For the last five years I’ve been a creative coach. I’ve listened to the deepest, darkest fears of countless creative professionals – from executive creative directors who feel that they aren’t really very creative, through to junior designers who are convinced they’ve been given their job by mistake.
Over hundreds of hours I’ve listened to people open up about every aspect of their creative lives. And it’s taught me a lot.
I know not everyone can afford a creative coach – even though, right now, with things as they are, most people could probably use a few sessions with an understanding pair of ears – so I thought I’d share five things I’ve learned from coaching that may be helpful to you as a creative:
THINKING ABOUT HOW YOU DO WHAT YOU DO
One of the big discoveries I’ve made since I began coaching is that although creative people are fairly clear on what they do, they often struggle to describe exactly how they do it. Each of has – for want of a better metaphor – a creative operating system, just like the OS on your phone or laptop.
We have a standard way of approaching a brief, coming up with possible solutions, choosing an idea and executing it. And once this system is in place we don’t really think much about it – or take the time to consider how it could be improved.
Part of my task as a coach is to work with people to make their OS explicit. To get it down on paper and break it into stages. To look at the flow and how long each step takes. And, once we’ve done this, to consider how it could be enhanced.
Thinking more about how you work and – crucially – experimenting with the process can lead to a way of working that is more enjoyable and more fruitful
You can try this yourself. Next time you have a brief, keep a record of how you work, how long you spend on each phase and what you do. Do you give enough time to research? Do you allow for an incubation period? What would happen if you resisted the urge to move from idea to execution until much later? What would happen if you switched some stages around?
Thinking more about how you work and – crucially – experimenting with the process can lead to a way of working that is more enjoyable and more fruitful. During this process you’ll probably also find it reassuring to discover that even though your ideas seem to appear out of nowhere, there’s a method behind your madness. You just hadn’t realised what it was.
SELF-DOUBT IS UNIVERSAL
Do any of these statements sound familiar: I’m just not sure I’m any good at this; I’ll never make something that good; I really don’t deserve to be here.
Yep. Thought so.
Of the many issues I’ve discussed with people in my sessions it’s maybe no surprise that the one that comes up again and again is self-doubt. Or imposter syndrome (which is really just self-doubt in a business suit).
It’s rumoured that there are some people unaffected by self-doubt. I’m not convinced; in my experience no one is immune, it’s just a case of whether you admit to it or not. To be creative is to be sensitive to the world around you and that sensitivity makes you vulnerable. Self-doubt is the burden of a creative life.
But it’s also a bit like Goldilocks’ porridge: too little and there’s a good chance you’ve become complacent and you’re not challenging yourself; too much and you become blocked and unable to make work. Yet, as David Bowie once said, the place where you’re just out of your depth and your feet are not quite touching the bottom, is the place where you’re most likely to do something interesting.
When someone sends you a note about how much they liked your presentation, or your edit, or your painting, put that note in a special folder. Start today
As human beings we tend to focus on the negative: danger, risk, threat, criticism. It’s hardwired into us. And overcoming these primal instincts in a professional setting can be the work of several sessions. But one of the simplest and most effective ways of overcoming self-doubt is to remind yourself of when things have gone well. And a way to do this is to start keeping a record of positive feedback.
When someone sends you a note about how much they liked your presentation, or your edit, or your painting, put that note in a special folder. Start today. And then next time the demon of self-doubt comes knocking, go back through the messages. It really helps shift the dial from ‘God, I hate myself’ to ‘Maybe I’m not always terrible at this thing’.
WE DON’T THINK HARD ENOUGH ABOUT WHY WE LIKE WHAT WE DO
As a creative person you have taste. You know the work you like – and you know the work that makes you think ‘WTF, how the hell did they get that approved?’ But I’m guessing you rarely stop to think about why you like what you like.
Collating projects that you’ve not made but that you admire and then taking the time to deconstruct them can be really fruitful. It helps clarify your own creative principles, helps you understand what makes great work great and usually throws up some strategies you can try yourself further down the line.
What do you believe are the qualities of great work? What should we be striving towards? What’s the best path to get there?
A good exercise is to pick five pieces of work in your own medium that you didn’t make but that you wish you had. And then get under the bonnet of those projects and investigate how they work. What do you suppose was the insight that led to the idea? Can you describe the idea in a sentence? What choices did the director or illustrator or writer make when it came to execution that elevated the project into something special?
I sometimes develop this exercise a little further by asking people to use it as the basis for their own creative manifesto. What do you believe are the qualities of great work? What should we be striving towards? What’s the best path to get there? This is a good thing to do if you’re just starting out as a creative director.
Oh, and don’t forget the inverse too. Next time you see something that’s rubbish – which let’s be honest, probably won’t be too long – ask yourself, why is it rubbish? Consider where the work fails and how it could have been better. And take some reassurance from the fact that no matter how tough things get you’ll never make anything quite that bad.
EVERYONE IS FEELING THE PRESSURE
My coaching sessions are, of course, confidential. So it’s the one place, other than maybe at home, where people feel they can drop their guard and be honest about how they’re finding things. And you’d be surprised at how many of those people who look like they’re doing great, with their racks of awards and shiny LinkedIn profiles, are in fact struggling.
It’s tough at the moment. There’s the big stuff like the climate emergency and the hangover from the pandemic (which I don’t believe any of us have really got our heads round), and then there are the industry-wide uncertainties, the fearfulness around AI, job cuts, the cost of living, galloping interest rates … I really don’t need to elaborate any further, do I?
Suffice to say, we’re all in this shit together. Yet so often we feel like we’re battling on alone. Personally I think the more honest each of us is about how we’re faring, the better off we all are. But that’s not how modern life – and social media – work, which makes it very easy to feel inadequate.
So, if you’re struggling, I hope you can take a little comfort from the fact that you are not alone. It may look like your peers are doing way better, but it’s just an illusion conjured up with some Instagram fairy dust.
IT’S GOOD TO TALK
There may well be a few people reading this article old enough to recall the tagline from the 1980s ad campaign for BT with Maureen Lipman – It’s good to talk. And you know what, it really is. It’s often hard for us to find the right format to open up honestly about our creative selves.
Maybe your friends or family work in other fields and just don’t get it. And the people who do get it – your colleagues or peers – are maybe not the ones who you feel most comfortable baring all to. So you smother your doubts and fears with the many distractions of 21st century life and they fester. And things that fester are never good.
To make creative work is hard. And to put that work out in the public realm, where you know it will be judged, is a really brave thing to do
A lot of the time in my sessions I don’t do much talking. I listen. And occasionally I ask a question. And that’s enough to create the space for people to be honest and open about how they feel. And all of us deserve and need that from time to time.
Finally, I owe it to everyone I’ve worked with over the last few years to make it clear that the person who’s got most out of my coaching sessions is … me. I’ve learned a huge amount about this magical, important, infuriating, rewarding thing we call creativity. And it’s shown me just how many people are prepared to dedicate their working lives to it, no matter the cost.
To make creative work is hard. And to put that work out in the public realm, where you know it will be judged, is a really brave thing to do. So if you’re doing that right now, then give yourself a good old pat on the back. You deserve it. Stay strong.