The First Step to Creative Independence: Start With “Why”

March 20, 2014

In our last discussion in this series on overcoming the plight of the creative entrepreneur, we defined the characteristics of the creative entrepreneur, we talked about the plight that the creative entrepreneur faces and we mentioned some ways to overcome that plight. So where do we start in our quest to overcome our plight? Well, we start with understanding our why, of course.
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About a year ago, I was in the midst of redesigning my website from a blog based site to something that would better showcase my business as an Information Architecture and User Experience consultant. As many of you probably know, putting together or redesigning your own site can be a daunting task. It’s hard to find and justify the time for doing so, and it’s even harder to think about, talk about and design for your own business. But, perhaps, the hardest part, especially for me as a User Experience Designer who needs to craft the entire narrative before visual design can begin, was defining my business and site narrative. Who WAS I? What DID I really offer? How do I create imagery, photography and content that reflects my brand? What IS my brand? And, the list of questions went on. Observing my strife, a good friend of mine sent me this video, which changed not only my perspective, but also changed my business… forever.

In the video above, Mr. Simon Sinek talks to the TED audience about the golden circle. He talks about how great business leaders inspire action by having a firm grasp on WHY the business does what it does, on knowing WHAT the business does to fulfill that why and then figuring out HOW the whats are accomplished. The thing about where I was while redesigning my site, and where many creative entrepreneurs find themselves is that we don’t take the time to understand our Why. We freelance, consult, provide work we love to clients that we want to love (and sometimes even love), and we do this all in the name of independence and great work. But, how many of us can say, with one short statement, why we do what we do when it comes to our businesses? Not too many of us. And, because not many of us can say why we do what we do, we get ‘the cycle’. Allow me to explain further.

Break the “Cycle”!

How many of you have felt this way? You are working along on a project that is about to come to an end, and you have no work lined up post project. What to do!? Where will you get income? How will you survive? Low and behold, a potential new client calls from out of the blue. Surely this is the answer to your prayers! Only problem is, your gut is telling you that this is NOT a project you want to take. The client has a totally different vision for solving the problem. Not only that, but they are short, rude, pushy, and, further, the work doesn’t even sound that interesting. Oh the anxiety that comes next! You start to think to yourself ‘should I take this work?’, ‘I really don’t want to take this work, but if I do at least I’ll have income coming in.’, ‘I guess I’ll take the project. What’s the worst that can happen?’. You toss, you turn and then, finally, you cave and take the gig. Needless to say 90% of the time it ends up being a huge mistake. You end up stressed, disgruntled, and just straight up not fulfilled with your business. Then the project starts to come to a close, and the entire process starts over again.

When we don’t know our why, we have no litmus test to test our projects, clients and even potential partners against.

There are major problems that arise from this routine. The first is that I was always getting, and you will always get, less than ideal projects. Because this cycle is showing you as dependent on taking any and all work that keeps you “working” you end up taking anything that is work, and, usually, this is work that is uninteresting and not very fun.

The second problem is that taking any project just to “stay busy” affects your brand in a big way. You become known not as a luxury good, or a consulting partner, but as a freelancer that will take any project thrown their way. This means that people will keep coming to you with the same old projects, instead of the really cool ones.

Third, this begins to affect your psyche, and you start to believe that you need to take whichever projects come your way in order to stay employed, instead of connecting with your reason for going independent in the first place; so that you can take whatever gigs you want whenever you want them.

But lastly, and perhaps the biggest problem that unearths itself is that, instead of working on projects and with clients that match your why, you are spending time working for the ones that don’t. You are busy doing less than ideal gigs, when you could be spending time on getting ideal projects with ideal clients who pay ideal rates.

In summary, when we don’t know our why, we have no litmus test to test our projects, clients and even potential partners against. We are relying on the external world to deliver us gigs and clients that will save us from the cycle, when, in reality, aligning our internal and external world is the only way we can get the work we want.

Applying the “Why”

But, rest assured, these problems can be solved! Let me tell you how I conquered these issues and broke the cycle. My first step was working through Mr. Sinek’s golden circle for myself. I asked myself why do I do the work I do? What really is the purpose of my business? It sounds like an easy exercise, but I implore you to give it the time it deserves so you can get down to exactly why you do what you do.

I did just that, gave the exercise a lot of time, and finally, I was able to come up with my Why. For me it’s “To no longer create products and services that are useless, or that create little value for others, but instead to create products and services that help enrich and bring meaning to people’s lives.” This is the mantra that I work (and I guess live) by. The next step after finding my why was to start putting it into action. Meaning that I had to stick to it. So when a potential client, a potential partner, or a potential project was out of sync with this mantra, I started turning the work down, without hesitation.

For example, as a user experience designer, I get a lot of potential clients that come to me hoping that I can help their product “have a better user experience”. In fact, I recently had someone come to me with this exact request. I asked them what that meant to them, and they explained to me that they KNEW they needed to create an iPad app that would help to make the “UX” better. I quickly realized, after more questions, that an iPad app was not at all what they needed, however after even more discussion I realized they weren’t changing their mind. I checked this project against my why, I realized that if I took this gig I’d be creating a product that created little value for others, which is the exact opposite of why my business exists. The project could have been interesting, but it was not my brand, and thus the decision was easy. No anxiety, no stress, no problem. But, what happened next was the best part.

The next day I got an email about a potential project that involved working with another 3rd party team that I respect and adore. Within the week we had signed a contract to work on a new project with a client who trusts us as experts and on a product that has the potential to do great things in the world. Basically, I’m working on an ideal project, with an ideal client and ideal partners, and that pays an ideal rate. Further, this has been occurring more and more lately, to the point where my work life is right where I want it to be.

These are the outcomes of starting with your why, Creative Entrepreneurs! You will get the clients, project and partners that you not only want, but that make you better as a professional AND as a creative. You’ll get these opportunities because you aren’t wasting time working on the projects you really don’t want (but that you, usually mistakenly, think you need). In addition, the decision time for figuring out which projects to work on goes way down. You spend less time on being anxious and more time finding, accepting and DOING the work that matters to you.

In summary, starting with Why is the lynchpin needed to have both a successful and creative business. In upcoming posts we’ll build on the idea of understanding our why by looking at how we figure out what it is we do that aligns with this why, how we do those whats, and how knowing this leads to better defining the services you provide, the clients that are right for you and understanding your real value (and how to price it)! In the meantime, I encourage you to take the first step toward your ideal work life and find your Why… you will NOT regret it!

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