For Creative People: How to Develop Your Career

by Brown, Debbie Monday, May 07, 2007
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"If you're a truly creative person, you know that feeling insecure and lonely is par for the course. You can't have it both ways: you can't be creative, and conform too. You have to recognize that what makes you different also makes you creative."
- Arno Penzias in Fast Company

In my work with attorneys, MBA's, entrepreneurs and other creative professionals, I often watch people struggle with the need to conform to other people's expectations. This frequently means having a narrowly defined career and some perceived level of security. It also means fitting in with a particular company culture.

But creative types in particular often require variety in job tasks and freedom to experiment. They tend to be entrepreneurial in spirit, and don't want to be micro-managed. Sometimes this may mean having two or three part-time jobs simultaneously, or having several different careers in one lifetime. If we look at some of the more popular and successful people in the entertainment industry, for instance, we see that they not only act, but also may direct and produce. Writers may be reporters, novelists and commentators. Singers may write children's books. Some may choose several distinctly different careers, perhaps as a way to use up all of their talents in one lifetime. I started out as a clinical social worker, then became a stock broker for several years and I have had my career consulting firm since 1993. At all times I have viewed my work as my "craft," and I consider myself to be a creative, resourceful person. Having my own firm has allowed me to concentrate on the things I do best, and the flexibility to change and grow at my own pace.

A bird does not sing because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song.
- Chinese proverb

Innovative high tech firms hire people who often don't fit the traditional mold. The interactive departments of established companies are housed in different locations or at different sections of the corporate headquarters. Their culture is less restrictive and dress is casual. One very conservative Fortune 500 company has pool tables in the building that houses the web design and strategy departments. Rules that apply to the rest of the company do not apply to this group. In this respect, the company has adapted to these creative types in order to recruit and retain these highly talented people. This revolution in internet technology has affected the firms who interact with these companies as well. The trend in attire then becomes business casual to adapt to the environment of the tech firm.

In this example we see how the world has changed to accommodate these creative people. Those individuals who are comfortable with what makes them different and stay true to those qualities, expect the world to adjust for them. In my years working with creative types, it holds true that those who embrace who they are, rather than deny and suppress their true selves, are more fulfilled individuals. If we are aware of the unique combination of qualities and strengths that we alone have, we can then focus on ways to use these in our lives.

Sometimes I work with people who, although miserable, are resistant to making any adjustments to transition to work they enjoy. One such client is a woman in her mid twenties who makes a good salary, but has no full-time work experience except for a year with a law firm. She would like to transition out of law, but refuses to consider a job that would pay her less than her current salary.

In her book The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron says, when speaking of highly creative types like this attorney, (and this applies to others as well)...."if being an artist (or something else) seems too good to be true to you, you will devise a price tag for it that strikes you as unpayable. Hence you remain blocked."

This person wants to skip the steps it takes to get in touch with herself, to hear her true voice. Her perceived need to earn as much money as she currently does, and her reluctance to do the grunge work that is necessary to explore career options, is the block that keeps her from moving forward. It becomes an either/or, black or white philosophy, this idea of all or nothing, like there are no other alternatives to being inspired and fulfilled in her work and still have the material comforts she requires.

Frequently people get messages from family and friends that doing creative work does not pay. But developing creativity and resourcefulness in your career and in how you manage your career can pay off in dollar rewards as well as in personal fulfillment.

Take Action

If you feel blocked in developing your career, think about ways that you have solved other problems successfully in the past. When were you the most resourceful and creative in problem solving? What was the process that you went through?

Visualize and meditate on the life and the career you want. How do you want to express yourself? What are the best ways for you to do this? Suspend all judgement. Then start to take small steps in those directions. Talk to people who are doing what you think you might want to do. Start experimenting in low risk ways. Whatever it is that you want to do, start doing it. If you want to write, start writing. If you want to start your own business, start conducting the research and creating the business plan.

Currently I am working with a lawyer who has always sought creative outlets that he has not gotten through his work. He took two years off to dance and do choreography. After going through the assessment process with me, he determined that he wants to turn sculpture, a longtime hobby, into a full-time career. He has made trips to the Western part of the US to visit people who are doing what he wants to do. He now sees that it is an achievable goal. He has created a space in his home for a studio dedicated to creating sculpture. I have no doubt that with his talent and determination he will make it happen.

Another younger attorney was unhappy working with a large law firm practicing environmental law. He worked long hours, and despite his interest in the environment, was not happy practicing law in this area. He was able to take a job teaching at a law school. For the next two years he focused on getting his life in balance. He became more involved in environmental activities---his passion. He got married. He and his wife identified a city where they would like to live. Not long after visiting that city, he received an offer with a land trust. It seems that often when we take small steps in the direction we want to go, the universe also takes steps to meet us.

Unlike the earlier example, this person was willing to take a cut in salary to be able to scale back, get his life in balance and plan for the future. Since he lived under his means, he could support himself on the teaching salary. This kind of flexibility is sometimes what is required when we make changes. It is important to have a vision for your life, but it is also helpful to refrain from being rigidly attached to the way you think it should unfold.