Jan 20, 2012

“Hobbyist for Hire” Isn’t a Profession

So, yesterday I finally figured out what my New Year’s resolution is going to be.  I resolve to stop acting like a hobbyist.  A couple of people have asked me what that means.

Does it mean giving up your creative voice to chase profit, or taking less care in your work?  I don’t think so – at least, that isn’t my plan.  Here’s what I think it does mean.  If you’re making art, and getting work, but not making a lot of money, these thoughts might be helpful to you, too.

The bad news: Not acting like a hobbyist means trying to make money.

As a professional artist, you have to also be a businessperson, which means choosing your projects based on practical considerations, managing your time well, and pricing yourself appropriately.  And pricing yourself appropriately.  And pricing yourself appropriately.

If you think like a hobbyist, you are never truly invested in yourself.  You tell yourself you don’t have to spend time building a business plan, doing cost analyses, optimizing the ways you spend your time, or even promoting your own work, because, hey, this was just for fun anyway, right?

I’ve been doing this thing – design – as a professional for more than six years now, and I still think this way.  As though I think one day I’ll wake up with an entirely different set of skills, motivations, and ambitions that will make me NOT an artist.  Maybe I’ll turn into an investment banker or something.  I have been alive for a while now, and discovered that it just isn’t happening.

More bad news: Not acting like a hobbyist means not doing everything yourself.

As a designer who sells her work directly to buyers, I do a lot of things by hand, on my own time, that could be done by someone else.  I hand cut my own stickers.  I hand label and hand assemble all of my packaging.  I spend hours assembling my own sewing kits.

These things sound very authentic, but really, it woudn’t diminish anything if I paid someone else to do them.  I have the industrial design and communication skills to get pretty much anything made at a shop, if I decide I want to pay them to do it.  If I choose to delegate the right things to the right people, the final product might even be more valuable, because the quality and consistency might be better.

Picking the things you want to entrust to others can be tricky, but remember that as The Artist, your time is worth a lot.  The time you devote to something trivial that you could pay for, you could spend promoting your project, making it better, and even making more art, which is the whole point of the endeavor.

Imagine your time is worth what a tech consultant might charge, say $150 an hour.  If you spend 15 minutes cutting out a set of stickers, those stickers are worth at least $37.50.  Are you going to charge that much for them?  Don’t discount your time to make a price work –  the next thing you know, you are paying yourself sweatshop rates, which is great for getting your stuff done on the cheap, but lousy for making money and sustaining you through to the next project.

But the best reason to outsource the trivial, secondary things, is that at the end of the day you know exactly what your expenses are, and how much you need to ask for the work to make a profit.  Pricing is one of the hardest things to do as an artist who sells her own work, but when you have hard expenses that need to be covered, the math becomes incredibly simple.

Worse news: Not acting like a hobbyist means simply not doing some projects.

If you’re like me, you come up with many creative ideas that are worth doing every single day.  But when you think like a hobbyist, it’s easy to get sidetracked by new ideas as soon the thing you’re working on becomes “not fun.”  So, you can cull your ideas down to a select group and gradually work through them.

The truth is that some of those ideas just won’t get done, at least not in the near future.  You’ll be too busy doing things that pay.  Not being a hobbyist means letting go of the idea that you can do everything, while still generating those great ideas.

The good news: Not acting like a hobbyist means being a better artist.

Not being a hobbyist means always creating the best thing you can, because you’re going to get paid for it.  Whether that money comes from selling your finished work, or taking commissions to be as totally badass as you can muster, you’re still getting paid.

I don’t know about you, but I behave differently when I know, for certain, that I’m creating value.  I stay focused, hit deadlines, and avoid distractions – which I don’t have to do when I’m working “just for fun.”

Allowing yourself to say you’re really doing art for fun is a way to let yourself walk away when you don’t live up to your full potential – when you create something half-baked or just don’t finish it, which happens to everyone.  It’s a way to fake yourself out.

Better news: Not acting like a hobbyist means panicking less.

This may seem a little insane – after all, trying to make money means putting an extra level of pressure on yourself – but pressure and panic aren’t necessarily the same thing.  It all has to do with what kind of problems you’re forced to deal with on a project.

When I think like a hobbyist, I’m always wondering, “Is what I’ve created so far good enough, or is this a waste of my time?” and then, “My god, if I can’t create something worth my time, is my time worth anything at all?”  This creates anxiety, which leads to panic.

When I’m getting paid or otherwise creating value, I think, “Am I on track?  Do I have time to do anything extra to make this better?  Is this worth what I’m getting paid for it?”  The big difference is that those questions have answers.

Big questions about our absolute worth keep artists up at night.  Questions with answers are so much easier.

In short, not acting like a hobbyist isn’t the same as becoming a professional artist.  It’s how you accept that you already are one.

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