007: Working in your Creative & Financial Sweet Spot (Episode 3 in the 4-Part "Time & Income" Series)Dec 13, 2022
**Episode 3 of 4 in the Time & Income Series. To listen to Episode 1 in the series, go here. To read the transcript of Episode 1 in the series, go here. To listen to Episode 2 in the series, go here. To read the transcript of Episode 2 in the series, go here. **
Every creative entrepreneur has horror stories of that nightmare project, the one where the work was awful and the pay was terrible. And we also all have rainbows and unicorns tales about the incredible projects that were creatively fulfilling and helped us grow as artists and challenged us in the very best ways, and that also (wonder of wonders) paid us incredibly well, more than we’d ever believed possible. Then there’s the whole spectrum in between those two extremes. But that’s what it means to be a creative, right? Some projects are great and some are awful, some gigs pay fabulously and others, well, not so much. That’s just creative life, right?
What if I were to tell you, no, that your creative life doesn’t have to be spent vacillating between the amazing and the awful, and instead can be focused on just the amazing? Would that change things for you? Today’s episode is all about that: how to spend your creative life working on projects that you find creatively fulfilling and that pay you your absolute best rates. That’s what I call your creative and financial sweet spot, and today’s episode is all about helping you live in that sweet spot in your work. Let’s get to it.
Hi there, and welcome to the Starving Artist No More podcast, a community of creative entrepreneurs that is all about helping you build a creative business that meets your needs personally, creatively, and financially. I am your host Jennifer Jill Araya, and I am so excited you’re here with me today. This is Episode #7 of the Starving Artist No More podcast, and it is also the third episode in a 4-part series discussing how to handle the connection between time and income in creative businesses. If you’ve missed either of the first two episodes in this series, I highly suggest you go back and listen to them before diving in with this episode.
In episode #5 of this podcast, and the first episode in this series, we started with the relationship between time and income for creative entrepreneurs, and how you can shift your thinking about that connection so you can begin the process of separating your income from your time, with the ultimate goal of increasing your income and scaling your business without having to work 24/7. And the second episode of the series, episode #6 of the podcast, was last week’s episode, about why it is important to pay yourself first and what that means in practical terms. The second step in this process, which is what we’re going to talk about today, is to figure out your creative & financial sweet spot and focus all your marketing and outreach work at getting more work in this area so that you are both paid your absolute best rates for the work you do and doing your absolute best, most creative, and most innovative work on every project. And finally, step 3 of this process and the topic of next week’s podcast episode, which will be released on December 20, 2022, is to use the extra time margin you have in your schedule, thanks to steps 1 and 2, to develop asynchronous income, or passive income, so that you have reliable income streams that will pay you over time into the future.
If that brief rundown totally confused you and you need more information, or if you want to see these concepts written out rather than only absorbing them by listening to this podcast, just navigate over to my website, www.StarvingArtistNoMore.com, where you can access a transcript of these episodes, and every other episode of this podcast, as a blog post, and where you can download a free guide – no strings attached – that addresses all of these concepts. The guide is called “Say Goodbye to Feast or Famine: Three Financial Must-Haves for Creative Entrepreneurs,” and it touches on all of the concepts we’re discussing in this podcast series. I know finances are a big hurdle and a big source of stress for a lot of creative entrepreneurs, and I’m really passionate about demystifying the process of financial management for creative business owners. This is a big topic, but it doesn’t have to be daunting. And I really think the free guide available on my website will help.
And with that, let’s dig into the topic of this episode: finding and working within your creative and financial sweet spot.
First, what do I mean by that? What is your creative and financial sweet spot? Put simply, your creative and financial sweet spot is the cross section between the projects that you enjoy the most creatively and that pay you the best financially. If you spend your time working there, (1) you will get as much creative enjoyment as possible out of the work you do, which will improve the quality of your work because you will be more invested in the work you do and will help you feel better about your work, and (2) you will be paid your very best rates for the work that you do. Over time, as you work to make sure that more and more of your projects fall within this sweet spot, you will actually see an increase in your income because you will be increasing the percentage of projects that pay you your highest rates. Working in your creative & financial sweet spot, and focusing on getting more work that meets this criteria, is like gradually giving yourself a raise for doing work you enjoy. It’s so rewarding! So let’s go through how to figure out what that sweet spot is for you.
Before we can determine what projects you find most financially and creatively fulfilling, we need to figure out what those two terms mean for you. This will be different for every single person listening to this episode, and if you come back to this process in a year or two years, your definition might have changed a bit. That’s ok! There is not one right answer to this question, and this is a process that I would suggest you revisit every year when you do your yearly business goal setting (more on that process in figure podcast episodes). Focusing your work in this zone, and allowing the zone to shift as you grow and mature as an artist, helps your work stay fresh and creatively relevant for you, while continuing to pay you what you need.
Let’s address the “financially” fulfilling part first. The short definition is this: if all your projects paid you the way that Project X paid you, would your work meet your financial needs, both business and personal? If so, Project X is financially fulfilling, and if not, it isn’t. Stated like that, it sounds pretty cut and dry, but there’s a lot of nuance in there, too. It’s not just a question of the rate that you made for the amount of time you worked on the project.
To help you get a better sense of the nuances involved, let me give you some examples of projects for which you need to think deeper than just calculating the amount you earned for the time you spent working. For example, if you’re a voiceover artist who does video game work, you might have recording sessions that require you to yell or scream or grunt for an extended period of time, basically asking you to use your voice in ways that tire you out and will mean that you will vocally be unable to record anything else later in the day. The recording session might only be an hour or two hours, or maybe even shorter – maybe just 30 minutes – but it means you’re unable to work for the rest of the day. When you determine whether or not the work was financially fulfilling for you, you need to consider that this one session actually consumed a whole day of work time, not just 30 minutes or an hour or two hours.
Here’s another example. In my work as an audiobook narrator, some books are more complicated than others. Rate A might be financially fulfilling for a lighthearted RomCom that doesn’t have any unusual language or accents, but that same Rate A might not be fulfilling if applied to a complicated fantasy novel with 40 important characters I have to keep track of, all of whom have different accents, not to mention hundreds of words that I have to learn to pronounce for the invented language that the author uses. That fantasy novel is going to take a lot more of my work time to narrate than the romcom, and so a rate that would make the romcom financially fulfilling is going to be too low if applied to the fantasy.
Determining whether a certain project is financially fulfilling for you is definitely a judgement call. This isn’t a science, and that’s ok. The goal is to get a sense of where your projects lie on a continuum between “being paid nothing” and “being paid the highest rate you could ever conceive of making,” along with a sense of where the line falls that demarcates financially fulfilling vs. not financially fulfilling.
Now let’s think about what make a project creatively fulfilling for you. Determining whether a project is creatively fulfilling is even more subjective and individual than the financially fulfilling question! Looking over your entire creative career, think back to the work days when you felt the most fired up and focused, the days when you were able to slip into the flow of your creative process almost effortlessly, the days when you finished work for the day pumped up about continuing in the process the next day, the mornings when you woke up delighted about the work day ahead of you and passionate about the work you would be doing. Think about your biggest and most memorable creative wins. Look back over your recent project calendar, and identify the weeks when you were enthusiastic about your work, as compared to other weeks when perhaps your energy waned. What projects did you complete, only to think to yourself, “I wish I could do another project just like that one”?
When you look at all of those creative, productive work days or weeks, what are the common threads that tie together the projects you were working on? Are they all focused on one type of work? Are they all within one medium or one genre? How did you get that work? Did all of them, or a significant percentage of them, come your way from one company or contact? How can you group the work together, and why? What do these projects share?
I challenge you to take the time to really do the thought work necessary to figure out what makes something creatively fulfilling for you. If it helps you to think through the criteria, perhaps you can journal about what makes a project creatively satisfying for you. Maybe you can talk it over with a colleague, friend, or partner. What you discover about yourself and your work may really surprise you.
I’ve done this exercise myself a number of times, but I recently was in a bit of a slump creatively in my audiobook narration work, and I decided it was time to do this again for myself. As I was doing this internal thought work, I realized anew something I have long known about myself: for my work to be creatively fulfilling, it must have variety. A big part of why I love my work as an audiobook narrator so much is because it provides endless variety. Every week, I’m recording a new book or a new series, working with a new set of characters and a facing challenges unique to the author and the characters for that book. I narrate books in literally every genre, and I love it that way. I need creative variety to feel creatively stimulated.
I’ve known this about myself for a long time. I know my work needs to be continually changing and evolving for me to stay creatively engaged. When I do the same thing the same way too many times in a row, I get bored and struggle to really stay creatively committed to my work. I know this, but I forgot it.
When I was going through this exercise for myself a few months ago, I realized that almost all of the audiobook projects I’d struggled with during the past 4-6 months were projects that were in the same genre as the book I recorded immediately before it. As an extreme example, I had one four-week period this past summer when I recorded five books in the same genre, one right after the other. And even though this is a genre I love and that I work in a lot, because the books were back-to-back like that, I found myself spent – exhausted – by the lack of variety in my work. The creative enjoyment I got out of each of those books went down with each successive book. And I didn’t realize it at the time. I just thought I was having a random tough few weeks mentally focusing on my work, and I pushed on through without realizing why I was having such trouble focusing. It wasn’t until I did this exercise several months later that I saw the trend.
This realization has huge implications for how I manage my schedule. I now know that I can’t schedule multiple back-to-back books in one genre like this. I am the project manager in my business, meaning I am in control of my project calendar, and I can make sure going forward that I schedule variety into that calendar. I can make changes to my schedule that directly impact the creative fulfillment I receive from my work.
If you do this exercise for yourself, if you really take time to think through the creative fulfillment you received (or didn’t receive) from each project you’ve completed, I think you’ll surprise yourself. You’ll perhaps realize that the creatively fulfilling projects aren’t necessarily the ones you would have thought should get that label, but that these projects really do deserve it.
Answer for yourself: which projects refill my creative energy? Which projects leave me hungering for more work exactly like it? Which projects do I approach with joy and excitement? Which projects make me excited to get up and do my work each day? These projects are the ones that are creatively fulfilling to you.
Now that we’ve defined our terms, now that you know what is creatively fulfilling and what is financially fulfilling for you, it’s time to find out where these two things intersect. You’re going to find your own creative and financial sweet spot using an Eisenhower matrix. If you download the free “Say Goodbye to Feast or Famine” guide from my website, I have a blank creative & financial fulfillment Eisenhower guide all ready for you to fill it in, on p. 5 of the guide. You can either print that out, or download it on a computer or tablet that will allow you to write or type on it, or you can take a piece of paper and pencil and draw one for yourself.
You’ve probably seen an Eisenhower matrix before. It’s a chart with 4 boxes that you can use to prioritize tasks based on how important they are, and how urgent they are. The concept comes from a quote attributed to US President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
Instead of urgent and important, we’re going to use the qualifiers creatively fulfilling and financially fulfilling. On one axis, measure a continuum from “not financially fulfilling” to “financially fulfilling,” and on the other axis, measure a continuum from “not creatively fulfilling” to “creatively fulfilling.”
Now, take all of your projects from the last 6-12 months – exactly how far back you want to go is up to you, but I would go back at least 6 months – and you’re going to figure out where on the graph each project falls. Was it financially fulfilling, yes or no? And how high or how low would it fall on that “financially fulfilling” continuum? Was it creatively fulfilling, yes or no? And how high or how low would it fall on the “creatively fulfilling” continuum?
For every single project or gig or product, put it into one of four categories on your Eisenhower matrix:
- Financially and Creatively Fulfilling (aka your sweet spot),
- Not Financially Fulfilling and Creatively Fulfilling,
- Financially Fulfilling and Not Creatively Fulfilling, and
- Not Financially or Creatively Fulfilling.
I actually want you to go through this process. You might think that you can just go through this exercise mentally and get the same benefit, but I promise you: you can’t. Actually going project by project through the work you’ve completed over the past 6-12 months, and taking the time to assign every single project a rating in terms of how creatively fulfilling it was and how financially fulfilling it was, will give you surprising insights into your work.
One audiobook narrator who went through this process with me recently discovered that a genre she thought she wanted to work more in was actually a genre she needed to move away from, since all of her projects in that category fell outside of her creative and financial sweet spot. Another creative entrepreneur realized that 80% of the projects that fell into her creative and financial sweet spot zone came to her from just 2 of her networking contacts, meaning two hiring contacts were responsible for almost all of her creatively and financially fulfilling work.
These types of insights are invaluable for knowing what to do with this information, and just mentally thinking about this exercise isn’t enough to achieve these insights. You really do need to take the time to look at each project individually and determine where it fits on your personal creative & financial Eisenhower matrix.
Now let’s talk about what to do about each of those four categories that you used to sort your projects into. The last category, not financially fulfilling and not creatively fulfilling, is all full of projects that you need to stop doing. Just say no. Finish out any existing contracts for work that fits into this category, but don’t accept any more. This is no longer the kind of work that you do. If it falls in this category, you don’t do it.
That’s the easy part. The tough part is to figure out what to do with the types of projects represented by the other three categories. Let’s look next at projects you put into the third category I mentioned, projects that are financially fulfilling but not creatively fulfilling. These are projects that meet your financial needs and pay the bills, but they just don’t do it for you creatively. Ask yourself: is there anything you can do to make these projects more creatively fulfilling? For me, the 5 books in one genre that I mentioned earlier are a perfect example of this kind of project. They all paid me well, so they were financially fulfilling, but, as I realized after the fact, they were creative energy drains because I scheduled them back to back in my recording calendar. If I space out these kinds of projects, I actually really enjoy them, so simply by changing my scheduling practices, I can transform these from not creatively fulfilling to creatively fulfilling. And since they do pay me well, when they are scheduled appropriately, they become projects in my creative and financial sweet spot.
Your not creatively fulfilling projects may not be transformed so easily, but I’ll bet that there’s something you can do to improve your creative enjoyment of these projects. One of my clients who went through this exercise decided that she was going to double the timeframe for every future project in this category. If she used to tell the client that it would take 5 work days, she was going to double it to 10 days. If she would have said it would take 3 days, now it would take 6. This extra time would allow her to work on her not creatively fulfilling project for 4 hours each morning and then spend each afternoon working on a long term passion project that refilled her creative coffers. She would be putting in billable hours every day at a very good rate, thanks to those four hours in the morning, but she would still have daily time reserved for the passion project that was always getting shoved to the side in favor of “paying gigs.” All of a sudden, these projects that she formerly thought of with dread became projects she looked forward to, because every project like this that she accepted automatically meant extra time for her to work on her passion project. Her experience of the work changed, and she was now excited about them.
In both of these examples, nothing about the work itself changed. But by changing the mental framing around the work, my client and I were both able to change projects that had been lacking in creative fulfillment into projects that we found quite enjoyable from a creative perspective.
Look on this as a challenge to your creativity: for the projects that you find creatively unfulfilling but that do pay you well, what creative solutions can you come up with? How can you increase your enjoyment of this work so that you actually look forward to doing it? Maybe these projects would be more creatively enjoyable for you if you were able to collaborate with others on them somehow. Or maybe your creative partners are the problem, and you need to find a way to accept this kind of work either as solo projects or with a different group of collaborators. Maybe one aspect of the work is negatively coloring your experience of the entire project, and if you address that one thing that makes it difficult, suddenly your entire experience of the work will change for the better. Put your problem-solving skills to work. Figure out how to transform this currently creatively unfulfilling work into work you enjoy and are elated to do. You’re a creative, so use that creativity!
But I do want to acknowledge that this approach doesn’t work all the time. Sometimes creative problem solving isn’t enough. If you have projects for which this change simply is not possible – if there is absolutely no way you can transform this work into something you would enjoy, if there just isn’t a universe in which you like doing this work – then I challenge you: stop doing it.
Even though it is financially fulfilling, even though it meets your needs from a financial perspective, if it is not meeting your needs creatively, it is not work you should be doing. It is taking your time away from work that is refilling your well of creative energy. It is holding you back from the projects that will truly inspire you and light you up. Every project you accept that falls into this category takes a scheduling slot away from work that is both financially and creatively fulfilling. Your time is worth more than that! You deserve to be compensated both financially and creatively for the work that you do. Don’t sell yourself short. Not just financially, but also creatively, don’t sell yourself short. It is possible for you to spend your precious time working on projects that you find creatively exciting and energizing. Don’t settle for less than that. If a project doesn’t fire you up inside, and there isn’t any way that you can reframe the work or restructure the work so that it does, then it doesn’t matter how much you get paid to do it. You’ll never be doing your best work there, and you’ll never be creatively happy there. Don’t do it. Don’t say yes to the project.
I recognize that this means saying no to paying work, and that this will very likely be incredibly difficult to do. The hustle mindset, the scarcity mindset, the “starving artist” myth, tell us that if a gig will pay us, and especially if it will pay us well, then we need to accept it. I say this is a lie. You have a responsibility to yourself and to your art to do work that allows you to be the best version of your creative self. And if you say yes to work you know is not going to be creatively fulfilling, you will not be using your creativity to its full potential. And you are taking up time that could be spent on projects that do creatively fulfil you. Focus your efforts on getting more work in your sweet spot. Don’t spend your time on work that doesn’t meet your creative needs. Just don’t.
Now on to the next category: work that is creatively fulfilling but is not financially fulfilling. These are your passion projects. They are the projects that you do for the love of it, projects you would do even if you weren’t being paid … and we know that because, let’s face it, that’s exactly what you’re doing right now! If you have projects in this category, and almost every creative entrepreneur will have projects in this category, you already know that you’re doing this work for the creative fulfillment, not for the money.
But you deserve a business that meets all of your needs: personally, creatively, and financially. Just checking one or two of those boxes isn’t enough. So your challenge is to figure out what you need to do to get paid appropriately for this kind of work. You have all sorts of options. What marketing are you doing for these kinds of projects? Do you need to market to a different audience so that you are reaching an audience that is able and willing to pay you for this work?
In the maker space, a lot of times switching from marketing directly to end purchasers, aka individual people, to instead market to businesses, aka stores or galleries, or vice versa, can completely change the financial reality around a certain type of project. For example, if you are a new-to-the-industry leather worker selling handcrafted leather bags and purses, and if you’ve not yet made a name for yourself in the minds of consumers, meaning you don’t yet have brand recognition, you might not be able to charge the top-notch prices for your bags that a high-end boutique would be able to charge for those same bags. So instead of selling your bags to individuals at a much lower price, instead sell your bags to the boutique. Even with the 50% retail markup, you can come away making two or three times more per bag than you would have made selling directly to individuals. Or maybe the opposite is true. Maybe the markup required for retail means your product won’t sell at the volume you want, so maybe you should direct your marketing efforts to individual buyers instead of going the wholesale route.
Maybe you need to reevaluate where you’re seeking funding for these kinds of projects. Perhaps you’ve been trying to get individuals or businesses to pay for this work, when it really fits more into a grant-funding model. Maybe the marketing efforts you’re doing aren’t reaching your ideal customers, and so you need to rethink and reshape your marketing work.
Projects in this category have a lot of potential. Your passion is behind this work, so truly, the sky’s the limit. But again, it will take your creativity to transform these projects into work that pays you financially rather than just fulfilling you creatively.
One quick last note on this category: you might have long term projects in this category, projects that have the potential of paying out really big at some point in the future but that aren’t quite there yet. Perhaps it’s a collaborative multimedia project you’re working on that won’t be ready for prime time for many months, or more. Maybe it’s a big, immersive work of art that you’re currently creating just for you but that, when it’s done, will likely find a buyer. Or maybe, like me, you’re writing book but know that the book isn’t going to be ready for publishing for at least a year, probably more. All of these projects will likely pay you down the road, but they’re not paying you now. And while this is the right category for this work, there needs to be a bit of an asterisk next to these projects. These are projects that you are working on because you have the long view in mind. They aren’t paying yet, but that doesn’t mean they’re not paying ever. As long as you don’t completely fill your schedule will these kinds of projects, as long as you still make sure you’re working on projects in your sweet spot so that money keeps rolling in to your business, then I say, go for it! Thinking long term in your business is exactly what you should be doing. Just balance the long term with the short term, and you have a winning strategy.
Now we finally get to the goldmine of your work: work that you both find creatively fulfilling and that pays you your highest, best rates. Your goal here is to get more projects like these! Kind of like I told you to do at the beginning of this episode, when we were evaluating what made a project creatively fulfilling, and I told you to figure out what those creatively rewarding projects had in common, now your job is to figure out what links together these creatively and financially fulfilling projects. What did you do to bring them your way? How did they come to you? If you can answer those questions, you now have a blueprint for what to do to bring more work like that your way: more actions like that! Whatever you did to get these projects, do more of it!
Because these projects are examples of your absolute best, most creative work, they are also projects you can use to market yourself. When I’m really enjoying my work on an audiobook and want more audiobook projects like it, I talk about it on social media. I make sure that everyone knows that this is the kind of work I enjoy and that I do well. I also make sure to reach out privately to the casting directors and producers in my network to let them know that I’m already doing work like this, I’m doing a good job with it, and I would love to do more of it.
These projects are not just your sweet spot; they also make up your marketing portfolio. If you’re working on a project that you love and that pays you well, shout it from the rooftops! Make sure everyone knows that this is the kind of work you want to do more of. The exact marketing methods will vary depending on your specific creative industry, but the necessity of doing marketing, and the incredible value that can come your way when you use these “sweet spot” projects as your marketing material, is the same across every creative industry. If a project is fulfilling you both creatively and financially, you can use your work on that project to bring more projects like it your way.
That is called attraction marketing, marketing that happens when you draw people to you by showing them how good and desirable your product or service is before you even suggest that they buy it. The stereotypical example of attraction marketing is food retailers who hand out samples so people can taste before they buy. The free guide on my website, “Say Goodbye to Feast or Famine,” is attraction marketing. It gives creative entrepreneurs who might be interested in working with me through my group workshops or through 1:1 coaching a taste of what my coaching philosophy is, with no strings attached, before they ever even consider paying to work with me. On my audiobook narration website, I have a free audio short story that I narrated that anyone can download, again absolutely for free and with no strings attached, to let people hear what my narration sounds like before they consider either buying one of my books or hiring me to narrate an audiobook. And in addition to that free audio short story, I also have a demos on my narration website so that casting directors, listeners, and authors can listen to small clips of me narrating to get a sense of what I do. All of these projects are what I consider to be examples of my best, most creative work. And because they are samples of me at my most creative and most innovative, they can all be used to bring more amazing, creatively fulfilling work my way.
You can do this, too. Once you know where your creative and financial sweet spot is, you can focus all your efforts toward getting more work in that sweet spot. It is possible to live your creative life inhabiting work you love to do and get paid well while doing it. And as you focus more and more of your efforts within this area of work, you will see your income rise. As more and more of your projects meet the “financially fulfilling” definition, and as you continually do your very best work on project after project, improving the quality of your work over time, your income will go up. Remember, the whole focus of this series of podcast episodes is about how to handle the link between time and income in your creative business. And this step, making sure that you are always working within your creative and financial sweet spot, will go a long way toward making sure you are paid your absolute highest rates (aka income) for the time you spend working. Your time and your income will still be connected, but you’ll be making more for every hour you spend working. It truly is possible for you to both enjoy your work and be paid well while doing it.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the Starving Artist No More podcast. I really hope this episode challenged you to look at the projects you accept in a new light. Spending your work hours inhabiting your creative and financial sweet spot has the capacity to completely change how you feel about the work that you do, and it will increase your income at the same time. It truly is a win-win for everyone. I hope you take the time to fill out your own personal Creative & Financial Eisenhour Matrix and see where it takes you. I’d really appreciate you leaving a rating or review for this podcast within your podcast app, and of course, you should subscribe to this podcast so you can always listen to new episodes as they come out. Ratings, reviews, and subscribers are a huge part of the way new podcasts, like this one, are found by listeners, and they make a big difference. Thank you. And as always, please reach out to me via my website, www.StarvingArtistNoMore.com, with any feedback you have to share. Working within my creative and financial sweet spot made a huge difference in my creative business, and I know it will for you, too. Thanks for spending this time with me today. I can’t wait to see what you create!
SUBSCRIBE FOR BI-WEEKLY DOSES OF CREATIVE AND ENTREPRENEURIAL GOODNESS
Every other Wednesday, my newsletter subscribers get ideas to help them build, grow, and scale their creative businesses. Sign up to get this creative entrepreneurial goodness delivered straight to your inbox.
I hate SPAM. I will never sell your information, for any reason.