5 essential daily practices for creative professionals

Before I quit my day job, I binge-read everything I could about what it would take to support myself as a creative professional. 

How do I balance the business side of things— marketing myself, getting clients, building a digital presence, sharing my stuff, and that awful-sounding word, networking— while doing the tender, loving craft of my work? 

Well, common advice for new entrepreneurs goes like this: 

  1. Work like crazy. If you aren't exhausted, you're not working hard enough.

  2. Network till you drop. With anybody and everybody who will listen.

  3. Always be promoting yourself and your work. Yell it from the rooftops!

While the principles behind it are correct— the idea that hard work, relationships, and exposure are crucial parts of being successful— the how of accomplishing it felt wrong. Who can work 80 hours a week and not expect to crash and burn? Who actually loves the idea of 2-minute small talk, obligatory follow-up emails, and annoying your friends on social media with relentless self-promotion? 

Instead, frame it in a way that feels true to you. 

I realized that in order to "network" and "promote myself" consistently, I have to approach it in a way that feels authentic to who I am, and to my voice. I wanted to try and make it into a pleasurable experience, if possible. That's the only way I was going to do it consistently, with heart and purpose, which means: that was the only way it would be effective. Some amazing creatives who've taught me a lot about this— Austin Kleon, Paul Jarvis, and the Being Boss ladies

What I wanted was a reliable system to follow, something that felt grounded and down-to-earth. So I came up with this diagram—a summary of 5 essential practices for creative professionals. This is specifically made for creative who make a living from their work, but you could apply it to anyone who wants to build something special.  

Practice #1 - Nourish yourself  first. 

Mental, emotional, and physical nourishment is the wellspring of everything you'll do. I like practicing a morning routine with meditation and tea, getting plenty of sleep, doing yoga before lunch, spending luxurious evenings with friends, taking naps on the weekends, sitting in the park with fruit and a good book... and just reminding myself that it's okay to treat myself. I'm challenging myself to work better, not harder. 

Practice #2 - Do the work. 

This is diligently honing your craft, your expertise, or your portfolio, as well as anything related to making your main pursuit possible. Some parts of doing the work are more enjoyable than others, but all of it takes consistency and doggedness. I'm not sure there are any shortcuts here, though there are ways to be more efficient with it. You learn from the work you do, and then you share your work (and what you learn) with others. 

Practice #3 - Learn and iterate. 

If I think about everyday and every project as an experiment, I'm a lot less anxious about needing it to be perfect. I take each thing I experience—a design project I'm working on, my daily productivity, a coaching session with a client, a design class I attend, a talk with a friend, a podcast I listen to, a book I read, a piece of work I admire—and I ask myself: what's an insight I can learn from this? How can it help me in my quest to make things (writing, design, coaching, products) more beautiful and true, more efficiently and effectively? How can this help other people? I treat myself like an experiment, and I focus on quickly iterating, instead of finding the perfect version 1.0. 

Practice #4 - Give and share with generosity. 

My favorite book to read about the fear of sharing (a problem I have) is Austin Kleon's Show Your Work. Instead of thinking of showing my work as "promoting myself," I try to think of it as an act of giving and sharing something I hope can be useful, thought-provoking, or valuable in some small way. Sharing out of generosity feels better than sharing out of a need for validation and attention. (I can get that, like from J). Other people can feel this, too. When people sense neediness, they run the other direction. 

In Guy Kawasaki's The Art of Social Media, he brings up the idea of doing something everyday to help your digital karma. 

"So share other people's posts, make positive and intelligent comments, suggest resources and solutions, and rack up points on the karmic scoreboard in the clouds. Goodness will eventually flow to your posts, I promise."

Practice #5 - Connect honestly. 

What if we treated professional relationships (even purely digital ones) the way we treat potential friends? 

Instead of approaching every interaction with a goal-oriented, utilitarian mindset, focus on making a connection and building a relationship; perhaps even a lasting one. I think intuition and instinct is more reliable than following any networking book. When I'm meeting someone new, or even posting something online, the rule of thumb I like to ask myself is: does this feel true and honest to me as a person, not just the me-who-is-needing-to-network? Is this how I would connect with people in normal life? The idea is that this should feel like normal life. 

Concluding thoughts

Sometimes it's nice to have a quick check-in with yourself and ask, which practices are out of balance? Which ones do you need more of? These days, I'm doing okay with 1, 2, and 3, but, publishing blog posts aside, not enough 4 or 5.  I like to think of each component as a real practice— the way people talk about having a yoga or meditation practice.

As creative professionals, we can have a nourishing practice, a doing-the-work practice, a learning practice, a giving practice, and a connecting practice. Eventually, it will feel like we're just breathing.