Sometimes we see or experience things that touch us particularly profoundly. Well-crafted commercials, for example, can evoke emotions that we never forget in our lives (as well as the advertised product). But it could also be an illustration, newspaper headline, or a simple melody.
When we come across a work we admire in such a way, we can adapt the idea behind it and try with all our might to create an alternative variation of it. Maybe a better one.
It may take days, weeks, months, or even decades, but somewhere between our thoughts must lie our very own brilliant version.
Having a business besides freelancing is the best we can do. For ourselves, our business, and for the clients.
Being a freelancer as an illustrator, web designer, or translator means earning a living with commissions from various clients. Our goal is to generate the commissions that suit us and that appeal to us. We want to develop and improve in our profession and eventually be happy with what we do.
Pursuing a side hustle can be a valuable asset for freelancers in this regard. Having an extra pillar of income can give us the freedom to say No.
At the beginning of my career as an illustrator, I accepted every possible request. On the one hand, I had the time; on the other, I desperately needed the money. So I took a storyboard assignment from a big advertising agency without hesitation. And I did so even though I was aware that freehand drawing was not something I was particularly good at. It was a nightmare. Neither was I fast enough, nor could the quality of my loveless drawings meet the client’s expectations. Nightshift after nightshift, I tried to get the best out of it.
The final result was finally acceptable. But the road to that point was arduous for both parties. It should be clear that the agency has not contacted me again to this day.
Being able to refuse requests is essential for our business, so we can concentrate on offering what we like most (and, therefore, usually do best). But above all, it’s about fairness to the customer. Who wants to hire an unmotivated freelancer who only accepts the job to be able to pay her rent? A well-paying client has the right to the best version of us. Anything else borders on theft.
As artists, designers, and illustrators, we all have role models who inspire us. Beginners and students, in particular, tend to cling to their heroes initially.
But all that idolizing eventually gets us nowhere. At some point, we must pick up the pen and ask the only important question: What exactly fascinates us about our hero’s works? The answer is right in front of us. As we contemplate the artworks, we observe ourselves. What happens to us as we do so? What touches us? Is it perhaps the colors, the strokes, the subjects, the material? Finding this out while becoming active in the process is the key to our own artistic style.
When we were at school, we read books, learned different subjects such as math or languages, and did the sports we had to do. School education is a foundation. It’s where we first learn about our strengths and interests.
But when we graduate from school, a new chapter opens. Perhaps it is the most important in our life because now we begin to set the course for our future. It is crucial to be active, take up the reins, be curious, and break old habits, which open up unimagined paths full of adventure. To conquer these, we just must not stand still but keep moving.
The school conditions us to deal with things that do not touch or interest us, however helpful they may be in our lives. From now on, it’s 100% about us. We don’t read what we’re supposed to. We read what we want. We still continue to learn every day, but we focus on what excites us. We occupy ourselves with the things that are important to us, that make us happy, and that gives us a sense of purpose. We try out everything and remain open to the unexpected. And above all, we find the courage to stop doing things if they don’t enrich our lives. A conscious no gives us the most valuable currency we have— time.
In school, I was used to reading books to the end. This compulsion has been hard-wired into me for a long time. Today, if I start a book and realize after a while that the content doesn’t excite me or is irrelevant, I abandon it. That doesn’t mean it’s poorly written or can’t be of value to other people. For me, it’s not enriching, and that’s ok. The fact that I could decide this for myself without consequence felt unusual at the beginning and took a little while.
The same goes for movies, events, video games, and sports. When we feel something isn’t touching us, let’s break it off and look for the things that won’t let us go instead.
By consciously paying attention to how we feel in different situations and moments, we get to know ourselves better.
A simple example is movies when we go out of the cinema and afterward talk with our friends about how bad the movie was? In the next step, we can try to find out why exactly we feel that way. Was the story perhaps too predictable? Were the dialogues too unrealistic or the characters unsympathetic?
Now we ask ourselves what we would have done differently? Can we think of any ideas on how the story could have been more exciting? How would Tarantino have written the dialogue? What exactly was missing from the main character so we could have empathized with her better?
We can apply this inner analysis to almost everything in life. We usually remember one or two works in particular when we visit an exhibition. Maybe it will stick with us for the rest of our lives. Let’s not just take this experience for granted. Let’s find out the reason. Is it the colors, the idea, the material, the motif? What precisely in this particular work is the essence of our attention? The answer to this question is a piece of the puzzle to our vocation, style, and inner voice, making us unique.
I have always liked the color combinations of black, white with red, for example, like the movie posters for Scarface with Al Pacino or the covers of Sin City comics. They have stuck to me since childhood. In retrospect, it was inevitable that my Mindshots series would consist of this color combination.
Our portfolio should only present the works that we like to repeat. Especially as beginners, we tend to show everything we have created. We should definitely resist this. Especially if the response to one of our works was strikingly positive, but we felt little ambition and passion about the work itself. Being good at something does not obligate us to do it for life.
Goethe says, “I can’t get rid of the spirits I called.” If we are not careful, we find ourselves doing years of work that do not fulfill us. Our hands may do it well, but our heart longs for something else. This will not make us happy.
A small change can make much bigger changes happen in the future. That’s the idea behind the butterfly effect. Likewise, a minimal change in our daily routine can have a massive impact on our lives in the long run. The best part is that it doesn’t take much effort to drastically change our lives and achieve our goals. All it takes is some consistency and perseverance.
A dream job does not only consist of dream tasks. The first step is to follow our passion in search of our calling. Once we find it, we quickly realize that our dream has a few catches. For example, writing invoices, maintaining the website, night shifts, stressful negotiations, and calls.
Project requests can also seem unspectacular and monotonous. “Why do I always get these boring jobs?” “I’ll get this one over with somehow now, and I’ll go full-throttle on the next one.” However, with this attitude, we sabotage our arduous journey to get here.
The only thing that matters is the work on our table here and now. Instead of condemning and devaluing it from the start, let’s dive into it and grow from it. This is the only way to keep the passion that got us here in the first place.
The search for my illustration style has been exciting, full of highlights, and at the same time, often tedious and frustrating. Because I wanted to reach clients, there were always thoughts like what might appeal to potential clients and what’s trending right now. So I tried my hand in different areas. But again and again, I hit a wall. I just didn’t enjoy the topics.
Without motivation and vision, I came across drawings I made as a teenager – a small A6 sketchbook. It was full of ink portraits of Hollywood stars and rappers. When I made these drawings, I wasn’t thinking about customers, the market, or my dream to make money with it. Nobody had paid me to draw this. It was my own drive. Maybe I’d better focus on that, I thought. I did, and it felt liberating.
When I think about advertising on the Internet and conversations with friends and strangers, it is strikingly often about the question: How do I get a lot of money quickly, without much effort? This is a legitimate, albeit risky, goal, as this incentive opens the doors to fraudsters and criminals.
10 years ago, I had the goal to earn a living with my illustrations. As I worked on it for months, searching for my style, I realized something at some point: no amount of money in the world would be able to help me do that. It wouldn’t have spared me the frustration I felt when drawing after drawing ended up in the trash can. Nor would it have made me realize that I’d be better off focusing on athletes and portraits, which I enjoyed the most. And finally, it couldn’t have given me the courage to publish my work on social media. That can only be done with the classic ingredient you can’t buy: Our passion.
In Singapore, I attended a design conference at a university. The host asked a successful creative director what advice he could share for young people and students looking for their own path. He replied, “Ignore the money. Focus on what you love and enjoy doing, and the money will follow you.”
Instead of asking ourselves what we need to do to become millionaires, what would I (continue to) do if I were already a millionaire today?
“You can’t read the label when you’re inside the bottle.”
Chris Do (The Futur)
Business marketer Chris Do is talking here about how we have trouble seeing our own problems and the accompanying, most straightforward solutions. We can only see the world from our own point of view. People who give the most valuable advice often fail in their own lives. For the same reason, advertising and design agencies hire other agencies to develop their own corporate design. We are just too close.
I remember my classmate Laura. We were about 13 or 14 years old and sitting next to each other. While she was diligently taking notes in her notebook, I noticed something. Laura underlined headings and important points. Nothing unusual, actually. But the strokes were extraordinary: every single one was perfect. As if drawn with a ruler. No wobble, no quiver. They were all bolt upright.
I was amazed and asked her to draw several strokes in my notebook. She looked perplexed and drew several lines, one below the other. They looked like they were printed out even when I looked closely. Her friend on the other side had been listening and now noticed it too and said, “That’s right, they’re absolutely straight! Huh, how do you do that?”. It was fascinating.
But what surprised me the most was her reaction when I pointed it out. She was amazed at our enthusiasm, “Honestly?”. She had no idea of her gift. How could she not have known? Minutes later, as I turned back to my lesson, I saw Laura flipping through her notebook, examining her lines, and drawing more.
I don’t know what Laura is doing today. But somehow, I have the feeling that she still hadn’t forgotten that brief moment when she became aware of one of her talents. Just as I have not forgotten it.
When we recognize giftedness in people, we should let them know it. There’s a good chance they won’t have a clue about it, and who knows what direction their lives will take once they find out about it.
When we decide to go our own way, in search of our vocation, we quickly realize that nothing and no one can take over anything for us. Perhaps a teacher can show us a shortcut, or compassionate fellow human beings can hand us a walking stick and offer us shelter. But we have to take every step. We have to face the uncertainty alone. It very much resembles times of grief or lovesickness. Not our mothers, not our friends, not all the money in the world can make it disappear. We are on our own. And that’s perfectly fine.
Sure, the sooner the dishes or paying bills is done the better.
However, in the creative process, we often read about the burden of procrastination, the first stroke on the canvas. The first step is always the hardest, it is said.
But what does procrastination mean in creativity? It means to be afraid. Fear of our own failure. It means being afraid of disappointing ourselves when what we create doesn’t look, sound, or feel like we thought.
However, it also means that it is important to us. We want to do it well. We want to give it its due. Resistance knocks on the door whenever we care about something.
So as soon as the often frustrating state of procrastination and uncertainty arises, we can see it as our compass. We are on the right track.
When we commit ourselves to doing something that will significantly change our lives, we automatically look for a safety hook. What if it doesn’t work out? Isn’t it comforting to know that we can always go back or have an alternative at hand so we don’t find ourselves destitute on the street?
When I decided to do illustration for a living, I had a plan B (more on that in a more detailed post). Even today, I think that plan B would have been a great success. The idea was good, the demand was high, the effort was manageable. For weeks, I worked on it, the product, the website, and the logo (all this while trying to get a foothold with my illustrations). But one crucial ingredient was missing, with which, however, everything stands and falls: passion.
It actually felt like work, unlike drawing and experimenting with colors and materials. So I deleted plan B from my life and was finally able to invest my gained time in plan A, the only plan that matters.
We feel fear precisely because something is important to us. Fear of the unknown is part of our journey. It has to be. After all, we’ve never been there before. Let’s set out without a safety rope, without a double bottom. Otherwise, we rob ourselves of this critical component on the way to our goal.