Working in the creative realm is a rewarding, yet challenging experience. Our Chief Creative Officer, Ken Spera, gets real about the struggles that come with the job and offers his tried and true practices for pushing through, for the love of the game.

  • Ken Spera

Creativity Isn’t for the Faint of Heart

Picture this: you come up with the next big idea. The idea that’s going to make your brand a household name. An Internet sensation. A buzz-worthy, award-winning, trophy-collecting idea that transcends all the ideas you’ve ever had in your creative lifetime.

Shiny. Bright. Brilliant.

Yeah. That idea.

But then comes the struggle. The struggle and difficulty of selling great work. AND KEEPING IT GREAT despite a litany of other opinions.

You have to be a champion for your work. A warrior. A survivor. You will encounter numerous foes to great ideas. Each one unique and lethal in its own way. And without a thick skin, you may just not make it.

So, why do we do it?

Despite the challenges, it’s pretty damn great that we get to be creative for a living. That’s pretty special. I mean, we’re not working in a coal mine or flushing insurgents out of Taliban strongholds or anything. But the reality is choosing a career as a creative professional is choosing a path of judgment, heartbreak and rejection. It’s not easy.

Why do we do it? Why is it the only thing we want to do?

Psychologists call it the “Intrinsic Motivation Principle of Creativity”, or the propensity for human creativity to flourish when people are motivated by the personal enjoyment of the work itself. Athletes call it a “love of the game”; artists refer to it as an unrelenting need to express.

Extrinsic motivation, in contrast, is the daily pressure we feel from outside incentives – grades, salaries, and promotions – put in place to encourage output. Here’s the question: Is creative output the product of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation? Do we need a reason to work? Or is passion enough?

Where’s my blue ribbon?

In the 1970s, psychologists conducted a classic study involving a group of preschoolers who liked to draw. The researchers separated the kids into three groups. The first was told that if they continued to draw they would receive a big blue ribbon with their name on it. The second wasn’t told about the reward but given a blue ribbon after they finished drawing. The third group wasn’t given a blue ribbon at all.

They ran the experiment for two weeks and found that the kids who got no ribbon or didn’t know they were getting one continued to enthusiastically draw just like they did initially. However, their peers who were promised the blue ribbon showed a drastic reduction in interest. Sadly, they no longer found pleasure in drawing – their intrinsic motivation was destroyed by an extrinsic reward.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like to get paid for what I do, but as creative people we’re motivated by more than monetary reward. If we were just in it for the money, we’d all be pursuing careers as orthodontists.

Living with Anxiety

A long time ago, I went to art school at VCU in Richmond, Virginia. Like any great art school, it was an environment that was safe for failure. We were told our professors were going to be tough and failure was all part of the process of building something better. When you’re 18 years old it’s a hard thing to get your head around.

One class in particular I hated was Theory of Art and Design. Bunch of hippy dippy bullshit.

The textbook for the class was “The Courage to Create” by Rollo May. At the time I hated it. Didn’t get it. Reflecting on it now, I remember one of the many fascinating ideas in the book was that creative people need to be courageous.

“Creative people, as I see them, are distinguished by the fact that they can live with anxiety, even though a high price may be paid in terms of insecurity, sensitivity, and defenselessness for the gift of the “divine madness,” to borrow the term used by the classical Greeks. They do not run away from non-being, but by encountering and wrestling with it, force it to produce being. They knock on silence for an answering music; they pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean.” - Rollo May, The Courage to Create

Anxiety. Insecurity. Sensitivity. Defenselessness. Pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean.

Wow! Did you know that’s what you’re in for?

The reality is there are numerous outside influences that affect the work we love to do. Some are good. Some are irrational. Some are driven by ego. Some are ignorant. Some are just different from our own opinion. The thing is, on any given project, they all have equal power and influence to change your ideas.

Collaboration is Courageous

One thing is sure. The creative profession is one of collaboration. What is unsure is that you’ll always be collaborating with smart, creative open-minded people.

So, do you really need courage to do what we do? Do you really need to be a fighter? Well, every time you come up with an idea, that’s a piece of “you” up for scrutiny. A part of “you” up for criticism and comment, collaboration, conformity, change and mutilation.

So yeah. It does take courage to do what we do.

My advice?

- Be brave.
- Develop a thick skin.
- Fight the good fight.
- Be flexible when it’s right.
- Collaborate without ego.
- Collaborate with people you respect whenever it’s possible.
- Push back like a professional, not a four-year-old.
- Understand that this business, like life, requires compromise.
- And every once in a while, when you get your way, appreciate it.
- Celebrate it.

Thank you. Good luck.

Image via anastasios71

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