The difference between creatives and creative professionals

For a really long time, I couldn’t say out loud that I was a writer, designer, illustrator, or even artist without feeling like a fraud. I whispered it, mumbled it, and felt sheepish about it. It is too easy, I thought, to pick up a laptop or paintbrush or Photoshop pen tool and call myself an [insert creative title]. I hadn’t earned it. I had pieces here and there, but I had no notable bylines, commissions, awards, grants, or fancy degrees to offer unmistakable proof, to the world, that I was a real anything.

Instead, I would self-identify as “a creative;” this unimposing, willy-nilly word that could mean anything you needed it to mean, depending on the circumstance. You call your creative friends to help you decorate your apartment, to submit poems to your zine, to design your fiancé’s surprise birthday dinner menu. Being a creative meant you had an acute aesthetic sensitivity, a deep appreciation for beauty, and a persistent desire to make things. Being a creative meant you wrote stories on the weekends, painted watercolors as birthday gifts, plotted hopeful new work while working a day job. So that’s what I did. I graduated college, got a (relatively) undemanding day job, and vowed that I would work at my craft: mornings before work, evenings after work, and on the weekends. I tried this for about a year, and then, I stopped.

The problem was: I wasn’t very good at being a creative. The entire time I was writing, squeezing in an hour here and there, I felt apathetic and disembodied from my work. I spent so much time quieting the self-defeating voices in my head, debating what to write about, starting, stopping, and questioning why anything I wrote even mattered, that I had no energy leftover to write. When I did write, nothing I produced felt good enough. I didn’t feel enough, and that feeling of not-enoughness paralyzed me. The zenith moment was when my boss lauded me for my year of hard work, gave me a promotion, and urged me to take more ownership over the future of the company. I stopped and realized that I was embarking down a path I never wanted in the first place.

Over the next few months, I learned something that, only recently, has become a revelation that I can verbalize: if I continued like this, I was never going to be the kind of creative I wanted to be. I was never going to value myself enough as a creative. In order to build the career I wanted, to do the work that I wanted, I had to become more than just a creative; I had to become a creative professional– someone who commits to making money from her creativity. And in order to become a creative professional, I had to start treating myself like one.

Before I go any further, let me further define my conception of “creative” and “professional.”

Creatives

A creative is someone who expresses the essence of herself, her lens through which she views the world, and her aesthetic sensibilities, through her art. A creative is driven by the desire to create – nothing else makes her feel more alive and true, nothing else is quite as fulfilling. A creative is inhabited by, obedient to, and driven by her muse – anything which, internal or external, inspires her. She relishes in the process, and once she’s completed the work, her instinct is to feel both over-protective of her work, and self-disparaging towards it. The whole thing always feels intensely personal, because, really, it is.

Professionals

A professional, by definition, creates things that people value and are willing to pay for; she supports her livelihood through her work. A professional shows up at her job at the same time everyday, and works diligently until she’s accomplished her task, no matter what it is. A professional always delivers on time, because a professional cannot afford to procrastinate. A professional does not make excuses. And if a professional fails, the professional does not wallow in self-pity. A professional is grounded in her career with a clear goal and an unshakable sense of purpose.

Perhaps most importantly, a professional does not first become a professional by having notable bylines, commissions, awards, grants, or graduate degrees. She might accrue that. But that is not what makes her a professional. Above all, a professional gets the job done. A professional does not wait to be validated every morning before she sits down to work. A professional does not meekly ask the world how much she is worth, or, if she is worth anything at all. A professional knows how much her work is worth, and she finds people willing to pay her for it.

Valuing yourself as a creative professional

All creative professionals are creative, but not all creatives are professionals. To be clear, creatives can be highly productive, reliable, and disciplined, but those aren’t the qualities that make someone a creative; those are the qualities that make someone a professional.

Not everyone wants to rely on their creativity as a source of income, or walk the line between authentic creative work and “commercial work,” a distinction I’m wary of, and a topic for another essay. Being a creative is a difficult, rewarding thing in itself, and for many people, that is enough.

You become a creative professional the day you decide to become one, the day you start valuing yourself as a professional. It starts with three crucial mindset shifts:

#1) Creative professionals create value for others.

In order to make a living from their work, creative professionals have to find the overlap between what they truly love, and what other people value. You don’t need to have mass market appeal in order to be successful; you just need, as Kevin Kelly says, a thousand true fans. This requires that you think about your work from different perspectives— not just “what can I make that I will love” but also, “how can I use my creativity to add something that helps others, solves a problem, or provides a new perspective?”

Being a creative professional is recognizing and accepting that there are different types of creative work, with varying levels at which people are willing to pay for you to do them. Perhaps one type of creative work becomes an enabler, which will then allow you to take risks making work that isn’t as lucrative, at least, not right away. Or the enabler might be the day job or part time jobs, until you’re able to create the value that your audience, patrons, or clients will recognize. Being a creative professional is being willing to work within these limits, and, if anything, to see it as a worthwhile challenge.

#2) Creative professionals value their work. Always.

For creatives, this is much harder than it sounds. Because creative work often feels so personal, it’s easy to be convinced by the voices in your head that say, “This isn’t good enough. Who is going to read this anyway? Who cares about what I make? Why does this even matter?” Creative professionals value the entire process— the bad first starts, the bad second starts, the worse third starts— because they are grounded in their end goal: to eventually, one day, make something that is decent. And then to do it again. And again.

Instead of upholding her responsibility to her boss or to her client, the creative professional upholds her responsibility to herself. No matter how bad something looks, the creative professional never undermines herself, never dismisses her work, never gives into self-pitying, existential quandaries, because she is a professional.

Valuing your work also means learning how to sell it for money. It’s learning how to find the right home for your work, the right outlet for your craft. It’s also being confident enough in the value of your work to say no to the people who try and take advantage of it.

#3) Creative professionals value themselves.

For me, the way I’ve come to value myself as a creative is by learning to use different permutations of my creative skills professionally– for pay. The act of valuing myself is the act of quieting the sheepish, self-disparaging voices in my head, and saying, “No, I will not write/design/illustrate at this abysmally low rate or for free– not without an exceptionally self-motivated reason to do (see this diagram), and not even because of money or lack thereof, but because I’m standing up for what I’m worth. I’m standing up for myself, to remind MYSELF that I’m worth it, as much as I’m reminding you.”

Valuing yourself means setting a high standard for your work, then doing what it takes to get there. At the same time, it might mean understanding that your work isn’t there yet, and deciding which opportunities are still worth taking. It’s paying attention to that churning feeling of resentment in the pit of your stomach, when you’re doing more work than you signed up for, and doing it for less than you feel comfortable with. The first step to become a creative professional is to stop undermining yourself. Stop giving other people excuses to pay you less, because then, they will.

No matter what happens, creative professionals are grounded in their sense of creative self-worth. Though for me the question of value started with money, it extends much beyond it. It means not comparing yourself harshly with others, not giving into surround-sound feelings jealousy and inadequacy, and maybe most of all, not letting your work define your sense of self-worth.

To be continued…

Whenever I start doubting myself and my work, I put on this mindset. I’ll ask myself: “How would the creative professionals I admire and respect the most respond to this?” And: “How would the wiser and older me respond to this, when I AM one of the creative professionals I admire and respect the most?” Just like this, I choose who I am becoming, day by day.

There is so much more I can say about this, but for now, I’ll end with this:

The only way I saved myself from becoming a failed creative was by becoming a creative professional.

It is less glamorous, less romantic, and more “commercialized,” some might argue. Maybe some people think I’m selling out, because those people prefer to keep the inspiration separate from the positioning, selling, and business part of it. Honestly, I like the selling and business part of it because it keeps me grounded in the real world, in providing real value to real people, and it’s easier to remind myself that what I’m doing matters.

But the turning point is not when quit your job, or when you first get paid for your creative work — the turning point is in the mindset shift that takes place when you begin to value yourself as a creative professional. You make decisions as a creative professional, and when you decide to keep doing the work no matter what. It is a magical, freeing, and empowering feeling. It’s helped me respect myself more a creative, and to decide that my creativity is something that’s worth pursuing.

Recommended resources for further reading

The War of Art – Steven Pressfield
One of the most articulate books about the creative struggle and professionalism.

Seth Godin’s Freelancer ecourse on Udemy
Incredibly profound – the mindset you need to be remarkable.

Being Boss podcast
A nourishing podcast that gave me the momentum to give notice to my boss.

Brene Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert
They often speak about the feeling of not-enoughness. Here’s my favorite podcast episode.

Should I work for free? – Jessica Hische
Jessica Hische also keeps an amazing blog here.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
A method that’s helped me get unstuck and stay grounded as a creative.

Ira Glass on Storytelling
All about persistence, doggedness, and the pursuit of getting better at one’s craft.