Adulting for creatives: 4 essential skills and how to develop them

I’m 37 years old, have four children and a thriving freelance business, have bought and sold property, moved, done my own taxes, and I still hate calling to make a dentist appointment.

Why are those types of tasks so onerous?

What is adulting?

We use the term adulting to refer to tasks that are not really fun, but necessary. There’s an element of helplessness in the word, an expression of being overwhelmed by the complexity involved in these adult responsibilities.

These adulting tasks aren’t that difficult.

We just don’t like doing them.

They’re unfulfilling but important. They don’t produce an enjoyable reward, but help us avoid an unpleasant consequence. You don’t go to the dentist because it’s fun. You go because you don’t want your teeth to rot and fall out. When the task itself is time-consuming, complex, or otherwise intimidating, it’s tough to work up the motivation. After all, there’s no immediate gratification. And it’s easy to minimize the consequence in our heads: *Oh, it won’t matter much if I don’t get my teeth cleaned this year. I’ll floss more.*

As kids, we were able to avoid these tasks, for the most part. An adult did them for us, or bore the brunt of the consequences when they were undone.

Now we are adults, apparently, and have to do them ourselves.

Adulting for creatives

We are also people who do creative work. As creatives, there are some important tasks that fall into the adulting category. It may seem fine to avoid them, delay them, or decide they don’t matter. But to do creative work long-term—to build a sustainable creative practice—they’re necessary. So let’s get over the intimidation and handle these tasks like the bad-ass, mature, capable creatives we are.

Here we go.

1: Tell people what you do for a living

Such a simple task: answer a question. Answer it without feeling like an awkward 11-year-old.

*So, what do you do?*

Hmm. Harder than it should be.

When you do creative work for a company, you usually get some kind of job title you can throw around. I’m a graphic designer, I’m a content manager, I’m a photographer.

But that doesn’t always explain your work. So you throw out the job title, then fumble around trying to explain, in a few short, clear sentences, what the title means.

If you work for yourself, it gets even trickier. Add “freelance” or “consulting” in front of your creative job title of choice and watch the swirls of confusion appear when you say it.

If you’re connected emotionally to your work (and I hope you are), then fumbling and flailing to explain feels really… gross. Kind of demoralizing. Kind of like what you do isn’t real, or doesn’t matter, or isn’t part of the world of things that matter.

That’s not true, of course. Your work does matter, and it is real. With a little practice, you can get better at explaining it.

How to do this

Use your creative powers and write an elevator pitch for your own work. (If you work for yourself, this can be handy for your website/blog/bio, too.)

Here’s a step-by-step guide:

💥 How to write (and deliver) an elevator pitch

Memorize it. Use it. You’ll feel more confident, sound more professional, and probably gain some clarity about your work.

2: Handle the haters

There will always be critics. Criticism isn’t bad, of course; specific, thoughtful criticism can help you improve your work and understand your audience.

But there are thoughtful critics (not many) and then there are… well, idiots. Haters. People who won’t be pleased with what you do no matter what. The root of their disapproval isn’t your work; it’s their own internal issues. The inability to be happy about someone else’s creativity, growth, or success comes from their own internal shit.

It’s not your fault, and it’s not your problem to fix.

The best response you can give is simple: walk away (figuratively and maybe literally, too). Don’t engage in debates over the value or details of your work. Don’t try to appease them.

Trying to please a hater is a waste of your time and diminishes your creative power. Those voices—if you listen—will get in your head and mess you up. The best defense is to remove any chance they have to get that close to you.

But what if the haters are close to you? What if they’re your family members, your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors? If cutting off a relationship completely isn’t a good option, you can still reduce the negativity

How to do this

Learn the difference between a hater and a genuine, helpful critic.

Sometimes feedback isn’t presented in the best way (or sometimes we’re a little too sensitive). Criticism can be very helpful, but not everybody’s “criticism” is worth listening to.

Learn to spot the three types of people who give feedback: critics, fans, and haters.

Then you’ll know how to respond to each one:

  • respond with appreciation to the fans
  • give careful thought to the feedback from critics
  • use a short scripted response on haters and don’t engage otherwise.

More details here:

💥 How to tell the difference between haters and critics

For the negative people who are too close to avoid altogether, you’ll need to set boundaries and control interactions. This is doable.

Setting boundaries means you decide when and how this person has access to you. Maybe you decide you’ll quit answering their phone calls after 8 p.m., because their negativity messes up your sleep.

Another type of boundaries:

💥 Honor your limits for sustainable creativity

3: Overcome imposter syndrome

This isn’t something you do once and then enjoy, unencumbered by self-doubt and that pervasive feeling of being unqualified for the work you love most.

No, this is a habit that you develop as a healthy, grown-ass creative. You learn how to take better care of yourself mentally and emotionally. That means learning how to identify and deal with imposter syndrome in yourself.

The first step is understanding what imposter syndrome sounds like in your head. How it makes you feel. How you act when it’s raging internally. How you resist or hide from it.

The second step is developing some very simple strategies to use when imposter syndrome attacks. There are two types of strategies that will help you.

Long-term, confidence-building strategies

These are strategies you use regularly, no matter how you feel. You incorporate them into your life as a practice.

Over time, they will help you let go of doubts, recognize your creative ability, and instill confidence. I’m not saying that they will eliminate all self-doubt and anguish; no, they probably won’t. But they can have a very positive effect on your mindset. Used regularly, they can reduce the power that imposter syndrome has over you.

Short-term, handle-the-feeling strategies

The second type of strategy is one you can pull out when all the self-doubt and insecurities get to you. When imposter syndrome is trying to take over, you turn to one of these.

Don’t question it, don’t come up with new ones, don’t optimize: pick one and do it.

If you still feel down, repeat the same strategy or pick another. Keep at it until the power of “feeling unqualified” wears off and you can take a deep breath and get back to work.

How to do this

Start noticing how you feel, what you think, and what you do when imposter syndrome strikes. You may not realize what’s going on; you just think you’re procrastinating, feeling lazy, lacking inspiration. Is that it? Or is there a deeper fear holding you back?

Journaling, free writing, making lists, recording your thoughts, or asking someone close to you can all help you identify when imposter syndrome hits, and how it affects you.

Find your strategies:

💥 11 Confidence-building strategies for creative people

Pick one or two of the long-term strategies (or come up with your own) and incorporate them into your everyday life. These are supportive habits for your creative process. Try them out for a week or more; if they work for you, pick another strategy.

Pick two or three of the short-term strategies, get everything you need on hand to execute, and create a little list or reminder or document or sticky note.

Something visual in your creative workspace is helpful; it serves as a reminder of what to do. The trigger is the feelings that imposter syndrome creates. When those feelings hit, immediately start executing one of your short-term strategies. Remember: don’t stop to think about it, just do it. Then do it again, or do another, until you regain perspective.

4: Decide what to do next

Deciding what to do next should be easy. Or so we think.

But decisions are tough. They’re laden with meaning, with implication. If you’re fighting imposter syndrome, it’s difficult to joyfully dive into a project that’s intimidating… even if it’s logically the thing to do next.

On the other hand, if you’re inspired and energized, it can be tough to focus that energy on one task, one project. If everything seems possible, saying Yes to one thing can be painful; it feels like cutting off delicious opportunities, saying No to interesting possibilities.

There are lots of ways to make decisions, but the typical approach—which is not planned or consistent—is probably the worst. If you choose a way to make these decisions, a somewhat standardized process, you can depend on it to help you make better decisions no matter how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking.

There’s another reason that a standard method for decision-making is helpful: the inevitable encroaching of other people’s priorities.

You might think, “Well, if I don’t know what decision to make, I just won’t make the decision yet. I’ll flow with it and see what happens.”

You can do that, but here’s what will happen while you’re not making any decisions: other people will make decisions.

Their decisions—based on their priorities and values, their needs and wants, their beliefs and perceptions—will find you, in your decision-less state, and take over. Decisiveness will always overcome indecision. Focused action will always overpower passive waiting.

Focused action is a type of giving, whereas passive waiting is a type of receiving.

If you want to make your own decisions, you have to stop being an open, passive recipient for other people’s decisions.

Otherwise, their decisions will infiltrate and direct your life. They will choose for you, by the mere virtue of having chosen something.

I don’t know about you, but I do not trust the vast majority of people to make choices for me. No, thank you.

The only way to avoid that usurpation is to make your own decisions.

It can be tough to make decisions; we fear making the wrong one. We fear our own inadequacy, lack of knowledge, and maybe lack of knowing what we really want. There’s only one way to overcome those seeming limitations: start making your own decisions and learning from them.

We learn more, experience more, gain more value, and ultimately gather more enjoyment from “bad” decisions we make for ourselves rather than “good” decisions that others make for us.

What is good or bad, anyway? If a “good” decision made by someone else keeps you in a place of passivity and powerlessness, how is it good for you?

Make the decision, deal with the consequences, add awareness to your experience, and you will learn, grow, develop insight, gain discernment, and get better at making decisions for yourself.

How to do this

Start by managing the timeline you put on decisions differently. There are two mistakes we make often:

  • We feel pressured, so we rush into a decision before really thinking/feeling it out.
  • We fear making the wrong decision, so we hesitate and analyze and overthink and avoid making a decision until it’s too late.

What’s a reasonable timeline for making a decision? Well, it’s fluid. There’s no hard-and-fast rule you can apply in every scenario. (You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Me, too.) You can look for a point of balance, the place between “too fast” and “too slow.”

As a rule of thumb, the bigger the decision is, the more time you could take to think about it.

But remember that every decision opportunity has an endpoint; no matter how huge, how life-changing, how widespread the effects of a decision, at some point the window of opportunity closes. You have to jump through it before that point, or you miss the opportunity.

Not making a decision is ultimately a decision: it’s just a passive approach to decision-making. That’s okay, if you’re okay with the consequences of that approach. Personally, I’m not.

Next, start thinking about a set of standards you could put into place. Figure out which type of decisions cause you the most stress, and create a set of standards that applies specifically to those decisions. For example, if it’s painful to make a decision about which project to start next, you need some standards to lean on.

Here’s one kind of decision standard:

💥 Say No to Everything That Is Not an Absolute Yes

Start compiling a Yes and a No list. This is one of the best tools in my decision-making arsenal, both personally and professionally.

Here’s more about creating a No list:

💥 How I Learned to Say No and Got Better Clients

If you’re interested, you can see my Yes and No lists:

The most valuable lesson I’ve learned in this area:

You will always have more options than time. 

Making peace with this truth is helpful. The options will continue to flow in. When you make a decision, you are not lessening your options: you are actively directing them. You are refining the kind of options that come your way, opening new doorways, broadening some areas and narrowing others. Have fun with it.

Photo by Marius Christensen on Unsplash