Artists are being left behind.
In patronage, yes. In income, obviously. But there is a more subtle, long-arc category in which today’s contract-based workers are receiving no investment: professional development.
In entertainment, we often focus on hard skills and experience as our metrics of forward momentum. You sing higher than you used to; you worked with a famous director. While great, these value-adds are only part of a maturing professional’s progress.
Soft skills may seem auxiliary, but they’re what make someone who is mid-career or beyond feel mature, reliable, and promotable.
Look, it’s not all together our fault. When jobs last 6 months, or more often, 6 weeks, no one really cares about where you’re going as a person- it won’t affect them. This is diametrically opposed to the world’s most lauded companies- the ones on the Fortune 100 list. Your peers in finance, consulting, technologies, hospitality, non-profits- they have help like you wouldn’t believe.
In these environments, higher-ups are deeply invested in how you’re developing as an employee and eventually, manager. Because they see your potential and hope you, as a valued contributor, will stay with the company, they have a long-term plan to get you ready for the responsibility you will eventually take on. These steady investments in the human capital around them have measurable impacts down the line.
As an artist, no one is doing that for you. But you owe it to yourself to do it for yourself. Let’s apply business’s favorite rubrics- customized for the independent contractor.
The Annual Review
In order to manufacture this for yourself you will need clarity most of all. Full-time employees have titles, roles and responsibilities, projects under their supervision. Do you know what each of these are in certain terms for yourself and the portfolio career you’re cultivating? Take a look back annually, quarterly even, and ask: Did I execute the job I agreed to? Have I met my deadlines? Did I log the hours I committed to? Do I do more than the bare minimum to justify my title? Does the work I’ve done in the last year justify a pay increase or bonus? Would I flag me for higher profile work in the future?
I recommend writing out ALL the standards you would feel are fair for SOMEONE ELSE who is calling themselves an actor, director, playwright, what have you- before going back to reflect on your own work. If helpful, get a friend involved. Give them your evaluation sheet and talk through your honest evaluation of your own work.
Other career people get regular feedback from those they lead and those who lead them. Isn’t that crazy? The expectation for people who work closely together is that they can talk about their professional relationship. These conversations are primarily not about what you do but how you do it. It requires an agreement amongst colleagues to invest in the long-term, even if they don’t participate in each other’s. This act must be generous. It must trust that we are all impacting our field even when it’s on different teams. It says, “You want to be better, and I want to help you be better because the culture we have is the culture we build.”
Find someone who has directed, taught, managed you. Find someone you have collaborated with or lead. Ask: How was I to work with? Did you find it easy to ask me questions and give me feedback? What areas do you think I could continue to grow in? My goal is to do be doing (blank) in the next years, what do you see as potential barriers for me achieving this?
It may be hard to ask at first, this isn’t normal for us. We keep espousing the lie that we are all best friends. Discussing the manner in which we work brings undeniable professionalism to our relationships. We could use more of that. More clearly delineated relationships means more dignity, less pandering. More boundaries, less harassment. More merit, less nepotism. We ought to welcome these overdue growing pains.
In the world of work, treating others as you would like to be treated is somewhat less helpful than treating others as they would like to be treated. One accessible tool to identify how you operate and more importantly, how others operate, are personality frameworks. The Four Tendencies, The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DISC, The Enneagram, The Birkman, will all illuminate how many natural differences there are amongst coworkers.
Imagine how helpful it would be to know about someone that detailed instruction disengages their creative mind? Or that your boss views passionate debate as an indicator of investment not confrontation? How about being able to support a colleague who prefers structured timelines though a creative process by imposing check-ins that to you might seem overbearing?
Self-directed learning on this should cultivate a sense of appreciation and patience when all these differences come to a head. It will also provide a means to depersonalize what’s uncomfortable and find a productive path forward. Be advised that some of the content covered will feel deeply personal and vulnerable. Use discretion when bringing these kinds of conversations into your workplace uninvited.
Good leadership is not about a cult of personality, charm, or power. It takes thoughtfulness and humility. It also takes practice.
Young professionals aren’t being placed in C-Suite roles the day they graduate, but they might be quickly put into executive tracks. In healthy organizations they move closer to the central leader’s gravity. They should understand core values, take responsibility for their decisions, and make the work of those around them more meaningful by providing context for the menial.
No one has to ask you to do it. No one has to pay you. You just need to be someone with enough vision and empathy that people want to jump on board. If this isn’t happening organically- give yourself a small project. Find something you believe in and rally a group to your cause. When you do the thing your set out to do, respect them, listen to them, and thank them for working alongside you. You’ll know how you did when you ask a second time.
The people who get flagged for mentorship and promotion are the people with ideas. It is as easy for a company to be made obsolete in today’s economy as it is to delete an app from your phone. Contributing ways for your industry to survive and for you to thrive within in it takes big picture thought about what trends have gone and what’s coming. A critical eye should be regularly applied to the work going on all around you so that when your creativity has the opportunity to get out in front, it is genuinely creative and not lazy repackaging.
Innovation also requires early adopters. Inherent in the name is the reality that when you have a truly fresh, industry shaking idea- most people won’t get it. Unless their criticisms serve to improve your work, you can just go ahead and shut them out. The person with the right mix of experience and ideological dexterity to recognize what you’re doing- that’s the mentor, the champion, the silent backer.
And here is the freelancer’s advantage- you have the freedom to keep going until you find them. Continue to be brave enough to share your idea with people with influence and support will gravitate toward you in time. The old guard is not dense as to ignore their professional mortality. Inescapable obsolescence is always either the motivator or the fate. You can offer the way back in to the center of our field. Who wouldn’t want to partner with that?
The path for the creative, the freelancer, the portfolio career haver is anything but straight. Because we often vacillate between feast and famine it’s easy to conflate work with growth. They’re not the same. They’re both your responsibility. If the rest of the world sees us as people who “never really grew up”, let it be because of a flaw in perception not persistence of immaturity. Invest in yourself like Google is paying for it, before soft skills produce hard consequences.