10 Lessons We Learned at The Creative Works Conference
Last weekend we were lucky enough to attend the Creative Works Conference in downtown Memphis. The conference was packed with heavy hitters in the design and illustration world, including Dana Tanamachi, Invisible Creature, Aaron Draplin, Jesse Bryan, Brandon Rike, Danielle Evans, and tons more. We laughed, we learned, we drank beer in an indoor trailer park. So what lessons did we glean from this three day information onslaught? While a lot of what was shared was aimed specifically at creatives, the speakers were so open and honest about their work and lives that quite a bit of what they spoke about would be applicable to anyone who wants to have a fulfilling career, period. So here’s a super-condensed version of some of the advice that had us emerge from the conference feeling energized and ready to take on the world.
1. “We all start out embarrassed”
Don’t let your work that doesn’t turn out exactly like you thought it would stop you from trying, and trying again. Know that even the people you most look up to in your field have been where you are now, and have experienced the same struggles and self-doubt (and are still experiencing them, right now!). All of us have been trapped in the perfectionism-fueled procrastination spiral that makes us wait until the last minute to start working on something, because we’re afraid we’ll fail at it, and then end up crying on the floor at 4am. Read this Ira Glass quote and take heart. You are not alone.
2. Don’t ask for permission. Fake it ’til you make it.
The longer I live in the adult world, the more obvious it becomes that nobody really knows what they’re doing. On one hand, that’s a pretty terrifying realization for a young adult. (You mean I’m never just going to wake up one day and have a complete handle on how this all works? Oh.) But on the plus side, it means you don’t need to wait for somebody to tell you you’re ready to do what you dream of doing. Want to be a videographer? Make a video. Want to be a web designer? Start building websites. Stop waiting and start doing. We’re all making it up as we go along, join the club.
3. Put your head down and work. Work, work, work.
Now that you’re making, make a lot. Work constantly. Push your work, and push yourself. Most of becoming better at what you love is a sheer bulk of hours spent honing your craft and pushing through your not-great work to arrive at something that at least vaguely resembles what you originally envisioned. Not every project is going to change your life or make you famous. Recognize that even the jobs you’re not thrilled about can be a stepping stone to where you want to be, even if right now it’s designing lawn chairs for Cher. Take pride in the quality of what you do, no matter how small the project, and treat every job as the potential learning experience it is.
4. But work isn’t life.
One of my favorite quotes of the entire conference was from Alonzo Felix: The way you live your days is the way you live your life. Your work should be just one component of a healthy and balanced life. While you’re trying to churn out a lot of work, don’t forget to also eat decently and call your Mom. Take breaks, go out with friends, live life outside of your computer. Give yourself scheduled time to blow off steam and connect with people. Don’t become a weird computer hermit who forgets to shower for a week and lives off Doritos and beer, you’ll feel gross and your work will ultimately suffer anyway.
5. Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you’re growing. Take the initiative to make stuff you’re excited about, even if it’s not assigned to you.
Following this advice has always paid off for me. Your day job might not be providing the opportunity to do what you’re really excited about, so you have to make those opportunities for yourself, even if it means extra hours and effort. Going the extra mile to take that in-house logo or one-off poster to the next level can absolutely be worth it in the right circumstances. People hire you based on what you’ve already done, so if there’s nothing coming from your day job that shows what you actually want to be doing, you have to find a way to make that work happen instead of waiting for it to come your way out of the blue (spoilers: it won’t).
6. Your beliefs are what drive you. Have convictions and stick to them.
This one is hard, because it takes a lot of self-reflection and sometimes uncomfortable levels of navel-gazing. Why do you do what you do? What do you believe about the world? Your point of view and your beliefs are what make you you, and ultimately what makes your work shine. Examining your motivations is healthy and keeps you from sliding into the cesspool of sameness. Simply following what’s popular and mimicking what other people are doing will only get you so far, both creatively and in life in general. To create really great work, you have to have the courage to be honest and trust in your vision, even if not everyone likes it. In fact, it’s great if some people hate it. You can’t and shouldn’t want to please everyone at all times, especially if you have to sacrifice your convictions to do it.
7. Don’t quit your day job.
We’ve all dreamed about quitting a not-so-fulfilling job in spectacular fashion and running off into the creative wilderness to work for ourselves. Who cares if you have to live off Cheerios and bologna for the foreseeable future? Your work will sustain you! Starving artist! Etc! Except this is real life, and we have bills to pay, and obligations to keep. Throwing caution to the wind and striking out on your own sounds great and romantic and all, but it doesn’t work for everyone. There’s something to be said for sticking it out and doing what you love on the side, at least for a while. Let your day job work as a springboard for the work you’re passionate about.
8. But don’t be afraid to take risks.
That said, it’s important to recognize when you have a great idea that’s worth investing your time (and if necessary, your money) into, even if there’s no guarantee you’ll ever see a return on it. Side projects become full time jobs for a lot of people in time, it just doesn’t always happen immediately. So get those posters printed, open that Etsy store, reserve a table at a craft festival. Invest in yourself and your ideas.
9. Stay humble, stay teachable.
Nobody, even the people you look up to, are too big to do the grunt work. Part of being a leader is being willing to do the small, everyday grinding-type work to execute your ideas, even if it feels far away from making your grand vision a reality. Always be open to criticism and willing to listen to the people you work with, and don’t lose your perspective. Think like a founder, act like an intern.
10. Community is key.
A common thread that ran through all three days of the conference was the idea that our careers and lives can’t exist in a vacuum. We need to reach out to our community and contribute in meaningful ways, and go beyond just packing our portfolio with quality work. The conference itself was an amazing example of this belief in action, with some very well-known designers and artists taking time out of their busy schedules to share what they’ve learned with a community of their peers, here in Memphis! That’s huge. And it’s proof that if you believe in something enough, it’s worth putting the time and effort to make your vision a reality, like Josh Horton and many, many other people did to make this conference happen.
Thanks to everyone for making such an amazing weekend possible, we can’t wait for next year!