We’ve all read about “The Great Resignation” by now. Reports show that roughly 47 million people left their jobs in 2021, citing burnout, new opportunities, and starting a business as just a few reasons. But how many are leaving the workforce to pursue creative endeavors? And, should they?
I talk with Jessica Abel; author, artist, cartoonist and coach for creatives who works with people to stop grinding and carve out the deep focus needed to finish – and launch – the game-changing work they want to be known for.
Jessica shares how to prioritize creativity in our lives, what success might look like in a creative industry, and how to make a real living through creative endeavors. And, it’s probably not what you think. Plus, Jessica helps us all navigate the pitfalls so many creatives stumble into; I’m sure many of us can relate to that.
What is a creative?
Well, there are the obvious: artists, authors, cartoonists, screenwriters, musicians, animators, designers, et cetera. Then there are those like chefs and other entrepreneurs and service providers who have businesses that may not look creative to the naked eye but require a level of creativity to self-sustain.
They all could fall under the umbrella of creative. And, no matter where you land, there’s a good chance you are considering a shift in how you create. This is something Jessica knows all too well.
Jessica: So, I was teaching, and I was editing. I was a series editor of The Best American Comics for six years. I wrote two textbooks about comics. Those are sort of the primary things I was doing. I did illustration for a long time. I felt boxed in and trapped; not by the work itself, but by the way that it had to function in the world and what I needed to do to make a living with that. And, I needed to be able to support, or at least partially support, my family of four. It was easy when I was 25. It was not easy when I was 40.
After two decades as an author and artist, something that defined Jessica’s professional identity, she knew it was time to embark on a new path and opened Autonomous Creative, where she empowers creatives with the tools they need to live successful creative lives; something she says has absolutely been lacking.
Jessica: I am sick and tired of creative people talking about, you know, “oh, it’s just normal to be a starving artist.” Like, you just have to kind of hustle and grind and work all the time; and you’re going to barely make it, but that’s fine because you have passion and you’re doing what you love. It’s just crap, you know? And then, there’s a hard cap on how far you can go.
I’m trying to break all that down and help people create businesses that are designed around their own needs, designed around; ‘I need this much income, I have this much time I’m going to be able to put in, I want to be working with these kinds of people, and these are my boundaries around how I want to work with people.’ Drawing on their creative skillset; the things that they love. ‘I need to make enough money over here with this thing in a way that feels great to me, that I have the mental, emotional and physical resources to do the work that I care about’.
When should our passion just be a hobby? When should we try to make a living from it?
Jessica: I don’t know that there’s a way to know that. But I think, it goes back to trying to shut out the noise of the world telling you that it’s not legit if you’re not making money at it or enough money or a lot of money. I talk a lot of people out of trying to make a living with their work. I tell them, you don’t have to; you can, if you want to, but it is not required. For a lot of people, that’s just a weight off their shoulders, you know? And, if anybody needs that in the audience, it’s yours, You can be an absolutely legit serious artist without selling anything ever. And, when you do sell your work, it changes your relationship with it. Do you enjoy hearing what other people have to say about it? Engaging with an audience, if you really don’t enjoy that, well, you may not want to do it in public.
Some people are able to make a really good living as writers, painters, or whatever. There’s a lot of luck that goes into that. And, a lot of savvy, a lot of networking, glad-handing, being in the right place at the right time, all that stuff. A lot of “lightning strike” kind of things. I don’t want to discourage anybody from having that as a dream, but what I see all the time is people their entire adult lives thinking that’s somehow going to happen, and not doing anything else to actually take care of their real lives.
Jackie: So, you help them create some other offer that may be related to their creativity, that they can make money through so that they can also spend the time that they want to spend on the thing that they love to do?
Jessica: Yeah, if they say, “I only want to spend five hours a week on this, and it needs to bring in X amount of money.” I’m like, “All right, well, what’s your pricing then?” That’s how we figure this out. All of these factors have to line up. It’s a very strategic business model design and strategic offer design for creative people. So, I’m excited about it. It’s been really fun so far.
What holds creatives back?
Using her own experiences and creating a business to support her creative passions, being on both sides of the fence, Jessica shares her insights.
Jessica: I think the number one thing, I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say it’s essentially perfectionism. People may not identify with that word because they’re like, ‘oh my work’s not perfect.’ But holding back on taking action until various conditions are met, not just taking risks with the work, not living in imperfect action. This is not just for creatives. But I think that it hits definitely harder with creatives because the work that they’re trying to present is something that’s so, it’s self-generated, it comes out of them.
I have my own podcast called The Autonomous Creative, and I’ve been interviewing very successful creatives in wildly different ways and different fields about how they got where they are. And, the one thing everybody says is “just do stuff, and don’t dilly-dally around waiting for it to be perfect or approved”. You cannot wait for permission. You cannot wait for the gatekeepers. If you do, you’re going to get to the end of your life not having done stuff. And, it’s painful. It’s hard. The number one factor I think that holds people back is just simply not doing the stuff.
How do we get unstuck and just do the damn thing?
We don’t have to have all our ducks in a row before we start.
Jessica: The first thing I would say is to look at what it is that you’re trying to do and break it down into the smallest possible steps. Most people are thinking about 18, 20, and 55 steps out. They’re thinking about the end result of something and then not taking action on it because it feels too big. I talk about “set the bar high; no, take that bar, lay it on the floor and roll over it”. Make it as easy as possible to get started. You don’t need to set up conditions to make it hard to get started
There’s this concept that I wrote about years ago, now, called Idea Debt: where you have an idea of something, and it just gets bigger and bigger until it’s just this huge not achievable thing and you never start. Or you just kind of chip around at the edges and talk about how you’re going to do it, and feel crappy because you’re not doing it. There’s two varieties of Idea Debt: Type Nostalgia which are ideas you’re holding onto that you came up with in a past self, past life. And, then the other kind of Idea Debt, which I see a lot of too, and that’s Type Perfectionism. I know you’re all about pivots so this is very relevant for your audience; like holding on to ideas and thinking, ‘I have to finish that because I started it. I have to finish that because I told myself I would do it. And, if I don’t do it, I’m not keeping pace with myself.’
And, number two is don’t tell yourself you’re going to “do it sometime”. Look at your calendar and put an actual time to do it, make a slot for it. Then treat that like you have a fancy dinner reservation at this restaurant that has been closed since COVID started, do not touch it, make your phone pop up with a reminder to do it, make time for it. Honor that time. It’s so simple, but it comes down to I just got to take this action. Most of the things you need to do, nobody will see you do them. There’s no risk in it, really. Build habits around this and they become normal and it just becomes what you do. I’m interested in removing any friction on the path between what you honestly want to be doing with your time and what you are actually doing with your time. I’m a fan of James Clear’s Atomic Habits book; the idea of habit stacking.
What is habit stacking?
Jessica explains how habit stacking works with the one thing most of us do every morning, drink coffee. For example, perhaps we want to set up a habit of writing in our journal so why not set that cup of coffee down on your writing desk, right next to the journal you put there the night before? Stack the writing habit right on top of your existing coffee habit.
Jessica: Set the table, like get everything kind of ready for yourself, set your coffee down, do the thing, give yourself 10 minutes, two minutes; make it as easy as possible. And, as it becomes a set habit, it doesn’t require zero discipline. You just feel weird if you don’t do it. One of my key teachings is to use what I call Top Threes; the 3 things you’re going to do on a given day. They should include things like; you know, call the dentist, not just creative stuff. One of those things could be your work on your novel, ‘spend 30 minutes on my novel’. Then it needs a place on your calendar.
Jackie: But when it comes to prioritizing the things that really matter to us, what are we doing wrong? What could we improve upon, Jessica?
Jessica: I think the main thing that I come up against with students and clients is they have not actually decided what matters outside of the project itself. You know, what are the things that really matter? Do I need to make money with this? Do I want to make money with this? Do I need to be working in exploratory ways? Do I need to be learning something? If you have a full life already and you’re trying to work on more than one other thing, everything’s going to move like molasses and be really frustrating and mostly not get finished. So, I have this whole ‘one goal to rule them all’ thing that I do. It’s not really one goal but one project. We do an idea inventory, and of all of these ideas and these things you want to be working on, which one is most aligned with where you want to be and what success looks like to you? And, once you establish those things for yourself, and you’re clear about that; it’s much, much easier, still hard, but much easier to be confident that you’re putting your time into the right thing.
Listening to the right voice
How many times do we listen to all these voices that are not our own? Telling us we are focusing on the wrong thing. We are constantly jumping from one path to another, trying to find the magic pill. How do we get back to listening to ourselves and stay on course?
Jessica: I mean, it’s really tricky. There’s a lot of myths out there about what it looks like to make creative work and what it should be like in the world. To shut that out and follow your own instincts is pretty difficult. I think, again, that process of going through your priorities and what matters to you is really useful.
I promote this idea of a scientific mindset where everything you’re doing is data, if you can look at what is happening and think, ‘Hm, that’s fascinating and just treat it with this detachment, then you can make better decisions about it, but you can’t do that in the moment, right? In the moment, your emotions are going to take over, which is normal. We’re all, you know, oversized, mostly hairless primates. So, if you’re thinking about something like starting a business and you’re like, ‘well, I need to be on social media, and I need to have a podcast and I need to have a great website, and I have to have a logo design; and I have to have da, da, da.’
The questions I ask are, what’s the goal of these things? What’s the purpose behind having them? Just ask, why? Why do I need a fancy website? If you can come up with a really good reason you need that, okay, but it needs to be a reason that is not just because so-and-so told me to, but there’s some kind of metrics and data behind it.
“If you were a real writer, you would be making your living off of your books.” Have you heard this? Does this mean that if you aren’t doing this you’re not successful? What does success even look like for a creative?
Jessica: There’s a ton of mythology around success, a lot of guilt and pressure tactics. it’s like, ‘Have you ever talked to real writers? Because virtually all of them are teachers or something else.’ They’re doing something else to support themselves. My father is a literary agent and, he told me early on that it’s extremely rare for conventionally published authors to earn out their advance, which means you get paid a certain amount, like a chunk of money on contract. That’s the last payment they ever see from that book. I had healthy advances, but they no way paid for my life over the time it took me to make the books. I’m very proud of my books. I do not want to run them down at all. That’s not the point, but they’re not money-makers.
Jackie: But how do you see success when it comes to a book like Out on the Wire? Is it earning enough money or– I mean, just the fact that you had people all over who are completely obsessed with your book.
Jessica: Yes that is success. But in terms of my own goals for taking care of myself, it’s not enough, right? I became and still am, department chair of an Illustration Department here in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
You get academic jobs based on your credentials as an author, right? There are other people who go into editorial work. They may be art directors or editors or something like that. And then also authors, they may have speaking careers, plenty of Non-Fiction authors will have workshops. So, there are ways to leverage the book into ways to make a living. There are a few authors who are just authors. That’s what they do, but it is rare, relatively speaking.
Everything I learned as a creative is why I have this business and why I can run it, and why I’m good at it. I couldn’t do what I’m doing now without where I came from and all the stuff that went into who I am. Which I think is perfect for your theme, Grown-Ass Woman’s Guide, this idea that when you’re a grown-ass woman, you have so much to give, so much to use and so much fuel for so many ideas.
To learn more about Jessica’s workshops and coaching programs, visit jessicaabel.com. Starting May 2nd, Jessica is offering a free five-day challenge called Creative Compass, where she’ll lead you through creating a completely personalized system you need to buckle down and finish your amazing, inspiring, and maybe overwhelming creative dream projects.
Cartoonist and coach for creatives Jessica Abel is the founder of Autonomous Creative. She works with ambitious mid-career creatives to stop grinding and carve out the deep focus needed to finish—and launch—the game-changing work they want to be known for. Jessica is the author of a dozen books, including Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life, the graphic novel La Perdida, and two textbooks about making comics, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics. Her book Out on the Wire is about how the best radio and podcast producers in the world use story to keep us listening. Jessica’s latest work of fiction is the Eisner-nominated Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars. She is chair of the illustration program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.