When it comes to creative work, the myth of the starving artist is prevalent. Because charging money for a something as abstract as art is a difficult subject to approach. As artists, it’s easy to fall into the trap of busy work, side projects or working for free in an effort to avoid the money conversation and still feel productive. But you don’t have to live like that!
In this episode, Jenn and Doug walk you through their personal experiences with figuring out when to say no and when to say yes. When to work for free and when to stand your ground. If you’re an artist, the questions and scenarios in this episode are a must-listen as you are on your journey to bust the starving artist myth.
Don’t forget to subscribe to ThrivTALK. You can find show notes online at starvingartistmyth.com.
Also be sure to check out The Futures Fund that Jenn mentioned in this episode.
Jenn Ocken: Okay creatives, too many times throughout our careers, we fall into a state of anxiety about where the next project and money is going to come from. This is not only a beginner’s emotion here, it could happen and pop up throughout your entire career, believe me. Am I right, Doug?
Doug Gay: Yes.
Jenn Ocken: And because of this anxiety, it’s so tempting to jump into any project or collaboration that comes your way, especially if you are in that beginning part of your career and barely generating any money, and just moving from assignment to assignment. So, how can you relate to this, my Doug?
Doug Gay: Anxiety. Where’s that money gonna come from? I am like totally down with this. This happens to me probably every six months.
Jenn Ocken: So, never fear, creatives. It’s never gonna go away.
Doug Gay: But instead of thinking about where the next rent is coming from, what if you took your whole career path into consideration, by approaching each project as having one of three potential outcomes.
Doug Gay: One, it can move you forward. Two, it can move you backwards. Or three, it can just keep you stuck in the same place. And by keeping these outcomes in the forefront of your decision making, it’s not only going to help you be more deliberate in your strategy, but it’s absolutely essential in justifying that the work you chose not to do is just as important as the work you take on.
Jenn Ocken: Man-
Doug Gay: Jenn, you know, in music we have like a rest. Do you know what a rest is?
Jenn Ocken: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Actually I do because I’m taking music theory.
Doug Gay: Right, and the rests are just as important as the notes.
Jenn Ocken: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Doug Gay: See how I did that?
Jenn Ocken: Taking the time. You are so right, Doug. I have three components I ask myself in evaluating all my assignments, even the ones I’m not going to get paid to do. It’s pretty straightforward. It doesn’t have to be all of them, it could be one or two of the following components, and if at any time it’s not something I want to do, I’m now able to make a conscious decision and say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Jenn Ocken: So, the first one here is honest money. One of my early on affirmations that I kept repeating to myself time and time again, especially when I first started out on my own outside of my family business, “I am a valuable creative with valuable talent, and people pay me good money to create.”
Jenn Ocken: I kept saying that to myself over and over, gaining the competence and just trying to believe that in myself. So, even if the money is not your motivation here, it’s definitely worth paying attention to, and that’s what I’m getting at. Money buys freedom, and with money in the bank, you can turn down projects that you’re not necessarily interested in, you can fund personal projects that are really going to excite you, and you can focus on improving your craft rather than worrying about the bills looming in the background kind of thing.
Doug Gay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jenn Ocken: Money gives you the freedom to do things on your terms. This is so clutch for creatives because we really need to be able to do things on our terms, and that freedom has the power to drive your creativity to the next level.
Jenn Ocken: Now, we’ve all had to take on a less than inspiring project to keep the bills paid, and that’s just reality really, but there is a positive outlook for doing this. First, you gain experience in working in assignments or jobs that aren’t really ideal, and these experiences strengthen your awareness and your tolerance for being a creative. They’re gonna push your limits.
Jenn Ocken: Second, doing this kind of work minimally, mind you, can remind you what you don’t love, and think of it this way, even the toughest days make the best days better. So, some mediocre inspiring work can serve to remind you that you need to keep your eye on the bigger prize, the bigger picture, and this is your career, people. You need to keep moving forward.
Jenn Ocken: Doug, do you have a time when you took on a less inspiring job because you knew of some benefits at the end that were bigger than taking on the kind of mediocre or not so sexy job that you needed to do?
Doug Gay: I used to work at the bank, bro. That was terrible.
Jenn Ocken: Super not sexy. Super not sexy.
Doug Gay: That was the worst experience of my entire life, and the worst experience of-
Jenn Ocken: For you as a creative.
Doug Gay: … all the customers’ lives whose money I was handling. My bank was never even, like at the end. She’s like, “Ah, no, you owe me $30 wrong today.”
Jenn Ocken: Oh my god. How long did you work there?
Doug Gay: I’m like, “I swear I don’t have $30 in my own pocket.”
Jenn Ocken: I did not know this about you.
Doug Gay: Two years, one as a teller and one in dealer services where we booked cars, like we credited people for cars, which I had to type in VIN numbers, and they were never right. It was terrible, okay. But I don’t think that’s what you mean, right?
Jenn Ocken: No, it’s not.
Doug Gay: But I still have dreams about it. It was downtown Baton Rouge, and I used to go up to the top of the Hibernia building when the-
Jenn Ocken: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Doug Gay: … and I would watch tugboats go by and I’d be like-
Jenn Ocken: On the Mississippi.
Doug Gay: … yeah, and I was like, “I wish I was on those tugboats right now.”
Doug Gay: Okay, anyway, let me give you an appropriate example. And this actually touches on some things we’ve touched upon before, which is when to say no and things like that.
Doug Gay: There were some less than ideal jobs we’ve done here at the studio, where it challenged us to really dig in on how we’re gonna do the job. It was almost … it could have easily been more trouble than it’s worth, you know? That could have been the label.
Jenn Ocken: Yeah.
Doug Gay: But we pushed through anyway, and the reason I pushed through was because I knew that I could get some referrals on the other side of it.
Jenn Ocken: Absolutely.
Doug Gay: And we did it, and-
Jenn Ocken: Seeing the big picture.
Doug Gay: … yeah, and I mean, I could give you a couple specific examples, but I don’t need to, because that’s the process.
Jenn Ocken: Right, right. So there’s a little pro tip here in this whole conversation. It’s to make sure the collaborations or the assignments, they are aligned with that long term goal, and I think that’s what you’re going with there, is that the outcome of going through it and doing a job, knowing you could get referrals and you could pad the company on the backend because of what was going to be coming in, or potentially coming in, it’s kind of like a risk when you take out advertising or something like that.
Doug Gay: Exactly. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jenn Ocken: And so pursuing assignments and collaborations that aren’t feeding your creativity and steering clear from that is definitely a mindful way of keeping yourself from falling into a distracting busywork too. So you have to make sure that you’re not going into these collaborations or these projects and they’re just creating busywork that’s distracting you from moving forward and making those steps that you need to do-
Doug Gay: Right, that you know that busywork can feel like that mind massage, you know? Like you might as well be eating chocolate, or you’re just making yourself feel better-
Jenn Ocken: I’m valuable. Right, because I’m busy.
Doug Gay: Yeah.
Jenn Ocken: It’s not all aligned with that end goal. And bottom line, there are no absolutes here, but you’ve gotta be strategic in those yeses and the nos so that you are using the value that can come from them, and those concepts we’re going to be giving you some ideas to look through in this episode.
Jenn Ocken: So, the second consideration here is when to say no to free. When do you say no to free? And in an essence, we’re going to figure out also when to say yes to it too maybe, right?
Jenn Ocken: So, ask yourself, does the project … Your face is so funny, Doug. I wish y’all could see Doug right now.
Doug Gay: I say yes to free way too much. I’m an expert at this, but in the wrong way.
Jenn Ocken: You know exactly what not to do because you do it every time-
Doug Gay: Yeah, I won’t go jump off a bridge, I’ll tell you that much.
Jenn Ocken: So, second, you’ve got to ask yourself, does this project give additive value to your portfolio. And I mean, Doug, you have a portfolio. What are the kids that are coming through and have established and are reflections of being in your educational process? I mean, I’ve seen it, they’re teachers, they are out there doing their own gigs, they’re things like that.
Doug Gay: Yeah.
Jenn Ocken: Those are all portfolios. So if you’re more of a service-based creativity or a creative business, it’s not such a … a material portfolio is not the only thing we’re talking about here.
Doug Gay: Gotcha, yeah.
Jenn Ocken: But you gotta constantly be asking yourself, is this going to bring value to my portfolio? And this is something that I was constantly asking myself, because as a photographer, a creative as a photographer, your portfolio is everything. And I realized that my style lent itself to a specific type of photography assignment, and I was actually really enjoying photographing that specific type of assignment.
Jenn Ocken: And that was an easy filter for me to be able to say yes to certain things and to say no to certain things, when it was a free collaboration kind of project coming into my graces.
Jenn Ocken: Sometimes, amazing creative opportunities come along and the money’s okay, or it might just be plain sucky. Let’s just get real with it. And the guiding principle here is it’s pretty important to build a solid foundation for your creative business, and that kind of work that you put into your portfolio will be reflective in the kind of things that you ask for more. So, do you understand that? Do you get that, Doug? Like, what you’re building in your portfolio, whether you’re saying yes or no to a free collaboration or project, or you are taking a job that might not be as beneficial, one of the things you need to do is how’s that going to reflect my portfolio? Because what’s in my portfolio is what I’m going to attract.
Jenn Ocken: What people are seeing, the accomplishments that I can give and provide as a result of my creative services and products, you’re gonna get more of that because that’s in your portfolio. So you have to ask the question, especially as a creative here, what chances are there going to give me, what opportunities are there gonna be to give me if I’m doing this and I can then share it with the world and so they can see my talents and creativity through it.
Jenn Ocken: You gotta weigh that out and you gotta understand what is saying yes, and how it can push your limitations by saying yes to a collaboration, saying yes to an assignment that might not be paying that much, or not paying what the … I don’t know. There’s all kinds of situations there-
Doug Gay: Yeah.
Jenn Ocken: … But it can open yourself up to limitations and give yourself opportunities to work with different equipment, new tools. These are all the things you need to be considering when you’re going into a collaboration or a project, and how is it gonna develop and build your portfolio.
Doug Gay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jenn Ocken: And the third component to consider here is one of my favorites, and I bet, Doug, you have some great opportunities here working with other musicians, very talented musicians, and that you would just die to work with kind of thing, or it’s just a great opportunity, is the potential to work with other valuable creatives and talent.
Jenn Ocken: So Doug, I know you have a moment or two that you just knew when you had to say yes because of the talent or who you were working with.
Doug Gay: Oh yeah. I mean, so many I couldn’t even … I don’t know, yes. All the time. For real. Lately-
Jenn Ocken: But why did you say yes to them? What was the-
Doug Gay: Because I wanted to.
Jenn Ocken: Well, there’s deeper than that.
Doug Gay: You know how you walk by a store and you say, “I have to have that?” I mean, it’s the same thing. It’s the same feeling. I have to do it. It doesn’t matter what it’s gonna-
Jenn Ocken: All right, so what were some of the benefits from saying yes to those talents and working with those people?
Doug Gay: Well, I would say probably eight times out of 10, if I say yes, it’s really self-serving. I’m doing it to make me feel good.
Jenn Ocken: I’m going to say that that’s absolutely the greatest way to approach it too.
Doug Gay: Right. So at that point, money’s no longer an issue, it’s about whatever I’m into, whatever’s happening. So like if it’s a creative project that I’m gonna get something out of in a myriad of different ways, and it’s not gonna pay anything, I’m just gonna say yes ’cause I want to, just like I want a Christmas present. I want that. I want to get it.
Jenn Ocken: I know. I get that.
Doug Gay: But the other, I would say the 20% of the time, would be something that I might be afraid to do, but I still know I have to say yes, you know? We just put together a recording curriculum for the Futures Fund, and we’re-
Jenn Ocken: I am a teacher for the Future’s Fund.
Doug Gay: I know, I know, and I know the Futures Fund is on this Parachute Network a lot too, ’cause it’s Casey-
Jenn Ocken: Yeah, Casey. We should link that. We’ll link them into the … You guys gotta go check out the Futures Fund. We gotta link that in the show notes.
Doug Gay: Well I was just meeting with them the other day, and we’re gonna be initiating a recording curriculum into it, and it might not be this fall, but it’s on the horizon with them. We’re doing a little pricing and such.
Doug Gay: Is a recording curriculum in my wheelhouse? Yes. Is creating a situation for an entity outside the walls of Baton Rouge Music Studios in my experience? Not at all, right? So I’m doing something that it almost feels like they’re shining a light on my work, you know what I mean?
Jenn Ocken: Yeah.
Doug Gay: It feels like, oh, I’m so nervous, they’re gonna look at my work and cut it all out, or-
Jenn Ocken: So, this talent and in this situation, the talent, the people you are working with is-
Doug Gay: Not in music.
Jenn Ocken: … No, but it’s a community-driven entity-
Doug Gay: That’s right.
Jenn Ocken: … that’s very valuable in the community in a service.
Doug Gay: That’s right.
Jenn Ocken: Interesting, perfect.
Doug Gay: Now we do similar things for other entities that are music oriented-
Jenn Ocken: Yeah, of course.
Doug Gay: … like we work with the Baton Rouge … what’s the afterschool orchestra program? Kid’s orchestra, we work with them. We work with some homeschool associations and it’s all based around music-
Jenn Ocken: Yeah, what you know.
Doug Gay: … but now adding this component to something that already involves photography, computer coding, and all these other things-
Jenn Ocken: Creative writing.
Doug Gay: … Yeah, and it’s a piece of a bigger thing. It’s like, new, and I just knew, no matter what money comes on the other side of it, I just knew I wanted to do it.
Jenn Ocken: Absolutely.
Doug Gay: You know? ‘Cause that’s helping us learn how to refine our own systems by creating the content for them, right-
Jenn Ocken: Yes, yes, getting experience.
Doug Gay: … and we’re creating a replicable product as well that we could license maybe. But really, it’s just intriguing, so I want to do it.
Jenn Ocken: Right. Well that’s awesome because what you did is you took into consideration the kind of people that are involved in this product and you were able to make an educated decision based on the pros and cons of moving forward and through this, even though you don’t really understand or know or can define the outcome of it.
Doug Gay: Yeah.
Jenn Ocken: That’s great. That’s perfect.
Jenn Ocken: In the opportunity of collaborating with someone who is legendary in the industry, who maybe they’re above your pay grade or experience level, or these people that are available to inspire you, teach you, or to help you open the doors to something new in the future, and maybe these are just really good party people that you can create with and have good vibes with. All of those are really great reasons to take on getting experience.
Jenn Ocken: Now, the one thing I’ve always found in working with other valuable creatives, like going in and mentoring … or being a mentor, but also being mentored by my brothers, I got paid to be in that position, so it’s not essentially doing it for free, but saying no to free, knowing that maybe the pay is not where you need it to be, the pay is maybe nothing, but the benefits is where you’re getting the value and where you’re getting the pay basically in the long run, where it’s aligned with, where you want to go, or being able to flow through more experience and enjoying what it is you are creating.
Doug Gay: Absolutely.
Jenn Ocken: I can tell you-
Doug Gay: Hey-
Jenn Ocken: Yeah?
Doug Gay: … Don’t air this until I sign the contract with the Futures Fund. I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding.
Jenn Ocken: Damn, I was like, that sucks.
Doug Gay: I just told them I don’t care how much money I make. No, I’m teasing.
Jenn Ocken: That is so funny. I’m sure if I know anything about the Futures Fund, they are all about compensation. The one thing that I’ve really loved about this program that over the few short years that it’s been out, they are all about getting compensated and getting paid for services, and teaching the kids. These kids are middle school to high schoolers-
Doug Gay: I know. It’s insane.
Jenn Ocken: … and so they’re getting this … yeah. They’ve already paid out-
Doug Gay: They’re new website just came out, and their students made their … their coders built their website.
Jenn Ocken: Yeah, their coders did all of what we use-
Doug Gay: And were paid to do it.
Jenn Ocken: … yeah. Over $25,000 have been paid to students in that program for doing services, creative services.
Doug Gay: We love Futures Fund.
Jenn Ocken: We absolutely do, and we love the fact that they are honing in on establishing value for creative and creative adventures.
Doug Gay: Well look, when you talk about taking into consideration like who’s involved with your project and things like that, what are other things you want to think about or you want to maybe tell everyone regarding the decision making process to do these things?
Jenn Ocken: Well yeah, I mean, always take in these three components that we just talked about. One is that it’s valuable good money, that it’s quality fair priced money, that you are getting compensated in some way, or the compensation comes in other benefits going through and saying yes to a collaboration.
Doug Gay: You know, another thing about fully thinking out a decision is it releases you from the outcome. If you’re comfortable with the fact that you made the decision, no matter what the outcome is, you made the decision, right?
Jenn Ocken: And you gotta own it and move through it, and allow what’s gonna happen to happen, ’cause it really is your perception too on the outcome. I mean, you can make it what it is. You’re gonna get out what you put into it.
Doug Gay: Absolutely.
Jenn Ocken: So, the second thing is to … is this project or collaboration going to add to your portfolio? It’s going to express and show the world what more you want to attract and to be of service to your craft and creative products and services.
Jenn Ocken: And then of course third is what we just got done talking about, the value of creating with other talent and what that talent can bring to you in multiple ways and benefits.
Jenn Ocken: So, in summary, I gotta say this, and I say this time and time again. I pretty much close a lot of my live videos out with a similar kind of concept. You, your time, and your life are your resources when you’re a creative. You are the person that makes your craft, creative services unique. You’re the person that needs to show up and provide something special to the client that is looking to fill a need or a solution or a problem, and your craft or creative service can say it or can help them with it, but it’s really you and what you have to offer and what you bring to the table as an individual creative that is what they’re also looking for and seeking. And so you need to be able to communicate that.
Jenn Ocken: And going through and using these three components every time you make a decision, whether it’s a free collaboration, or it’s a paying gig, it’s all the same.
Doug Gay: Yeah, it’s really simple. I love it. I mean, again, I think we’re at another podcast where I’m like, I think I do that. Now I’m gonna do it on purpose.
Jenn Ocken: I know, with intention.
Doug Gay: Oh man.
Jenn Ocken: All hail intention. So you know, these are things that literally they can’t be purchased. They need to be an active decision when you are going through the pros and cons of every decision on taking on any kind of job in your creative career.
Jenn Ocken: And the idea of being so deliberate with which projects and collaborations that you’re going to choose, they will help build your foundation stronger in supporting your bigger mission, or they could weaken it where there’s little or no movement.
Jenn Ocken: So, going through these three steps, being very straightforward with every decision is, at the end is it going to weaken me or is it going to make me stronger as a business owner and as a creative. And in many ways, as a creative, you are the experiences and the experiences are you. Everything that you’ve done leading up to doing this and going into a creative career path, or-
Doug Gay: It’s very personal.
Jenn Ocken: … It is super personal, and it’s all about those experiences. And these experiences are reflected in your portfolio. That’s why you have to take the time to create, or to make the decisions on what you’re gonna create. So consider each project carefully, please, and curate your portfolio and your life path with the utmost care. It’s so essential to your well-being and your livelihood, and the flow and the ease of flow going through and developing your business and in growing.
Jenn Ocken: And it’s always beneficial to be kind and graceful in all of your actions, because you gotta remember the other person on the other end, whether you say yes or no to any collaboration, or to any project, they’re also too trying to do the same thing you are. So, they might be asking something out of ignorance, and if you can come to them, come from their point of view and still say no gracefully, or say yes with excitement, whatever you decide, know that they’re also trying to be a creative, and they’re a creative soul doing the same things as you.
Jenn Ocken: So it’s really important to take all of that into consideration.
Doug Gay: I love it, and I think one of the first podcasts we did, we were saying … It was the say no-
Jenn Ocken: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Doug Gay: … You have to say something, right?
Jenn Ocken: You do.
Doug Gay: You can’t just not call.
Jenn Ocken: Oh, that’s the worst.
Doug Gay: It’s terrible.
Jenn Ocken: That’s the worst, and-
Doug Gay: You have to say yes or no.
Jenn Ocken: … and you know, yeah, you can walk on-
Doug Gay: To even people you were thinking may not have any little shoo fly, don’t bother me … No. Give them the same respect you give everyone else.
Jenn Ocken: They’re humans. I know. It will take you really far in owning your own business and pursuing your own creative career path. It will set a tone for people that are willing and wanting to work for somebody, even if you had told them no in the past.
Doug Gay: That’s right. Well Jenn, it’s time for our call to action.
Jenn Ocken: Oh, I just love our podcasts. I want them to go on forever.
Doug Gay: We’ll just stick around.
Jenn Ocken: Okay.
Doug Gay: I’m gonna make you stay here with me again.
Jenn Ocken: Ah, that’s fine. We so need to catch up. I’m so ready. But yes, you guys, if you’ve really enjoyed this conversation that Doug and I are having, know that there are more of them in our free Facebook group. We call ourselves the Thrivsters. We’re in there having conversations. There are creatives inspiring creatives. It’s a real diverse place to be, to ask questions, know that other people are going through the same things as you are, even if they’re not in the same industry. There’s no competitiveness in there. It’s all for one.
Doug Gay: It’s so positive in there.
Jenn Ocken: It is so positive. I’m really grateful. I have a lot … a beautiful team to thank for that, and a beautiful set of community that we’ve created.
Doug Gay: yeah, right. Great members, you know? People are really-
Jenn Ocken: Showing up.
Doug Gay: … taking this in a way that … yeah.
Jenn Ocken: Guys, I’m super humbled by it all. I really appreciate it. And if you are a member, if you’re in that Thrivsters Group, thank you so much. I really, really appreciate you guys. Keep it up. You guys got so much ahead of you.
Doug Gay: Well, I can’t wait to do this again, and I love you Jenn Ocken.
Jenn Ocken: I love you too, Doug Gay.
Doug Gay: Later, y’all.
Jenn Ocken: Peace.