“My boss is fine. I LOVE my coworkers (at least most of them). BUT...I just don’t get to be creative enough in my work.” I have heard shades of this sentiment from many creative professionals. The next steps are predictable. They quit. Get a new job. They’re flying high until the honeymoon fades, tumbling to the same familiar place. Ah, the cycle of the frustrated creative.
The question is, should your job completely satisfy your need to be creative? As a creative pro you’re likely providing creative services for someone else: clients. Clients can be people inside or outside your organization. The point is you’re working for other people. Some of those clients might be great, others not so much.
With each client and project comes limitations, constraints, subjective feedback, and curveballs. In addition, you have a responsibility to your audience or user. The hope is, with great poise and professionalism, you serve both well. However, the concessions you make are typically the very things that deflate your optimism for great creative output. Unless you don’t mind digging your heels into the ground on each and every decision in order to “Uphold the integrity of the creative!” In which case, your career might be shorter than you wish.
To be clear, I’m not complaining about any of this. I’m trying to prevent you from repeating history. Two points of clarification. First, there are some jobs that suck. By all means, get out if you can. Conversely, there are some amazing jobs that are the absolute perfect marriage of creative need and fulfillment. But for everyone else, you need to understand that you will go through dry seasons. You’ll likely flirt with burnout. You will encounter difficult people. And if you’re relying solely on your job to scratch your creative itch, I encourage you to consider a different approach.
Remember the thing you used to do? You know, the thing that brought you such joy. The thing that led others to label you as a “creative type.” The thing that guided you into your professional career? Go do that thing again. Drawing, painting, theater, writing, cooking, pottery, music, sculpture, screenprinting, artwork, whatever — as long as it’s not the same job you’re getting paid to do.
Or do the thing you always wanted to do but never have. The risky one with failure written all over it. Your creative fire will leap with joy. Stop making excuses and go do it.
Tread lightly, my friend. Before you start a side job, make sure you understand why you’re doing it. If you need to earn more income, continue to remind yourself of that. If it’s for a good cause, more power to you. This is a different tactic from doing it to invigorate your creative spirit, and that’s okay. But adding more work to your plate just for work’s sake might deplete your creative energies that much quicker. However some opportunities can lead to bigger things and that can energize in a whole different way.
Ah, door number three. This is where I’ve found the most reward. The greatest feeling I experience as a creative is helping someone take an idea that’s bounced around in their heads for ages and make it tangible – to put a shape or a color palette to it, to print their fledgling brand on a shirt, to make their passions real. From time to time, I pick up jobs like this, typically for family, friends, neighbors, or people in my community.
And I do it pro bono. Always. To be clear, this is a personal choice. It may not work for you or your situation. But for me, it’s the best of both worlds. I have the limitations of a real project, unlike creative hobbies, without the pressure of timelines and client expectations that come with a side hustle. This approach connects me back to the core motivation behind my profession – helping others. It’s pure and it’s gratifying but it’s not the only way. Maybe you love to cook or knit. Guess what? There’s plenty of people who’d love to share in that meal or could use a warm scarf. Creative problem solvers are in incredible demand. Pick a fledgling business, community organization, or non-profit to help out. Do a piece or a part, lead it all, the key is to (re)connect to your creative why.
If you do take this invitation, do yourself a favor and do it for the pure joy of doing it. Quiet the inner critic – it’s the harshest client of all. Instead, focus on putting something new into the world. Honor the courageous act that it is and stop relying on your employer or your clients to meet that deeply inherent desire to create.
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