid for by others. This understanding sets the criteria that defines how and what you will create, but you then must create for yourself.
That is how truly valuable work gets made, and how you will be rewarded healthily for it.
Constraints like being a specialist in a specific area, receiving client instructions, and focusing on small target markets encourage creativity because they are limits that help you make a judgement on what is important. Again, the final judgement relies on yourself not on others.
And here’s the thing about money.
When we combine working for ourselves with making this a business venture, our creativity only benefits.
Working for money means that we need to apply a set of guidelines to the work we do, like working out who our audience is, what is selling and what will help you stand out. These are all effectively limitations, and that’s a good thing, because creativity is in its essence making the most out of less, and money is a reward for valuable work.
A lot of people get worried about how working for money taints the creative process. It won’t if you first define what you must do in order to earn, followed by pure creativity within those guidelines.
Did Andy Warhol, who made millions in his lifetime, worry about what others thought about his soup cans? But at the same time, did he figure out a way to make money? Did making money taint his creativity? Do you think he worked for himself or to impress others first?
I made a conscious decision some years ago to focus on vector map and landscape illustrations for a specific type of client, because I’d seen potential for the demand for that kind of artwork, while at the same time enjoying the process of making it.
With a refined style that attracts certain clients, I’m able to earn money doing it, but also express myself creatively, with room to breathe for the evolution of my style as well.
Whenever I’ve found a project that drains the life out of me, I’ve noticed it has always been when I’m working purely for others, and not myself. Today, I either work to impress myself within a brief, or I reject a brief altogether if it is unlikely to provide some room for creativity.
Creativity doesn’t necessarily mean swooping brush strokes, throwing up on a canvas or achieving a euphoric state during the process. Some of these are plain weird. Creativity is simply making better decisions whether that be through the synergy of several ideas, or doing more with less.
Being purely creative and expressive is great, but if you do all this with constraints, like within the confines of a business or on a particular theme, the quality of your work can still flourish.
This is why I’m always talking about the importance of specialisation and restriction and simplification when it comes to work and business.
Your job is to create the conditions that work for you, so that you can make money from a craft that interests you. This might require some searching.
William Shakespeare undoubtedly wrote for himself. His work was entirely unique. He even invented hundreds of new words that we still use today in the English language.
He wasn’t adapting his work to what he assumed others would like. He was an inventor. He worked purely for himself, from his own soul.
His plays, however, were also a huge success during his time and he wrote specifically for live theatrical performance, a 16th Century audience, and he wrote to shed light on the human condition of the time.
These were his constraints, and they guided him, and yet he didn’t write directly for anyone other than himself.
Just because he was Shakespeare does not mean that we can’t be like Shakespeare too, in fact, it’s becoming more and more necessary.
The best works of art, the very best performances, the stories that made the biggest impression on us are always the ones that were created for the creators.
And here’s the crucial thing. When we create for ourselves, we are doing what is best for our audience too.