The creative industries can be a source of great positivity and inspiration, but it is also rife with competition, rejection, isolation, long hours and, in many cases, little pay.
It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that these things are not conducive to good mental health. Especially if we don't learn to handle them well.
In a recent survey of over a thousand illustrators, 79% admitted experiencing a lack of confidence or anxiety surrounding their careers.
If that wasn't bad enough, many creative professionals feel they can’t speak openly about self-doubt or money troubles, fearful that they may damage their image or convinced that everybody else’s creative careers match up to the perfect Instagram profile (complete with motivational print and perfectly pruned Bonsai tree).
So, without further ado, here are some tips and tricks that may be beneficial to maintaining good mental health if you work in the creative industries (or even if you don’t, for that matter).
1. Re-define failure & success
If you’re not failing, you’re not trying anything new. A creative career involves risk – ok, so we may not be risking our lives – but we might risk a loss of income if we can’t pull off new ideas, and we could also open ourselves up to criticism and rejection by showing our work publicly.
Risk is not only apparent in the choice of creative output, but in the ideas we experiment with, the way we market ourselves and the way we communicate with clients. Failure is an essential learning tool – it helps us to develop better problem-solving skills as well as build resilience.
What we need is to question our definition of success. Are our failures really so? Or just things that don’t meet people's expectations of you? For example, you might not have won any awards or have any well-known clients, but you could be earning more than someone who has.
Or, you may look at someone with a higher turnover as more successful, but they're likely to be consumed with stress, working ridiculous hours and not spending any time with friends and family. Weigh up what’s important to you and re-define your own success.
2. Accept doubt as part of the process
Doubt is important. It determines how much you care about something and helps you weigh up risks. If you face self-doubt, it could mean you have an opportunity to push yourself further and achieve something new.
It’s probably far more common than we think for people to stop at doubt and choose not to persist with ideas or dreams, so it’s understandable to feel overwhelmed at the prospect of trying something new or putting our work up for opportunities.
Doubt can spiral into a conviction that we can’t do things, even though we don’t know the outcome. We often choose to settle for "not knowing" over risking a great achievement.
Learn to recognise when doubt is based on truth or if it’s actually rooted in low self-esteem or fear of disappointment. What we’re usually afraid of is failing at something (and I think we’ve covered that one).
3. Ask better questions
If you tend to have lots of negative thoughts, asking yourself things like, "Can I really do this?", change your mindset and ask better questions such as, "How can I do this?"
Don't stop there either. Pose the following: Where have you succeeded in the past? What are your strengths? What do you need to walk away from? What do you need to learn? Write these things down if it helps.
Questions help us to problem solve. They keep us curious and adaptable and enable us to open up endless possibilities. This is also true when faced with negativity or pressure from others we may work with. Instead of reacting negatively, put the ball back in their court. "What are your concerns with me taking on this role?" and "How can the company be more productive without working overtime?"
4. Put in work boundaries
Your client doesn’t care if you were up until three o’clock in the morning, working on a deadline; they just care that you successfully fulfilled the brief. If you’re consistently working late, get more organised or consider whether you need better clients!
There is often an unhealthy acceptance in the creative industries that we need to endure unpaid overtime. Of course, it’s up to you whether you continue doing so, but be aware that continually working late and not getting enough rest can be detrimental to your mental health.
If you’re unhappy or unable to spend evenings with your family and friends, are you actually better finding a part-time job to support working on your own projects without any pressure? Realistically, how much do you need to earn to survive and be happy? Can you re-define your success?
Working too hard is a thing. So is burnout. You work too hard and things get overlooked with tiredness. Your work gets sloppy. You become unmotivated, neglect your loved ones and it shows in your work.
Rest is absolutely essential for good productivity. Take breaks, go outside, switch your phone off, think about other things. How are you supposed to find inspiration if you’re only ever looking at your screen?
5. Find a community
Many creative professions can be solitary and even if you work in teams you may still have to come up with your own ideas for projects or work independently on briefs.
Even if you’re someone who needs a lot of space, too much time in your own head is not healthy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many new creative events keep popping up – we need supportive communities to function well.
You may find you just need to meet someone for a coffee every now and again, or it might be that you need regular hangouts with others who have similar career challenges.
Try to avoid people who are overly negative – find people who are supportive and have some understanding of the things you face in your career as well as people you can also offer support to. A community is not a one-way thing – the more you give, the more you get out of it.
6. Learn to recognise what your body is saying
It sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? But how many times have you got so lost in a job that you’ve forgotten to eat lunch? And now you’re wondering why you’re pissed off that you can’t focus. It’s not rocket science: eat, sleep, move your body.
Your mind and body influence one another – look after your body and it will feed your mind too. If you are regularly getting headaches or feeling tired, what lifestyle changes could you make to see if they improve? Can you go to bed earlier? Can you change your work environment? Can you take a walk?
Learn to recognise what triggers anger or stress – is there a pattern? Many physical problems can often be rooted in unhelpful decisions which can build up over time. Remember to take stock and listen to what your body is saying.
7. Commit to plans
There is something to be said for making plans, writing lists and sticking to them. If you're more spontaneous, you naturally might fall behind on jobs and miss deadlines...in which case, try to implement things that can spread your load a little.
A helpful way to get into a rhythm is to start your day with a couple of easy things you can tick off your list. The act of "ticking" helps to get you into a rhythm, building you up to the bigger stuff.
Don’t overfill your list with too much – you don’t want to feel overwhelmed with an unrealistic schedule. Instead, work out the absolute essentials you need to achieve and break them into manageable chunks. You can always add other things if you're feeling productive. Because the more you achieve now, the easier your week becomes!
8. Schedule in personal work
If you’re an "ideas" person and your brain is full of creative thoughts, it's understandable you'll get frustrated that you need to tame them and focus on work. Coming up with ideas is why you’re great at what you do – you're able to see things that others can’t and develop ideas from seemingly mundane things.
Tackle that frustration by jotting ideas into a notebook or on your phone and then get back to work. Schedule time for when you're not busy to let your mind wander – to think, create, write, draw or do whatever it is that you love. This is why you started after all, right? Because you love creating.
Downtime creativity is essential to good mental well-being and also benefits your other work. Don’t get so lost in client work that you forget what you’re about and why you’re doing this, unless it’s just for the money – in which case, get a job in banking.
9. Be pragmatic about money
Many of you will say that you're not in the creative game for the money, but let's be realistic. We all need to pay the bills. Having money gives all of us peace of mind and keeps anxiety at bay if our finances are in order.
Some creative work is lucrative, some not so much. It’s a learning curve. You have to try and find a balance between doing what you love and having a decent income.
Don’t be hard on yourself if you need to get part-time work to support your ambitions. Or if you need to secure temporary employment. Getting income from elsewhere doesn’t mean you're not committed to your creative craft; it just means you're facilitating what you love.
10. Stop looking at what everyone else is doing
It’s great to be inspired by other people’s work, but it’s important to recognise when this is becoming unhealthy. Do you put other artists on pedestals? Are you obsessed with certain social media profiles? Do you often feel deflated seeing work that is what you want to be doing?
Take stock. Turn your phone off. If comparing yourself to others is becoming a frequent problem, ask yourself what it is you feel your work is lacking. Can you start developing your skills or learn new things that enable you to be more fulfilled?
What's more, social media is not an indication of success. People only post their best stuff – they do not openly share how many times they have failed or the challenges they have been through to get to where they are.
11. Cultivate confidence (not ego)
You'll often hear people say, "I’ve not got the confidence to realise my ambitions." But confidence isn't something we’re born with; it’s something that's cultivated. Don’t write yourself off just because you haven’t had confidence in the past – that won't always be the case.
Alternatively, pride might be holding you back. It might stop you from asking for help, as you put on a brave face and pretend everything is ok. In which case, don't confuse confidence with ego.
Confidence is more concerned with good outcomes over appearance or ego – allowing you to ask for help without worrying about what others think. Confidence tells you to have a go at something even though you’re not perfect at it. It tells you to recognise your limitations and your strengths. It’s good to like your work and speak highly of it – how else will anyone invest in it? It’s also good to have the confidence to admit challenges and ask for help – how else will you ever improve?
12. Be kind to your future self
I once heard a wise person say that you should be kind to your future self. Don’t lose your head if you can’t fathom what you’ll be doing next month, let alone next year. Just start with tomorrow and build on that.
Being kind to yourself is often seen as an instant quick fix – something that helps you to block out your reality and find instant fulfilment. But taking this approach will encourage you to take steps to achieve your goals.
So, how can you make tomorrow easier? What can you put in place to give yourself the future you'd like? What will you look back on today and thank yourself for?
This guest article was written by Lisa Maltby, an illustrator and lettering artist, specialising in illustrated type and food illustration.