Sustaining yourself in a creative endeavour, be it photography, music, design, writing or any other art, requires relationships. You can’t do it alone. People won’t just “discover” your work and you’ll struggle to bounce back from the inevitable setbacks and disappointments. Moreover you’ll need folks that can help you stay true to your goals, focussed on your work and advancing in your craft. And, of course, without people who value your work you won’t sustain yourself financially.
This list is a distillation of my thinking and experience over the last few years; a summary of several blogposts, many emails and hours of conversations in a number of countries.
Mentors help you improve your craft. While mentors may sometimes help your feel better about yourself, the role of the mentor is not to put you on the road to happiness, but rather to help you find your way to creating art. Mentors will help you clarify what you need to do, experience and learn in order to grow. Mentors know how to balance your relationship with technique; both when you need to improve it and when you need to stop leaning into it.
I’ve been blessed to have mentors who were “world class” in their field. I would always encourage you to aim high when looking for mentors. Look for mentors who’ve really been there and done it, who have invested years of hard toil, who have a body of work behind them and who are respected by their peers.
Sponsors help you find jobs and sell your work. For a long time I lived in frustration because I was good at finding great mentors and terrible at finding sponsors. Then I would get frustrated that my mentors wouldn’t help me find work. But, of course, good mentors are too busy hustling for themselves to hustle for you as well.
That’s where sponsors come in. They may not have the expertise of a mentor, but they have good taste and a passion for sharing what they like. Sponsors are well connected, well known and seen as opinion leaders in their field. You often won’t find them at industry events or conferences. Good sponsors move across the silos that most of us live within. They might be the restauranteur who introduces you to an editor, or the renovator who introduces you to an interior designer, or the just the friend of a friend who introduces you to an agency head.
While sponsors help you sell work and find jobs, evangelists simply tell the world about your work. One of the mistakes many people make (and I made this for a long time) is to view Social Media as one giant billboard, or broadcast platform. They go on Twitter and Facebook and endlessly shout about their new thing, or what they have to sell.
But, Social Media is only really powerful when other people are talking about you, not when you talk about yourself. Sure, take a photo and share it with the world. But, it’s only when other people share that photo, without you having to prompt them or ask, that your work really starts to spread fast and wide. For that you need evangelists, people who believe your work is good, is worth sharing and tuned into your output.
Collaborators are people who pay to work with you. That might not be the common definition, but that’s how I see it. There is always a sacrifice and an exchange in collaborating. Collaborators may pay you in money, by investing in your business, or in space to help you work. And, they always invest in terms of time and by saying no to other projects in order make the one they are doing with you succeed. Moreover, collaborators have put their reputation on the line to make something happen with you
That’s the way you can tell real collaborators from leaches and hangers-on. They’ve sacrificed and risked something in order to work with you.
In such a hard nosed discussion, it’s easy to overlook friends. Friends understand the importance of your work but also recognise the other parts of your life that help round you out. Because of that, friends can remind you how to relax and recharge when your emotional batteries run low. Moreover, friends help you keep a perspective on what the rest of the world looks like from outside the bubble we often live in during our creative days.
For me cooking is an essential part of who I am. I’ve never worked as a cook (apart from a few months in a Pizzeria during my university days). But, when there’s always a connection between the times when I’m cooking often and the times when I’m productive. Oddly, creativity and cooking seem to fuel each other for me. The people closest to me don’t just like eating the food I cook, they also remind me what it means when I’ve stopped cooking.
We tend to associate the word consiglieri with advisors to crime bosses. It dates back a little further than that and means a political advisor. Whatever word we use I believe we need someone in our lives, who we allow to give us advice and occasionally tell us where we’ve gone wrong. In particular a consiglieri will help us think about the consequences of our actions and also reflect on how we could better manage conflicts and disputes.
But, in order to do that, the consiglieri needs to be someone we trust and also someone who has a sense of the bigger picture of what we do. This person might be a friend, or family member, or they might be a manager or other business associate. The import thing is that they have our permission to tell we’ve messed up, gone off track, or need to rethink our actions.
Supporters are into your work – sacrificially. In the age of Social Media, the notion of “fans” is increasingly becoming meaningless. Eventually we will all be able to hire bots to pump up our Facebook likes, Twitter numbers and Klout scores anyway.
Supporters are all the people who are willing to do more than just hit the +1 buttons of the internet. They’ve paid to be part of your world, either with time, or money and that means your work matters to them. They want you to succeed, to go on producing more good work that they can use to illuminate and furnish their life.
In The End
There are so many voices out there that can drag you down and so many attitudes that can sway you from being productive and purposeful (the original title for this post was 7 Kinds Of People You Need In Your Creative Universe And 3 Kinds That You Don’t). My feeling is that by building a diverse constellation of people around you that fill all these roles you can better sustain yourself as a creative person and do the amazing stuff that you know you’ve got the potential to deliver.