How to build an enduring creative career

As a fresh crop of graduates make their way into the ‘real world’ in search of a job in the creative industries, AKQA’s group creative director Ian Wharton offers advice for how to build a career that will last

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Whether as part of a company or independently, there has never been a better time for those with a desire to make things. All of you have the power to broadcast, publish or distribute your work. The creative industries generate £10 million every hour for the UK economy and creative jobs have increased three times faster than the country’s average.

Despite this, you will need to fight. There are more forces in this world that are bruising to creativity as opposed to nurturing, many of them internal and under our control. What follows is what I believe to be required for new talent in this industry to succeed.

Creative breadth
Generally speaking, from early on in education we are taught to specialise. To do one thing and do it well. This is amplified through careers as we are routinely hired to do the thing we first become good at. There are two reasons why this won’t support the future creative individual.

Firstly, specialising does not guarantee a master. Doing the same thing over and over, without inspired focus, is no promise of improvement. For example, despite years of application, in the past month has your typing become any faster or error-free? There is distinct difference between approaching something with tolerance and approaching something with intention. Pick the latter.

Secondly, specialisation may stop you from finding something you excel at more than your current exploration of creativity has allowed. Humans are outstanding self-saboteurs, and whether for fear of undoing previous successes were we to fail, or for fear of intruding on the fantasy of ‘dream’ accomplishments, we deny ourselves opportunity. Those who can ignore such disquiet are the ones who are celebrated.

What the world demands of creative people is diversity and depth of thought. To be multi-disciplinary and willing to turn your hand to unforeseen innovation and circumstance. Some people lumber along in one skill, one industry, and have narrow vision on the world as a result. Creativity is 100% transferable, and to think we can only do one thing and do it well radically undersells human potential.

Empathy
Today, influential cultural work is a combination of art and science. With that comes a cruel trap – the allure of needlessly following trends. Perhaps more than ever, we need deliberate and meaningful application of technology, rather than convenient use simply because it’s within reach.

To sidestep these traps, we must first focus on human behaviour, which is mostly unchanging despite the influence of new technology. For example, people are impatient: when something no longer provides immediacy but instead complexity, we lose attention. We are influenced largely by impulse, rather than strategic and considered decision-making. We love scarcity, we follow crowds, we value something more when we have a say in the creation or evolution to it, and so on.

In order to serve these behaviours we need to have an in-depth, empathetic understanding of the context of the individual, or group of individuals we intend on communicating with. Lazy creative endeavour skips this task and focuses on technology first: this work will be experimental, but transient and ineffective.

Resilience
As is often the case in the creative process, the idea is the easy part. The difficulty lies in the first steps and necessary resilience that follows. The ability to move forward, undaunted, through complexity and uncertainty. The people who can cope with the unease of not having the best answer, or the most compelling or original execution for the longest, and do so without settling for mediocrity, will have success. This will be a struggle with yourself, above anything else.

As a byproduct of our ability to measure every click and interaction, we are increasingly at risk of trying to force certainty on creativity. This is misguided. At the inception of an idea, irrational, illogical thinking not guided by status-quo or precedent is usually what surfaces potential, even if it is harder to defend in business. Your work should have simply the possibility of success, not the guarantee. You will need the fortitude to protect your ideas until they are strong enough to be subjected to return-on-investment analysis and panels of risk-averse middle-management. The effort will be rewarded, the first one through the wall always gets a little bloody.

Beware invisibility
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, you are only as good as your ability to sell yourself. ‘Selling’, for this purpose, is defined in two parts: to make known the things which you have already achieved and to communicate the things which you have yet to achieve.

Showcase your talent and you will find collaborators. Make goals public and you will be held accountable until you fulfil them. Too many creative people think: “If I just do good work, they will find me.” The unfortunate truth is these individuals may be waiting a long time. The people who are vocal, but not neanderthal or uncivilised, are the ones who find opportunity. The mythical stigma of self-promotion is a senseless trap. Use it, profit from it and shine the spotlight on others for doing smart and ambitious things. Best of luck.

Ian Wharton is Group Creative Director at AKQA and author of Spark for the Fire: How Youthful Thinking Unlocks Creativity. He tweets @ianwharton

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