Coming out of the closet: Making space for your dream

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my writing desk. reminding me to show up.

This post is for anyone who has ever had a dream. The passionate ones. Creative ones. Visionaries. Artists. Storytellers. Meaning makers. Lost ones looking for the way back to something they feel but can’t see.

You.

I was cleaning out my closet this past weekend and it got me thinking about dreams.  Those big, hairy, audacious ideas for something you love to do but don’t. It’s scary to put your dream out there, let alone go for it. A dream is a tiny flicker of a flame and there are dream crushers everywhere. One wrong look or word and poof!

It’s gone.

But the dream keeps tugging at your sleeve: Listen! Pay attention to this! This is good stuff! Let’s see what we can make happen here!

It’s soooo easy to defer your dream.
If you follow me, you know my story. I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was five years old. Two degrees, a professional writing career and 43 years later, I’m just now getting back to making space for my dream of being an author. There. I said it.

< insert terrified look here >

It’s one thing to say you want to do or be something. It’s quite another to make the commitment despite the doubts, insecurity and gigantic hairball of fear that tells you oh no, you can’t do THAT. That’s not going to put food on the table, pay for goalie gloves and new brakes for the truck. You’re not good enough. Who do you think you are, thinking you can do THAT??? And then there’s life. That thing that happens when you’re busy making other plans.

But then there is that little tug on your sleeve.

Continue reading “Coming out of the closet: Making space for your dream”

How to avoid creative burnout

Once as a freelance marketing writer, I agreed to a ridiculously insane deadline. (As opposed to a regularly insane deadline.) At 4:36PM on a Thursday, I was asked to solve a huge creative conundrum by 8:30am the next day. I was provided with three previously failed concepts and asked to “make them all work.” Somehow, someway. And if I had time, (ha!) maybe I could also come up with “a few” concepts of my own.

This to me was akin to working with both arms tied behind my back and a coyote chewing on my foot. With a paycheck at the end if I could get my hands untied and kick the coyote to kingdom come.

I worked all night. By 8:27am, I met the parameters and the deadline. I had successfully compressed the creative process, but the results could have been so much better if I had just had more time. And sleep. This is an excellent recipe for creative burnout.

While there will always be crunch times and projects, it’s never good if your entire working life is one ridiculously insane deadline after another. If you don’t take control of your creative life and deadlines, burnout is inevitable. So to help save your sanity, here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way…the hard way:

1. Don’t be afraid to abandon ideas. You might not be burnt out; maybe you’re simply tired of beating a dead horse. Sometimes you can find a way to make an idea work–some hidden angle or connection that comes with a fresh eye. But if it takes longer than say, 15 minutes, move on. You can always come back to it later–as in, for another project with a longer deadline and a completely different strategy.

2. Don’t taint the creative process. The worst thing you can do at the beginning of a new project is to focus on previous failed attempts. It’s like saying, “Ok, so here’s what didn’t work, what failed, what sucked. Now let’s find a way to make it work!”  Uh huh.

Start with the facts–the strategy, the objective, the primary goal or message. If the old ideas still have a shot, run with it. For 15 minutes. Then move on. Later you can ask what was tried before and what sucked, especially if you’re burnt out and need a giggle.

3. Ask for more time. It never hurts to ask what’s driving the deadline or if it’s a hard deadline. More often than not, you can get extra time–but not if you don’t ask up front. Sure, some of us “need” deadlines to get things done. And you shouldn’t be a diva, constantly pushing back on deadline requests. But if you don’t give yourself enough time to think and simmer, the process will take longer, you’ll be miserable and…hello, burnout!

4. Say no. I still remember my grandmother, who grew up during the Great Depression, chiding me as a child for not eating my bread crusts, saying, “You never know when you might wish you had them.” This attitude permeates my work life, where I hate to say no to projects. But there are only so many things you can do at once before you lose your mind and your motivation.

It helps to “qualify your leads” ahead of time. Determine what your ideal sweet spot is for clients or projects–what’s most profitable for you? What’s your niche? Who is your ideal client? Define it all. Once you have these rules in place, it’s much easier to say no up front, before you overcommit or regret committing altogether.

5. Keep your creative warehouse full. All work and no play is the fastest way to drain your creativity. Read a little bit of everything you can get your hands on–blogs, magazines, newspapers, books, articles, white papers. Watch a little bit of everything you have time for–videos, vlogs, TV, movies. And most of all, be sure to get out from behind your desk and experience life. Live a little. It’s one of the best way to banish the creative burnout blues.

6. Identify your role in the insanity. I’ve already told you mine–I hate to turn down work, so I take on too much or too much of the wrong kinds of projects. It might be your fear of asking more questions or pushing back on direction that’s not clear. Analyze your last few crazy projects–what could you have done differently to make things less crazy?

7. Laugh. If you don’t, you’ll be crabby and crazy from your deadline. Boo hoo. So turn that frown upside down, call a funny friend, make fun of your worst concepts, crack a joke at your own expense. Creative relief, or at the very least, a little fun, is sure to follow.

How do you handle creative burnout when it happens? How do you prevent it? Enquiring minds want to know!

Be your own muse: one secret to being more productive in your creative work

In my MFA program, there was one phrase that came up over and over: “Go with whatever is most taking your attention right now.” This was usually said in a serious Obi Wan Kenobe-voice to us just before we began an in-class writing assignment or when being coached through an impromptu verbal narrative in front of the class.

At first, it’s strange to be told this let alone think this way. But the up side to this creative directive was that it helped me generate lots of story starts and ideas. My brain never shuts up so there is ALWAYS something taking my attention.

The challenge became, how do I tune out the other distractions and focus on the one, most pressing scene or moment that was most strongly taking my attention right NOW? This directive helped me train my brain to focus with laser precision on the moment or scene that I needed to tell right now.

While having many story starts and ideas is great, the down side was that I rarely finished any of my story starts because something else is ALWAYS taking my attention. How to finish a piece of writing…that’s the bane of my existence when it comes to my own personal creative work and another blog post for another day.

As a writer and someone who always has multiple projects going on at once both at home and at work, I’ve found that going with what takes my attention helps me instinctively, intuitively juggle my priorities better. It’s an exercise in active listening. I ask myself (either in my journal or literally), what is taking my attention right now? And then I listen to what my mind says, what it pushes forth. It requires patience. It requires quiet. It requires honesty.

The payoff is that the priority or project I need to focus on first or that I am most enthusiastic about at that moment bubbles up, drowning out everything else. I am much more productive this way. As a professional writer, my ability to juggle many different projects hinges upon my ability to quickly and easily switch back and forth between clients, dipping in and out of different brands, voices and subject matters. I work faster when I focus on the project that I am most excited about at the moment–the one most strongly taking my attention.

This helps me get down to business quickly and manage my time so much more efficiently. But this doesn’t just pertain to writing. It pertains to life.

Don’t wait for the muse to find you. Try it now.
Ask yourself, what is taking my attention right now? Then listen to what your intuition says. At first, this may be uncomfortable. Your brain might get snarky and say stuff like, “Piles of laundry! Bills! The bathtub grout is moldy!” Let the snark come out, then push it aside. Listen again.

In the beginning, this may feel like listening for a pin to drop in a crowded football stadium. Wait for it. Eventually you will push everything else aside and focus your mind’s eye on one thing, the important thing, that you need to get to right now. You will hear the pin drop. You will see it. Write it. Paint it. Design it. You will work despite the laundry, the bills, the grout.

Be your own muse. Go with what’s taking your attention right now.

The day the webmaster died: 9 crazy deadline personalities

I’ve seen a lot of crazy in my 20+ years in the marketing biz as a creative professional. But when a conversation begins, “Hello, our webmaster died,” you know you’re looking at a whole different level of crazy. Here’s how it went down, according to my design friend Susan:

“True story 1:30pm yesterday, a client I haven’t heard from in months calls up out of the blue and says, ‘Our webmaster died last year. How much would it cost to take down our site, create a new one and add e-commerce before our event in 10 days?’ I ask, what’s your budget? The client replies, ‘We don’t have one but we need to spend as little as possible.’ “

No matter how much you love your work, we could all do without the deadline nightmares. While there  are those tough people are very good at saying no to unreasonable requests, many of us are afraid to say no lest we be labeled “uncooperative.” Frankly, nowadays it feels a little nuts to say no, no matter how crazy the deadline.

I have compiled this list of the worst deadline personalities because, as much as we may like our clients or colleagues, they drive us insane by the insanity of their deadlines. Whether you freelance or work full-time, you’ll recognize them–hopefully they are not you.

The Five O’Clock Shadow. This client or colleague waits until 4:58 sharp, right as you’re packing up to leave, to call or stop by and “give you a heads up” on a new project or the revisions you’ve been waiting for all day long.

The Bait and Switch. This project starts out small, quick or easy and before you know it, it evolves into a full-blown campaign with multiple components, themes, versions, viral videos, t-shirts and billboards. which means you would have approached it completely differently from the start. And it’s all still due tomorrow. This can also happen when the two-week due date flies out the window when you get the call, “We need it tomorrow.”

The Bargain Hunter. Budgets are tight these days, but these folks have come to think of creative work as “Let’s Make a Deal.” Your estimate is merely a starting point in the negotiation. Others think you are trying to rip them off. No matter what you charge, it’s always too much.

The UnderEstimator. To these folks, your job doesn’t require time, effort or expertise–perhaps you could be replaced by an intern or a monkey. Or they don’t quite understand what is entailed to execute a particular creative project. So they see nothing wrong with asking you to complete a six-week project in six days. When you explain exactly what is entailed in the scope, they are genuinely shocked–then they blink and say, “So, tomorrow then?”

The DIY. The do-it-yourselfer is convinced that they don’t need to pay someone to do something they can do themselves. These folks have not come to appreciate that while yes, everyone can use photoshop, not everyone is a graphic designer. Or that just because you can write doesn’t mean you can write a compelling sales pitch.

The Fiddler. They can’t leave well enough alone. They fiddle with the colors. Question the shape of the text box. Pick and fuss at the logo until it looks like a cat ate it and coughed it up as a hairball. They are endless “tweakers” of copy, changing words and phrases here and there, and there, and here, then making wholesale paragraph changes, or worse, rewriting everything on the final review, until suddenly you realize you are on Round 18 of revisions and you only budgeted for three.

The Spontaneous Genius. These are the creative sparks that pop up the day before an event or meeting that was humming along UNTIL…someone has an absolutely brilliant idea that, in normal people time, would require a team, equipment and a class or two. Instead, all you get is a “go for it!”, a mad search of how-to videos on YouTube and one all-nighter. When the clock is ticking and you hear things like, “Hey, I know!” or “Here’s an idea!”, RUN. You’re about to be hit with spontaneous genius.

The Mystery Meat Special. The conversation goes something like this: “We need something designed, we don’t have the details yet, but how fast can you get it done and how much will it cost?” Huh???

Brain Freeze. Whether you’ve had the project for 5 days or 5 minutes, sometimes your brain just…dies. Every idea you manage to come up with sucks and you start to wonder if it’s time to consider a career change. Ditch digger and Walmart Greeter comes to mind. This can happen because of any of the crazy deadline personalities above, but sometimes it just happens for no damn good reason. That’s when you call a trusted cohort and vent until you are laughing again and then the idea comes and you are relieved because you still have “it.” Until the next brain freeze.

Go ahead. Vent. What’s your worst deadline horror story?

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Think like an entrepreneur no matter what your employment status

You don’t have to be self-employed to think like an entrepreneur. In fact, I’d argue that everyone should adopt the mindset of an entrepreneur in today’s world. It’s the best way to stay sharp, stay sane, and stay or get employed.

So how does an entrepreneur think, exactly? I can’t speak for all of them, but after managing two businesses of my own and talking with countless other business owners over the years, here are the 12 hallmarks that pop up most frequently in conversation:

Seek out opportunity. Entrepreneurs are hungry for new opportunities–you never know where your next lead or big idea will come from. But you have to put yourself out there to find them. Join new professional or social groups. Make friends with your friends’ friends. Ask questions and really listen to the answers. The more people you know and situations you put yourself in, the more likely you will be in the right place at the right time.

Look for problems to solve. How many times do you read about an entrepreneur who created a product out of a need or problem that they noticed and decided to solve? Start paying attention to the people and problems around you at home or the office. Are there any Continue reading “Think like an entrepreneur no matter what your employment status”