One of the inevitable assumptions budding creative professionals encounter is that your artform is free—so how do we conquer the plague of doing creative favors by effectively charging for passion?
The starving artist persona is a crippling stigma that simply arises from the gap between creative output and financial input, a vicious cycle that can only be bridged by deliberate business acumen.
Many creatives aspire to dedicate their lives to doing what they love. Additionally, most human beings aspire to survive. We all like to eat, keep lights on, pay rent, while still having enough time to do the things we love. And the destination to that equilibrium where creativity and general survival coincide requires money.
This bridge between creativity and finance is only built out of confidence in your work and self-assurance of your worth. Insecurity and self-doubt will doom a viable career into languishing as a spare time hobby.
There is nothing wrong with validating effort with compensation
The first realization we must make is that working for money is not selfish or rude or even out of the ordinary. Our inclination to do our work for free arises from monetizing something that seems so connected to our life’s purest intangibles; our souls, our hearts, our love.
Previously you had been doing something for no other incentive but passionate and personal enjoyment. Adding a price tag to our passion can replace the euphoric sense of creative accomplishment with feelings of illegitimacy or greed.
We don’t want that raw pursuit to mutate into a financial one, which can taint the purity of your purpose if you are not careful.
The point is not to make money the goal, but simply a byproduct of a bigger purpose.
Define your worth, then stick to it
Self-valuation is tricky because it requires a degree of self-assurance that can feel cocky or pompous. Yet selling yourself short cheapens your overall worth and lays a foundation of low expectation both from you and from your potential consumer. And once that foundation is laid, it is difficult to elevate your client’s expectation and your confidence.
There are thousands of emotions at play when one is assessing the value of their own worth. And if not treated delicately and assessed fairly, you can pigeonhole yourself into a reputation that is preceded by a price tag that the world could not care less to increase.
When a person is doing something for the sheer love of it, there is an innate authenticity, self-gratification, and personal satisfaction. When people not only notice it but then validate your work with orders or requests, it is paramount that you realize, short of your own generosity, that you are not a charity foundation or Goodwill rack.
Rarely will someone ask to pay you, and if they do, rarely will they offer a price that fully considers the work and time that you are expending. And very well. It is not their job to mark you with a price gun and tell you what you are worth. How kind of them to leave your self-appraisal up to you.
Be modest, not meek
Modesty is great in many instances. Every decent human being needs an adequate dose of humility so that they are not completely intolerable jerks. But there is a fine line between modesty and meekness, that can define the difference between down-to-earth professional or a walked-over doormat.
Embrace your achievements. Do not downplay your talents. Enjoy external acclaim and third-party accolades. When receiving a compliment, do not respond meekly by bashfully writing our talents off as random hobbies. Take pride in what you do because it is worth something.
So now what?
Silence your self-critic
One of the most important tools you will need is the remote that mutes that internal negative criticism and turns up your confidence.
All of those demon emotions of inadequacy and fraudulence that begin trying to convince you that you are ill-qualified—that we can only perform our talent in an intermediate capacity, therefore validating free favors rather than valuable work.
If you don’t know how to turn those criticisms down, they’ll keep popping up with intimidating thoughts like:
“Oh, I haven’t been formally trained, I’m not a real _____.”
“Sure, in fact, I’ll do it for free. It’s just a hobby after all.”
“(S)he does a better job than me. I’m just fooling around.”
And before you know it, you have an overwhelming line out the door for freelance charity work. But when you have a talent, and people want to gain access to the fruits of that talent, do not feel bad that fruits are not always free.
It’s natural to be your own worst critic—in some cases, it can even be productive and motivating. But as soon as the critic turns venomous, you need to be prepared to combat it.
When that small voice begins piling on the pity, assert yourself with confidence, even when it feels false. Don’t let their message take root. Only turn up the volume when you are reinforcing your value instead of degrading it.
The reality is that every creative person will hit speed bumps founded upon insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. But we don’t make it over those bumps when we let our self-critic turn them into mountains.
We are naturally inclined to compare ourselves. So compare strategically.
We tend to compare ourselves to other experts in our field, which further feeds our insecurities in the value of our own work. But that person has gotten to whatever pedestal you are observing by wrestling with the exact same battles you are. And then they conquered them. We reduce the integrity of our work into simple favors rather than validating it as real, qualified and strategic effort.
The only person you should ever compare yourself to is you. Compare your current work to your past work to your future intentions. And grow from the disparity between those milestones.
Furthermore, regardless of what level you feel you should be at in order to compensate your efforts, remember that people seeking out your work are coming to you because you know more than they do about their request; not because you know more or less than the peers in your industry.
Remember expertise is relative. Comparatively, you are the expert between you and your client. That is the only comparison that matters when assessing value within the context of the relevant exchange. And your relative expertise is worth something.
Your time is valuable
Always keep in mind that, at the very least, your time is priceless.
Regardless of any opinion about the quality of your work, there is always value in the quantity of time that you are investing towards someone else’s desire or need. At the end of the day, time is concrete and a measurable cost to you that should ultimately be assessed to the beneficiary.
There are certainly still circumstances that may warrant freebies. You do not have to take this article as a blanket truth and now begin to impose fees whenever you so much as breathe creatively. Use your own discernment to decide which opportunities may forego pricetags.
As common as you may hear clients negotiating freebies for the exchange of “exposure” or “practice,” there are certainly times where these benefits completely validate your labor.
Another great way to promote your work is by letting potential clients have a little taste of your talent to whet their palette. These samples provide them access and insight into your implied value, which not only engenders consumer loyalty but also leads to larger and recurrent conversions.
For example, if you are a graphic designer, perhaps launch a free line of generic printables that allows people to enjoy your work with little cost to you or them. But implement a charge for more in-depth or personalized orders.
Lauren is based in Atlanta, Georgia. In addition to writing here on Pursuit of Daydreams, Lauren’s daydreams consist of all forms of design: Graphic, Fashion, Web, Interior, Art. On any given day, she can be found preoccupied with at least one of the above. She is happiest with a bowl of ice cream in hand.
Also published on Medium.