Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

So, You Want a Creative Job?

So, You Want a Creative Job?
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Well, you aren’t getting one here. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, you (statistically) aren’t going to make the cut. Most of our openings see hundreds of applicants, and we’re small, so we aren’t making volume hires. If for example, you took a shot at the last internship posted here, you would have had a .3% chance of actually landing the gig. (Admittedly, having a good portfolio shifts those odds rather dramatically.)

The bigger reason, however, is that we simply don’t hire people to work jobs at smashLAB. We don’t have any of those, and I doubt we ever will.

I Worked a Job

Actually, I’ve worked a few, but the only really significant one was at a daily newspaper. It was a good job. I was treated well, fairly compensated, and the working environment was clean. There were decent benefits and holidays, Christmas parties, and summer picnics. Additionally, overtime was paid for any time worked over the set weekly total. Nevertheless, it sucked.

For me, a job has always seemed like a substantial trade-off. 40 hours every week is a lot of time—particularly when you need to also find room for eating, sleeping, pooping and all that other important stuff. After that, there isn’t much left for anything else. My job at the time involved an incredibly simple transaction: I traded my time for a set hourly wage. They asked nothing more.

Turns out, this was a big problem. I didn’t want to put in only the minimum required hours, nor, did I feel the need to vacate my chair at the exact moment the buzzer rang. I was looking to turn the position into something bigger. I wanted to get my hands dirty and make things; to learn everything I could; to imagine how we could make that place the very best it could be. I wanted to feel like I was a part of something.

But that, generally, isn’t how jobs work. I was a simple cog, and they don’t ask cogs to do bigger things.

Passion is Bullshit

I’m awfully sick of hearing the word “passion” applied to work—particularly that done in a work-for-hire capacity. It’s unfair for anyone in my position to ask for such things. Additionally, you shouldn’t be passionate about your work: save that for your spouse and kids.

I propose that what we really need, and expect, is a sense of purpose. Personally, I couldn’t find that at the newspaper, so, I connected with a good friend, and we started our own agency. Doing so was very difficult. We didn’t really know anything, and we didn’t have any money. It was nothing but struggle for a very long time.

The sting from this was less biting, because we were doing something that seemed to matter. We were working on interesting projects, cutting our own path, building our skill-sets, trying new things, and learning what we were made of. It was still there, though, most noticeably illustrated through the countless long nights, early mornings, and bloodshot eyes.

I won’t lie; I’ve thought about quitting many more times than I have thought we were at the top of our game. We endured some long beatings I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. I also think my body has aged a lot over the past decade. To me, though, this this is part of what makes it worth something. You rarely appreciate the things that come easily. To get anywhere, or see anything, you need to take a few lumps. Otherwise, you’re just a ship stuck in the harbor.

What it Takes

There’s some interesting research on what it takes to grow. Aaron Swartz has written on this eloquently in his piece, Believe you can change. For those without the time to give it a read, I’ll paraphrase: those who eventually succeed employ a growth mindset. Instead of trying to change their environment, they see themselves as adaptable and elastic. They also consider their failures to be the price for eventual breakthrough: “The successful kids believed … that everything came through effort and that the world was full of interesting challenges that could help you learn and grow.”

When I found this post, I had a completely gratifying “fuck, yes!” moment. This notion that we had built our company around, and I had so vocally argued for (without the right words) turned out to have real credence. This is what makes the people at smashLAB so special. We don’t believe we’re remarkable, but we aspire to be so. We know that takes hard lessons, frustrating moments, and some days when you leave the office with your shoulders slumped over, feeling pure defeat.

By doing so, we also have our share of moments when we can lean back in our chairs and say, “Yes—that’s better than anything we’ve ever done before.” This happens with increasing frequency as time passes, and I can’t tell you how great it is to experience that feeling. Curiously, we seem to quickly forget any of the pain we felt along the way, and rapidly find ourselves some new mountain to climb.

Why Am I Telling You This?

I meet a lot of people who want to do what we do. They think agency life would be exciting, like the notion of playing with digital thingies, and, are keen to make something nice they can show their friends. Some people even ask to work for us for free. I kid you not—this happens all the time. (For the record, we never take these folks up on such offers.)

After most actually get into a creative role, something changes. They start doubting where they’re going and feel like it’s all too slow. They ask whether they were really meant to do this work, and start getting turned on by other possibilities. This happens all across the board: the intern who feels underutilized when doing production; the painter who has the door shut in her face so often it feels like a drum beat; the new studio owner who wonders why sales are so infrequent, and terribly hard won.

Buying your tools is easy. After that, nothing else is. Getting accepted into a good school is hard. The assignments lumped on you are hard. The grad project is hard. Trying to get an interview at an agency is hard. Finding out that school didn’t teach you enough is hard. Learning that you’re not as good as your parents think is hard. The routine on the boring days is hard. A client hating your favorite idea is hard. Not making as much money as a plumber is hard. But after it’s hard for a really, really, really long time, you start to actually get good—well, at least a little.

When I was a kid looking to do something creative for a living, I was warned by high school counsellors that I’d be a “starving artist.” This turned out to be bunk. Making a living isn’t out of reach. What I wish I would have known was that these things that others did so, seemingly, effortlessly actually takes an inordinate amount of struggle.

Our Part

At smashLAB, my business partner and I are a working to build a different kind of company. There are no cogs—one’s ability to think critically is a prerequisite. Titles don’t really matter, nor does exactly what you’re doing on any one given day. Instead, we’ve assembled a handful of people who seek out challenging experiences and simply love making things.

We are cultivating an environment within which there are very few pats on the back and “way to go” statements. Most of us prefer being challenged to complimented, and we want a slap in the face when it’s warranted. That’s how we get better. We know the real reward is when someone uses our stuff and finds it to be useful, informative, easy, responsive, or delightful.

We talk a lot: asking what our people need and where they want to go. A lot of time goes into charting a course that sets them up to do their best work, and grow their capabilities. There are a lot of interesting projects that require us to learn completely new practices, technologies, and methods. If people want time off to see something, or get a break, they take it. If they need a day of one-on-one with a partner to break a log jam, they get it. There aren’t many places out there that work like this one, and I’m proud of that.

Their Part

This isn’t done without asking for something pretty substantial in return. We want the people who join us to truly invest themselves. For those who really love it, this isn’t a particularly big deal. A creative job (be it in design, development, or strategy) isn’t just a job. It isn’t even a career. It’s a force so driving that you find yourself doing it even when you aren’t on the clock. It’s what you think about when you wake up, while you’re sitting on the bus, and while everyone else around you is engrossed in that film on the screen.

We invest in our people, and want to see a good return on that investment. They need to stick around for a while, so they become proficient in what they do and get comfortable with their colleagues. The should be committed to their craft, and taking on their own creative projects, simply because they want to. Maybe this comes in the form of writing a novel on the side, screen-printing their own posters, building an app, or, contributing to an open source initiative.

You want to do something creative for a living? Regardless of whether it’s for me, someone else, or yourself, I ask you to do the following three things: Grow a thick skin, fail as much—and as quickly—as you can, and give it everything you’ve got. A creative life is a long, hard road, with very few clearly marked signs. Those of us who do it for long enough start to enjoy that part of it too. (Eventually.)

If you enjoy solving big ambiguous problems, you might fit at smashLAB. To learn more about working here, visit our Careers page. 

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Thanks Eric. This is exactly what I needed to hear today.

  2. Glad it helps! Those first few years can be particularly tough. I remembering spending my days, at the time, wondering if we were getting absolutely everything wrong.

  3. Yep. times that by 100 to the power of twins and thats me!

  4. Karl Sakas says:

    "A creative job (be it in design, development, or strategy) isn't just a job. It isn't even a career. It's a force so driving that you find yourself doing it even when you aren't on the clock. It's what you think about when you wake up, while you're sitting on the bus, and while everyone else around you is engrossed in that film on the screen."

    Yes! Beyond marketing strategy alone, I'm glad I love doing operations things (finance, recruiting, resource management) at my agency that many people might not like doing. I love the challenge is using marketing to persuade people, but I also love the numbers side of figuring out how to make it all work as a business.

    You’re right, it's a constant process, and that's pretty cool. Or to put it another way, what ad agency owner David Baldwin said in my recent interview: "Decide what you want to be, and be the shit out of it." http://karlsakas.com/marketing-interview-with-david-baldwin/

    For an inspiring example of someone totally dedicated to improving his craft, watch the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." Perhaps the world’s greatest sushi chef, Jiro Ono has been in the business for over 75 years... yet feels that his best work is always in the future, always yet to come.

  5. Josh says:

    If there was a scared straight camp for young, wayward designers you'd be the instructor. Ill make sure to share this with my upcoming class and prepare for it obviously to be ignored.

    thanks for the thoughts.

  6. Glad to hear that I'm doing my part, as the guy who freaks everyone out. ;-)

  7. Greg Jackson says:

    Thanks for more wise words Eric. I enjoyed your book and got a lot from it. My kids went to a Montessori pre-school (years ago now) where their attitude to encouragement was not about rewarding children with instant gratification, but letting kids develop self-esteem gradually through learning in a caring environment. This approached seemed harsh to me at first because we are so used to expecting a pat on the back for smallest achievements. But it makes complete sense that we should be encouraging kids this way. Adults often need 'thick skins' to cope but with the right development should be more like water off a ducks back. It's never too late too learn.

  8. Really nice to hear that you read the book, and found it useful!

    I agree about how we interact with our kids as it relates to learning. We're so keen to illustrate our love for them that we tend to respond with too much enthusiasm to very small things. (I think this makes things tougher for them, once they get a little older.)

  9. Wow, I think this post summarises this role in a nutshell! I think of it as nothing more than what I'm absolutely meant to do - saying you 'live and breathe it' sounds over-the-top or trite to some but that's exactly what it is. I love being challenged and want more. However I'm not in a place where all the people I work with are of the same attitude... So this post has clarified things for me. Thanks - and here's to bigger challenges! :)

  10. Brad Beebe says:

    Ok, but can I still have "Rockstar Uber Ninja" on my business card? I've been programming for like, 2 whole years, so I clearly deserve it ;)

  11. Yes, but only if you promise to tattoo those same words somewhere on your neck.

  12. Daily SMS says:

    I've always been told "Don't do a job you don't enjoy!"

  13. "A creative job (be it in design, development, or strategy) isn't just a job. It isn't even a career. It's a force so driving that you find yourself doing it even when you aren't on the clock. It's what you think about when you wake up, while you're sitting on the bus, and while everyone else around you is engrossed in that film on the screen." That was probably my favorite part of this entry. It resonates with me so well. I've felt like this for the past 4-6 years, and glad that there are others out there who share my feelings. I'm currently the Design Editor at my college newspaper, and I'm sorry to hear that your stint at a newspaper wasn't the best experience. I, too work with incompetent people who seem to only be there to have yet another thing on their resume. I, however, absolutely love my job, despite the long hours and lack of natural light in the office. Being on the staff allows me to further my passion with pagination, and the quick turn around pushes my limits as a designer to help me grow.

    "You want to do something creative for a living? Regardless of whether it’s for me, someone else, or yourself, I ask you to do the following three things: Grow a thick skin, fail as much—and as quickly—as you can, and give it everything you’ve got. A creative life is a long, hard road, with very few clearly marked signs. Those of us who do it for long enough start to enjoy that part of it too. (Eventually.)"

    Another little bit I enjoyed. You're right, there are very few clearly marked signs, and plenty that point you down the wrong roads, but I've been at this for a few years, and I love where it's taking me.

  14. Glad you liked it, and that you enjoy working on a newspaper. :-)

    For the record, the folks I worked with at the newspaper certainly weren't incompetent. In fact, many of them were very good at what they did. It's just that the environment was more of focused on jobs than people pursuing their life's calling.

  15. Pingback: I Worked A Job | Paul Randall