When you’re starting out as a freelance creative professional, there are many reasons why it’s tricky to see where the next opportunity is coming from. Timing is many things, but there is no way to consciously pick the correct moment to send that email, or post that promotional booklet. Ability of course, is cherished and sought after, but cannot survive alone. I recently talked to Gordon Reid on episode 39 of my Arrest All Mimics podcast and we discussed an incident where he’d been a part of a panel of creative professionals at an industry event. During the panel discussion, he highlighted the inherent worth of networks, reliability, likeability and other traits that can heighten the chances of you achieving goals. One of the fellow panel members became contentious and challenged this, claiming that talent, in time, will always be enough.
With that little takeaway point, I thought deeply about the many factors leading to success, on the over-ground train home from Gordon’s Stoke Newington base. I could trace almost all of my career breaks back to a moment during which yes, my skills were called upon, but only in circumstances where those intangibles; timing, connections, hard work and trust were at work in sync with ability.
So how do you go about ensuring your professional ability is rewarded? When I talk at industry events and educational institutions, I tell people to ‘get out there and be a part of it.’ That’s one vague piece of advice, but we’re all individuals and whilst some of us may be self-confident social animals, others may be quieter, more peripheral introverts. There is no exact science and you will not find a definition for my statement in a textbook. It is almost certainly why too many parents try to dissuade their children from pursuing a career in the creative industry. Where there is uncertainty, there is fear.
I’ll tell you a story. I’ve been a full-time, freelance illustrator for almost eight years. For the first two or three, that was almost exclusively for editorial clients, using my knowledge of sport to crowbar my way into the conversation at football magazines and The Guardian Sport. Then I met a director from Channel 4 at a group art show I had taken part in, despite much trepidation about my ability to create and successfully present the piece with no experience in doing so. After agreeing to take part in an exhibition, he was hosting at his home, we had dinner and he told me that he had been looking at my portfolio. He fell in love with a quirky personal project I’d recently posted and based on the style in which I had created it, commissioned me to work on a TV trailer for Skins season 3.
That Skins job triggered a whole sequence of projects that allowed me to expand my portfolio, experience, network and pick up some nice press too. There was no way I could have predicted the encounter, but in paying from my own full time job wage to travel from my university city of Preston to London I had ‘gone out there, been a part of it.’ In doing so, I had cast my net wider than my studio and town of residence.
This year, I agreed to give a talk at London Design Festival 2016 with a group called Designers Block. After a chance meeting at New Designers, I felt they would make great guests for my podcast, so we met for coffee before the event to have a chat. They told me about New York based graffiti artist Tristan Eaton’s Painted Oceans project in which they are heavily involved.
On the Sunday, I finished my talk. Not too many people showed up, but the talk went well and afterwards, it turned out Tristan was speaking after me, since he was passing through London en route to painting in Copenhagen. We got talking and exchanged contacts after his talk. I also met several other people and came away feeling inspired with new ideas. We live in a country packed full of opportunities to get to great events like this, great and small. Each one could contain the next crucial link, no matter how subtle or in-your-face obvious in its worth.
To put it simply, no matter at what stage of a creative career you find yourself, sitting at home, watching TV is not the optimum way to reach the next level. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it is crucial to accept that chance, timing and personality play an integral role in opening new doors. By implementing the right balance of hard work, talent, reliability, networking and individuality, the opportunities will find you.