Declining job requests? Let’s look for patterns of annual fluctuations

That’s it. I had a good run, but it’s over now. In my first few years as a freelance illustrator, these words crept into my head from time to time. For months, exciting emails would flood into my inbox: client inquiries, interview requests, collaboration requests. I could barely keep up with responding and creating proposals.

But suddenly … silence. The only emails I was still receiving were the faithful spam from some guy named Manuel Franko, who was desperate to give me tens of millions of dollars if only I would click on his link.

Seemingly from one day to the next, the requests stopped. The first two weeks I still enjoyed because the last months had been full of overtime. By the third, I was getting nervous. Still nothing … it seemed like someone had turned off the switch.

Then finally, the redemption. A new request. Then another one. Soon I was busy again, and my worries vanished.

Over the years, I could recognize a rhythm. The months in which I received fewer inquiries had always been the summer months, the vacation season. So it was no wonder the curve went down here before it shot up again in late August.

With that in mind, not only could I calm down when inquiries were low. I could plan with it for vacations, personal projects, website updates, and more.

Because of our inexperience, such fluctuations can cause existential anxiety. Over time, we recognize patterns, incorporate them into our lives, and use them best. The important thing is just to be on the lookout for them.

A finance warning by my accountant when starting a business

At one of my first meetings with my accountant, he told me that most startups and freelancers don’t fail with their businesses because their products, service, or ideas are wrong or bad. They fail because of financial mismanagement. Many find it difficult to internalize that the money in their account is not 100% theirs, but part of it belongs to the tax office. In Germany, you are on the safe side if you set aside 1/3 of your income (excluding sales tax) for the tax office and health insurance.

Wouldn’t it be sad if we had to end our long-awaited dream of launching our restaurant, product, or service just because we spent money on a vacation, a car, or a watch? Money that didn’t belong to us in the first place? Wouldn’t that be unfair, irresponsible, and negligent to ourselves?

And even worse, wouldn’t we be depriving our fellow human beings of the result of our passion? An invention, a film, a product, or a service that might have simplified or beautified their lives?

Especially at the beginning of our project, until we can assess the financial situation more accurately, humility seems to be the virtue with which everything stands and falls.

4 Steps to develop a new habit

When I started to work as a freelance illustrator, I was forced to develop new habits in my life more than ever. There was no longer a boss telling me how and when to work. All the critical decisions were up to me from now on.

How do I find my illustration style? How and where to present my work. How do I get the attention of potential clients? How to use social networks? The list was endless, and I didn’t even consider time for family, friends, and sports.

I knew that I needed a plan. And to fulfill it, I had to create new habits. Drawing alone would not be enough. I had to get into the habit of taking small but consistent steps. Every day I worked on my style, I informed myself about the benefits of social networks and marketing methods for illustrators. I set fixed times for sports, which is essential because you move even less in your own home than when you work in a company.

Over time, I’ve noticed four methods for myself that help me develop new habits:

  1. Baby steps:
    Let’s do a little bit every day. Our motivation for the next day fades as soon as we overload ourselves. Let’s say we want to read more. We can set a limit like five pages, ten minutes, or half an hour each day. How much we want to spend is up to us. It should only be realistic and not overambitious. In a few weeks, we will have internalized the habit of reading like brushing our teeth.
  2. Track our new habits:
    A simple calendar helps. As soon as we read, we make a checkmark for the day. The best thing is that the chain of checkmarks eventually motivates us over time. We don’t want to break it.
  3. Backup plan for super-busy days:
    Some days are just different than others: deadlines, personal commitments, or dark days when we can’t get our minds up. No problem. We have already made a plan for that. In those days, we don’t read for x minutes. We read one paragraph only. It takes a few seconds, and that’s perfectly fine. We make our checkmark here, too.
  4. Having mercy on ourselves:
    If the chain breaks, it’s not the end of the world. If it happens, it does not mean we have failed—quite the opposite. If we get upset or feel bad about it, we take it as a sign that we care. Let’s keep going tomorrow.

2 methods to develop good habits and achieve goals (2/2)

No. 2 – The introverted method:

The last post was about the extroverted method. Now it’s about sorting out most of our plans with ourselves first. Here, especially in the beginning, we don’t discuss it with anyone. At this stage, my grandma used to say, “It’s not yet ripe to speak about,” while my grandpa used to say, “Never say I will, always say I did.”

The advantages of this method:

THE SECRET – Our dreams are the most precious thing we carry inside us. But they are so fragile. People, circumstances, words, and ourselves can easily shatter them. Therefore, we must protect them from ourselves and from others. By not talking about it, we create our secret and put it in a save. We do not allow people to judge or decide our goals, influence us, or dissuade us. The temptation to talk about it is enormous. After all, we think about it all the time. But the more we resist the urge, the firmer and stronger our will to achieve the goal develops. We become aware that other people, be it our loving parents or best friend, cannot make the decisions and take the path for us. So who benefits from talking about it?

AVOIDING TOXIC PRESSURE – When we work on our goals, we already put a lot of pressure on ourselves and have expectations of ourselves. We are our worst critics and work daily to develop better habits. The fight against our self-doubt and inner resistance requires much effort from us. We quickly feel alone in the process. But if you look at it closely, that’s where the power lies. We learn a lot about ourselves, how we work, think, and decide best to get closer to our goal. Since we don’t talk about it, we eliminate any outside pressure. We don’t have to prove anything or be accountable to anyone. Only ourselves. And that is by far enough.

The downside:

A SOLID BUT LONG ROAD TO GO: as mentioned in the last post, people can support and encourage us along the way. They can give helpful advice and introduce us to people who can get us to our goal faster. If we don’t talk about our plan, we will have to learn only from our own mistakes. This will strengthen us internally. But there is nothing reprehensible about learning from the mistakes of others and embracing help. For that, however, we would have to tell them first.

I have somewhat exaggerated both methods, and there is not only one or the other way. As always in life, the dose makes the poison. The more we try and observe ourselves, the quicker we find out which method is more appropriate for our personality.

Personally, I have found that the introverted method suits me. Looking back, this has always been the case. The most significant decisions in my life I first negotiated with myself, i.e., the decisions to study design, travel abroad for several months, and to become self-employed. Only when the determination in me has grown enough, do I find the courage to share it with others.

How is it with you? Where do you see yourself? Feel free to let me know via email.

2 methods to develop good habits and achieve goals (1/2)

No. 1 – The extroverted method:

We tell everyone about our plans. Do we want to quit smoking, write our screenplay, or exercise more? Let’s share our ambitions with family, friends, and people around us. 

The advantages of this method:

THE PROMISE – We consciously create external pressure and a constant reminder of our intention. “Are you still smoking?” “What about your movie? “Have you lost any weight yet?”. We have not only made a promise to ourselves to achieve our dreams. By telling others about it, we’ve also made a promise to them, or at least a statement that we don’t want to break. 

THE TIME AND MOTIVATION BOOST – People with the same interests attract each other. We connect with whom share a common passion, ambition, and dreams by talking about them. These encounters can help our project move forward by receiving feedback and advice. We may even be introduced to more people willing to believe in us, support us or invest in us. Unexpected opportunities can arise if we just share our vision. Each encounter can be a valuable piece of the puzzle or a shortcut to our dream path.

The downside:

BECOMING A PAIN IN THE A… – We will find people interested in us and in our dream sooner or later. But most people will have no interest in it. They will not relate to it at all, and our passionate fire will not touch them. If we constantly talk about our goals with friends and relatives, it may cause them to be annoyed with us. In the worst case, they will not look forward to meeting us. To avoid this, we should read the signals of the person we are talking to.

BECOMING A WINDBAG – Everything around us is constantly changing. That also applies to our dreams and plans. In the beginning, we may have found them exciting or even for weeks and months. But suddenly, we stop. We lost interest in them. The fire we felt was a flash in the pan instead of a torch in the dark. If that happens once or twice and we actually have a concrete result the third time, that’s fine. But if we constantly over-promise and under-deliver, we become nothing but chatterboxes. Not just on the outside. Much more threatening is that we might get used to it on the inside instead of changing our attitude that leads us to the goal. 

In such cases, we might want to try the second method: The introvert method, which I will write about later.

Freelancers: When the phone rings, let’s pick up!

What sounds so simple and obvious is actually not so easy for everyone. When we talk eye to eye with someone, we have so many possibilities to communicate our concern or present ourselves. Mimics, clothing, body language, voice. Even our fragrance sends signals.

On phone calls, our ways of expression are limited. All tools are omitted, except for our voice. To underline our interest in the conversation and convey our concerns clearly and unmistakably, only our words and how we express them remain.

This can be challenging, especially when we go through briefings with business clients, share feedback, or negotiate prices. As freelancers, it can be intimidating, especially in the beginning, even though we’ve waited so long for that first client call.

In the worst cases, we would procrastinate until the ringing stops. But we don’t let that happen at all. It wouldn’t be fair to ourselves. We’ve worked too hard to be found, and now we’re letting it slip away just because our heart is pounding faster? No way. Instead, we keep reminding ourselves that the phone is usually only ringing because someone is interested in us and our work.

To all of you who relate to this, let’s make a promise here and now: If the phone rings, we’ll pick it up. That’s our decision today, so we don’t have to worry about it tomorrow when the phone rings. Who knows what creative adventure awaits us on the other side of the line.

Let’s work the way Lionel Messi plays football

Playing soccer has always been my hobby and passion. I used to play in local football clubs three to four times a week. Most of the time as a goalkeeper.

As a teenager, I played as a striker in football clubs. I thought that was a suitable position for me. After all, I scored many goals on the small pitches in my neighborhood or in the indoor sports hall during school sports.

But in championship games, the pitch is larger. Here you don’t play 5 against 5, but 11 against 11. I was utterly overtaxed. Suddenly it was a completely different game. I didn’t know how to move right, I was blindly chasing the ball, and after a few minutes, my lungs and thighs were burning like hell.

On the big pitches, it’s not just about physical condition and skills. “Football is a game of the mind,” said Holland’s legend Johan Cruyff, and a game lasts at least 90 minutes. That’s why it’s essential to manage your energy, judge the timing for a full sprint, and let the ball run instead of the legs. A striker cannot afford to waste his energy carelessly. A striker lurks, then explodes at the decisive moment when a promising pass reaches him, or the opponent makes a mistake. Then he focuses all his energy, concentration, and talent on the objective: to score a goal.

I didn’t understand that at the time. Instead of using my energy effectively, I was constantly trying to be moving. I thought that if I didn’t, my coach would substitute for me. The problem was that I lacked strength and concentration in the few offensive situations. I was simply scoring hardly any goals.

In my working life, it helps to keep reminding myself of this. Being diligent or busy does not automatically mean being effective. I need to focus my energy. As an illustrator, I can’t afford to start a commissioned project immediately if all the necessary points and questions haven’t been clarified. I risk wasting my client’s and my own energy and time. It usually helps to hold off, review the situation, and go full throttle when the path is clear.

Let’s instead do it like seven-time record world footballer Lionel Messi. He’s already a living legend and scoring machine. According to sqaf.cluband besoccer.com, a striker runs, on average, 9.5 km in a game. On the other hand, Messi runs an average of 7.906 in Champions League games, making him the second least running player in the competition. If that’s not a role model for effectiveness …

What we do is not who we are

It starts with the language. In Germany, we say, Ich bin Illustrator, Ich bin Maurer, Ich bin Psychologe (I am an illustrator, …). This formulation creates a strong connection between work and identity: I am what I do.

But this attitude is risky and can be unhealthy. From a connection, dependency may arise. So, as part of society, I am measured by what I do. At the same time, I begin to measure myself by it. It’s constraining.

What happens when a serious injury forces a professional football player to end his career? Or when a 5-star chef loses his sense of taste? Is his identity lost with that? 

In Italy, they say Faccio l’illustratore, Faccio il muratore, Faccio il psicologo. This means as much as I make … or I work as … The language creates a distance to identity.

Once we realize that what we do is only a by-product of who we are, our lives will become easier. We deal better with criticism, detach more easily from expectations, and take the freedom to redesign our lives.

Let’s be the bad guy once, not over and over again.

Saying “no” or asking follow-up questions can be difficult, especially at the beginning of our career. Yet we usually save ourselves a lot of trouble by doing so.

If we are not satisfied with the terms of a job request, let us communicate our concerns to the client. These can be about the budget, the briefing, the deadline, the creative process, and more.

If we don’t address the issues right away, we’ll have to do it at a later time. And then it gets complicated for both sides. After all, we’re already in the middle of it by then, and the questions we didn’t ask blow up in our faces. That can be very upsetting and annoying, especially for the client.

So let’s be upfront about everything from the beginning and insist on answers before we start working. Worrying that our concerns will stress or even scare off the client should not be a reason not to do it.

Are all the issues resolved? Great, we can get on with the project. Have we lost the client through our necessary urge for clarity? Great, we’ve almost certainly saved ourselves a challenging assignment that would have been nerve-wracking and financially difficult due to the inevitable hurdles in the process.

When in doubt, let’s use the big No just once at the beginning, instead of little No‘s over and over again later in the process.

Asking doesn’t cost us anything

This is the German and Italian version of the saying “there’s no harm in asking.” Sometimes it is helpful to remind ourselves when we need advice and help.

At the beginning of my studies in communication design, I was supposed to lecture about a Korean designer. When researching, I faced a problem because I could hardly find any information: only a simple homepage, no interview, and only a few reports.

The whole week I searched desperately for information. Finally, I had to explain to my professor that the presentation would be relatively short. He said, “have you asked him?”.

The scales fell from my eyes. Why didn’t I think of it myself? The possibility was so close? What prevented me from simply writing to the designer directly and asking for an interview? Was it the thought of not wanting to bother, of being a nuisance? Was it awe? Or perhaps the shame of revealing myself as an inexperienced student in front of a renowned designer? I can’t put my finger on the reason, but eventually, I wrote a short email asking for a few questions to be answered.

The presentation was a success. My fellow students were amazed that I had written directly to the designer. So I was not alone with my initial concerns.

Therefore: It costs nothing to ask. There is nothing wrong with approaching people directly when we have concerns or need advice. We may not get an answer, but we don’t take that personally. However, if we do get one, it is most likely to be positive.

With this attitude, four years later, I contacted countless designers in Australia and Southeast Asia for a meeting and an interview for my thesis. As many as 90% replied, and about 70% were looking forward to our meeting. The result was dozens of inspiring and warm conversations that have stuck with me.

PS: there are very few cases where asking actually did “cost” me something. More about that in another post.

Let us beware of feel-good-tasks

Bookkeeping, answering emails, and doing household tasks, have something treacherous about them. Once we get them done, it feels good. They make us feel like we’ve been diligent. Giving these tasks a high priority and doing them first thing is tempting. After all, we can usually finish them quickly and without any particular effort. In addition, we see the results immediately: the inbox shows no new emails or our office finally looks tidy again.

However, each of us has a period during the day when we are particularly productive. For many, it’s the first hours of the morning. This is definitely true for me. That’s why I tackle the most critical tasks in the morning. These are tasks that require my total concentration and creative thinking.

It has turned out for me that spending these precious hours on “simple” tasks is counterproductive. Instead, I schedule them for the afternoon, when my energy starts to wane. That’s the ideal time to answer emails, write bills, and clean the dishwasher.

These mundane tasks also have a nice side effect. We can consciously use them as a little motivational boost. If our concentration is at its lowest point for the day, it’s best to pause the important work and go for the things that don’t demand much of us. Usually, we feel good, relieved, and full of energy afterward. Finally, these tasks are off the list, and we can use this inner boost for our essential tasks again.

Standing with confidence and positive energy while presenting

How we stand in front of our audience immediately reflects how we feel: insecure, confident, nervous, on the verge of flight, or joyful anticipation. But more importantly, our stance and posture directly affect ourselves.

A secure and firm stance means that both feet are shoulder-width apart. This automatically means that the knees are pushed through, and the back is straight. Through this stand, completely different energy flows in our bodies. Our voice becomes minimally deeper, our gaze more concentrated. Shoes with a stiff sole can support this, as we are not as flexible wearing them as soft sneakers.

With the firm stand, we give our body and our head the signal: Now it gets serious! We go into communication mode. We are facing the audience head-on. Our total concentration belongs to them, and we start to talk consciously and thoughtfully about what we have planned.

No matter how the audience perceives us, sympathetic, arrogant, friendly, or hardened, there is one thing we do not appear to be: insecure.

Feeling burning stress is a warning shot we shouldn’t ignore

We all know that nagging feeling of procrastination when we put off a job, a study project, or a simple call to the tax office. The task is stuck in our head and keeps popping up, whether we wake up, work, watch a movie, or are at the gym.

The best solution is to just get it done. But sometimes, things get in the way and make it difficult or even impossible. There comes the point when we think about the task and feel more pressure to get it done than we did yesterday. Perhaps the client or professor has asked about the status, or the deadline of the tax office is about to expire.

Suddenly, an uncomfortable heat rises inside us that stirs us up. We should never ignore this moment. Our subconscious fires a final warning shot that we should listen to. It means that it is not too late yet… but it will be very soon. Even if our head could suppress or postpone it for a long time to do the task, our subconscious does not.

Find the courage to give ourselves a job title before even starting

By doing so, we are making a few promises to ourselves and the people we try to reach.

For weeks I wrestled back and forth. What do I want? Am I a graphic designer, a T-shirt designer, or a communication designer? What job title or description should I put under my name?

In and out of college, I developed many interests. To survive in the marketplace, I needed to serve a niche. That was clear to me from the start. As an all-rounder, it would be difficult for me to be successful and, above all, happy.

Sergio Ingravalle – Illustrator

When I called and recognized myself as an illustrator, my life became easier. Even though I had already done some illustration jobs by then, this step was precious.

An illustrator illustrates.

He doesn’t create corporate designs, program websites, or layout magazines. He creates images. He draws, paints, cuts, glues, doodles. And that’s what I did from then on until people who visited my homepage could clearly see what they could expect from me.

Competitors: Rivals or partners in crime? Our choice

Let’s face the truth. There are countless artists, illustrators, designers, musicians, and writers out there. Just take a look at Instagram or Youtube. We are inundated with people and fantastic talents working in the same field and who are more successful than we are. Each one has his own story, vision, views, and skills. But part of the truth is that countless clients worldwide are willing to work with us. There are enough opportunities for all of us. 

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