If you’re a professional creative, chances are you got into this line of work because you were passionate about the art. It was a passing interest that grew into a hobby that grew into a career.
But somewhere along the line, the passion and creativity that drove you in the beginning began to diminish. Maybe it was dealing with that umpteenth client that wanted way more than he was willing to pay. Maybe it is all those jobs you took that didn’t really excite you, but “hey, they paid the bills.” Maybe it’s dealing with clients that have bad taste, don’t know they have bad taste, then order you to make changes to something you’ve created for them that will instill their bad taste, and subsequently, your name is now attached to it.
How can we as artists maximize our creative output, while at the same time, make a living for ourselves? By maximizing creative output, I mean maximizing both the quality of the work AND the satisfaction you derive from it.
This is a topic I have been studying and exploring for quite some time now. After reading dozens of books (particularly Daniel Pink’s “Drive”),watching countless TED videos, and pulling from our own experiences, we’ve come up with an answer. I call it the Artistry Maximization Matrix(TM). (Ooooh… aaah)
Just Remember M.I.T.M.O.
Here’s the secret solution: you have to Minimize Input To Maximize Output. Specifically, in order for you as an artist to maximize your creative output, and still make a living, you must minimize the amount of input the person(s) paying your bills has on your art. It’s that simple. In order to do that best, you must fall into one of four categories:
- The “Sally Albright”
- The Entertainer
- The NeXT Guy
- The Beneficiary
The “Sally Albright”
One of my all-time favorite movies is 1989’s “When Harry Met Sally.” This is the quintessential romantic comedy. In it, Meg Ryan plays Sally, a quirky 30-something who loves to have everything “on the side” (e.g. she’lll have the mixed green salad with the balsamic vinaigrette, but she wants the vinaigrette on the side; she wants an apple pie a la mode, but she wants the ice cream on the side; she had the rich chocolate cream sauce for her coconut wedding cake on the side; on the side was a very big thing for her).
If you haven’t figured it out by now, the first and foremost way to maximize your creative output is to do your art on the side. For many of you that may mean keeping your regular J-O-B. And you know what, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Don’t give in to the notion that you HAVE to start a business. Starting and running a business is not for everyone. And as I alluded to earlier, it can suck the joy and creativity right out of you.
A great example of someone who has maximized his output while keeping his “day job” is world-renowned photographer and social media maven Thomas Hawk. He is known for his photography, but his main bill-paying job is in the financial services industry. It’s been a while since I’ve interviewed him, so as of this writing that may have changed and he may make a bulk of his income from his art. If so, he made it into our next category.
This is the artist who makes the kind of art THEY want to make, and either 1) people are willing to pay them for it, or 2) they can generate ad revenue due to the traffic their art creates. Great examples include:
- YouTubers like Freddie Wong and iJustine
- Filmmakers like Ed Burns who now makes his movies and have them go direct to VOD or iTunes
- Photographers like Trey Ratcliff who supports a company of 10 employees solely on the licenses of the photographs he takes (which he posts online in full resolution for FREE personal use under Creative Commons.)
This is one of the hardest things to be able to do. But if you can achieve the notoriety and following that gives you the freedom to make whatever kind of art you want, the benefits are amazing.
The NeXT Guy
As you may have inferred by the way I wrote “NeXT”, this next category has something to do with NeXT Computers, the company Steve Jobs founded when he was ousted from Apple in the mid-80s. According to his biography, Steve wanted a world-class brand for NeXT. So he hired a world-class designer: Paul Rand. Paul had designed the logos for a number of international brands. Steve paid him $100,000 for ONE design. (Keep in mind, that’s in 1986 dollars!) Paul made it clear that Steve would get ONE design. No revisions. Take it or leave it. And in any case, Paul would still get his money.
This is the category most of us who run our own creative businesses wish we could be in. Where our work is in such demand, our style so distinctive, we can charge what we want AND include the parameter that the client has absolutely no say in the matter. They don’t pick the music. They can’t offer any revisions. They take it or leave it. But in any case, we get paid.
This last category is a rather non-traditional way of approaching the subject, but one worth mentioning. Essentially, a person or organization with the resources believes in your work so much, they fund it. This could be grants you earn, a foundation that believes in some cause you’re championing, or it could be dozens of people who donate to your work. (A perfect example of the latter are evangelical organizations where missionary members have to get sponsors that help pay for all their expenses).
So where do you fall? Chances are, you’re like me. You really don’t fall into any of these categories. You own your own business, you make a living at it, and to some extent, clients hire you because of your style and you have some (maybe even a lot) of say in how you create your art. But, ultimately, the client still has the final word. And you still take those jobs that are “just a paycheck.” You find that much of the work you do, while good, is not what you would call “great.” It’s not where you WANT to be. Your artistic output may be high, but it’s not maximized. So what do you do?
The answer? Personal work.
Get out there and do work that is just for YOU. It’s what I’ve been doing more of since last year and I’m loving it. It’s why I do film contests. It’s why I produce my podcast. It’s why I’m working on a documentary series. And I honestly believe it is the best way for self-employed creatives to maximize their creative output, as well as move closer to one of the categories listed above. Between the podcasts I’ve produced interviewing filmmakers and photographers, I’ve had in-depth conversations with nearly 200 artists, and one recurring theme is the power and importance of personal work. Personal work not only maximizes creative output for the self-employed, but it often leads to bigger and better jobs when helping artists reach the next level.
Where do you fall within the Artistry Maximization Matrix?
Mark Manley (@markmanley) says
Ron, I love this! Thanks for calling out the categories, and pointing out the fact that one can move from one into another. As I am spending more time with my little boys I’m realizing that I’m having to make some tough decisions, and this Matrix will help me with that. It is so tempting to think I could be happier if I just “did my own thing”, but realistically, I could end up pretty unhappy if I jumped ship with the wrong expectations (“grass is greener” syndrome). Anyway, thanks again – i’m going to ‘favorite’ this and pass it along…
Ron Dawson says
So glad you found it inspring Mark. Sounds like you’re being smart about your decisions.
Tim Sparks says
Ron, this was confirmation for me. Very inspiring. I love my work and honestly your book Refocus was one of the first things I read when I got out of the military and started a business that I had waited too long to start. I just had the idea to expound on a plot for a 24 hour film festival film and this is extra motivating!
Ron Dawson says
Sweet. Thanks for buying the book and for your comment.
Definitely do that 24 hour film fest. I did the 48hour film fest last year and it was the greatest filmmaking experience of my life. Come back and let us know how it goes.
Ross Sales says
Great article! MITMO. Love it!