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Corwin Hiebert's Creativity at Work: Being Professional Instead of Going Pro

When creatives strive to "go pro" they tend to make assumptions about how and when they should accomplish it. Corwin Hiebert offers a couple ways to look at this concept of professionalism.
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Living the Dream—Creative at Work: Jessica Hische is a letterer, illustrator, and crazy cat lady known for her silly side projects and occasional foul mouth. Web: Twitter: @jessicahische. Photo credit: John Madere. John is an award-winning photographer, noted for his portraiture of people in over 40 countries. Web: Twitter: @johnmadere.

There’s a misconception out there that makes starting and growing a creative small business harder than it needs to be; it’s the ill-conceived notion of “going pro”. Success is found in the life-long pursuit of being a consummate professional no matter how much revenue one makes.

[Excerpt from Living The Dream] The decision to “go pro” with creative endeavors torments inspired and talented people everywhere; I wish it wouldn’t. “Turning pro” is a catchphrase that perpetuates the feeling of “not quite having arrived.” It implies that you’re not a pro unless something big and magical happens that transforms you from dilettante hack to creative professional. From what I’ve seen, savvy entrepreneurs do not let this idea distract them. Ever. Instead they strive to do good work and get paid.

For most, this decision to “go pro” feels like a financial one, but I have yet to see an injection of cash produce a more capable or more marketable service provider. A leap of faith across a fiery lake of fiscal instability is not what an emerging creative should focus on. Instead find ways to establish new administrative processes to reduce your stress and experiment with marketing ideas that you can actually accomplish in a short span of time. Do these things and you’ll build up the confidence you need to find clients and customers.

Ultimately, what a creative should focus on is this: limit the degree of vocational risk. No matter how much time you spend, or money you earn, you can be a distinguished pro. Aiming to conduct oneself as professionally as possible, regardless of fortune or fame, is what makes an emerging creative entrepreneur better positioned to make the most of every opportunity.

When creatives strive to “go pro” they tend make assumptions about how and when they should accomplish it. Here are a couple ways to look at this concept of professionalism:

Some may feel this is just a semantics issue, but it really bugs me; when I hear a creative person use the phrase “going pro” or “turning pro” I want to throw up because this statement conveys professional immaturity. It discredits the work you’ve done up until this point and it puts unfair expectations on your future. It suggests that you’re not yet a professional.

The feeling of “not quite having arrived” is toxic to your creative spirit and to the development of your business venture for one simple reason: your customers only know what you show and tell. Present yourself as a focused, organized, and creative business operator and that’s the truth. How much money you make or how many business hours per week you spend doing your work doesn’t matter. In the margins of your life focus on your prospects and customers and how your creativity and business offerings can serve their needs – this is time better spent than scrambling to ditch your “real” job.

In The War of Art (Warner Books, 2004), Steven Pressfield writes, “There’s no mystery to turning pro. It’s a decision brought about by an act of will. We make up our mind to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that.” The misconception of transformation from amateur to professional can easily become a barrier to you fully understanding the commercial value of your work.

David duChemin, in VisionMongers: Making a Life and a Living in Photography (New Riders, 2010) reiterates this when he says, “amateur simply means lover.” If you’re ready, at all times, to convey your passion for your craft and can communicate its value to those around you, your business will grow.

This entrepreneurial tension is what you’ve signed up for, so embrace it––making the best business decisions possible along the way. Turn off the television, and get to work. You’ll be glad you did.

San Francisco-based illustrator Jessica Hische coined the term “procrastiworking” to describe her tendency to procrastinate doing her “real work” by working on personal projects. Regardless of the approach, every successful creative I know had other jobs that served the end-game. They worked on their business in the margins, and they did so as professionally as possible, in order to build up the reputation and business contacts necessary to build a case for doing it full time.

When an emerging creative says, “I really want to take it to the next level,” all I hear is that sometime in the future they’d like to work harder, but for now they’re going to continue sitting on their ass. They’re going to flounder awhile longer, spend more money, add to their list of excuses, and be clueless to yet another opportunity gone by. From my vantage point, there are no levels, there’s only hard work and making the most of the opportunities afforded to you. How you feel about your endeavor is the foundation; from that attitude every effort stems, and your business and your clients (small or large) deserve your best. 

Scott Belsky, in his wildly popular book Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality, says it plainly and simply: “An idea can only become a reality once it’s broken down into organized, actionable elements.” In other words, if you want something, get organized and go get it! Being organized and task-focused is what a professional would do. Nothing is more important than taking action. 

Stop making scrappy notes in a journal or yet another checklist (that you just end up carrying over, and over, and over). Capture your ideas in a project planning tool like or and let a tool help to keep you accountable. Even if you simply have a giant list of questions that need answering before you can get started, define your questions and systematically seek answers, or go with your gut. Whatever you have to do, just take action.

Having a positive outlook regarding the future of your business is great, but having hope that you might one day start working harder is a liability.

Tip: Read Andrew Fingerman’s article, What’s a Professional Photographer?

Quick Tips
Here’s a rapid-fire list of a few ways you can increase your professionalism:

  1. Create a simple, responsive website that has your contact information in the header/footer. Display your visual work in full-screen every chance you get and update your site at least once a month. Only promote the social networks that serve your business relationships.
  2. Ensure your email alias is based on a proper domain URL (no gmail accounts) and each message includes an attractive, text-based signature with all your contact information. Send business emails during appropriate business hours - 6:00am to 6:00pm. If you write them late at night that’s fine, but re-read them in the morning before you hit send.  
  3. Set realistic expectations regarding your availability and when you’re able to provide deliverables; creatives who work in the margins are notorious for over-promising and under-delivering due to their limited time and energy.
  4. Set a price for your work based on a base price so that you can always increase your price as the job increases in difficultly and/or the client has more budget potential. Never work below your base price unless you’re gaining a clear marketing benefit.
  5. Early on in an engagement, send an estimate and state that your work effort will begin once they’ve approved the planned amount. And when it’s time to bill them, bill the client on time.
  6. Set a daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly routine. Don’t overload your schedule with mundane tasks, but populate your calendar at regular intervals with a few key elements that will ensure your business keeps running smoothly.
  7. Track your time so you know what your business requires of you. Understanding the cost of business requires not only keeping your accounts in order, but also taking stock of the time it takes to satisfy the needs and wants of your clients, customers, and yourself.
  8. Schedule meetings with clients or collaborators in the morning, the earlier the better. Having to be “on your game” right out of the gate helps you get focused on your business and keeps the personal or domestic distractions to a minimum.
  9. Set reasonable expectations with your spouse or partner; don’t always drift back to your work. If you need extra time, negotiate with your spouse/partner instead of simply informing him or her that you have to do more work. Being a good business person requires handling the personal side of your life with good etiquette; you want your family to be supportive, and workaholism doesn’t foster support.
  10. Turn off your electronic devices when you’re in social settings or in meetings. Constantly responding to texts and emails in front of others is both rude and foolish. Face-to-face engagement matters more than the next message.
  11. Wear appropriate clothing at all times. In fact, being well-dressed is an instant attitude adjustment; leverage that feeling when working alone. Working by yourself shouldn’t minimize the seriousness of the task at hand.

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