The creative’s secret to career longevity

by Maria Rapetskaya

I’ve been that intern looking for an opportunity and that college grad begging for a break.

Like so many others, I’ve sought staff positions and freelance work, and finally somewhere along the way, I graduated to become the person doing the hiring—and the firing.

Getting your foot in the door of your first real job is undeniably difficult. But frankly, getting a shot at anypoint in your career isn’t exactly easy. The big difference between your first job and your eighth is knowing how to stay hired once your foot is comfortable, and how to keep growing within the company or towards your next position. Through working with interns and recent grads, I recognized a common pattern of mistaken ideas and behaviors.

It comes down to three simple things:

1. An awesome creative dream job is still a job.

Young creatives tend to have idealized notions of what it’s like to be creative for a living. It’s not glamorous, it’s not always challenging or interesting, and there’ll be plenty of times when it’s not all that creative.

Even at the hippest studios, clients can really range—some are cutting edge, and some like it bland. There are ups and downs to how inspired you’ll be. There are pluses and minuses to every project. The ability to handle the bad with the good without letting it discourage, bore, or (excessively) frustrate you is critical to a creative career.

Recognize that you’re now being paid to be creative. Creative blocks, deficiencies, comfort zones, you name it, are not your employers’ or your co-workers’ problems. This doesn’t mean you can’t ask for advice or get help when you need it; rather, it means you have to find ways to cultivate inspiration when you need it, because deadlines have no sympathy for your lack of ideas.

It’s essential for young creatives to understand that, under the hood, even an incredibly rewarding career is still work.

In hindsight, I’ve been guilty of this one myself. I wasted several years on being irrationally unhappy with my career simply because my expectations were unrealistic. No job can ever be perfect, all the time.

2. What gets you hired is talent. What keeps you hired is doing your job well.

What new creatives overlook frequently is attention to detail. Sounds simple, but screwing this up can be costly to your employer and your budding career. Paying attention to detail minimizes easily avoidable production-related mistakes, like spelling errors. It illustrates your capacity for following directions with precision, which in turn signals diligence, focus, patience, and a sense of pride in your work.

My responsibilities as a creative director include setting project guidelines and giving feedback on work. When someone on the team ignores even one of my notes, it wastes everyone’s resources and time, forcing the project through another round of reviews, feedback, revisions, approvals. And that’s if an omission is caught internally! If the project reaches the client with careless errors, regardless of how creatively impressive it is—it’s a fail.

3. Beware of becoming a one-trick pony.

Having a focus in your initial portfolio is great, because it develops your unique style. Quite possibly, this style leads to your first job. Some will advise you to keep evolving your own look to set yourself apart, even if it means keeping a narrow focus. I disagree, and here’s why:

A distinct aesthetic can indeed brand you and lead to wonderful things, like name recognition and commissions. Getting this kind of exposure means you’ll need to market yourself aggressively, efficiently, and continuously. Unfortunately, luck and timing are inescapable factors in the ultimate degree of your success, making this a big gamble. You may or may not be able to afford the risk.

Even if you succeed, trends are fickle. Whether you just happened upon the “it” thing, or you deliberately focus on what’s hot today, you may have trouble getting hired tomorrow if that’s all you’ve got.

The most marketable creatives can adapt their style to suit the needs and aesthetic of the client. Even a little depth and latitude in a portfolio tells me a young artist has real potential to be professionally creative. So, expose yourself to as much variety as possible if you want to ensure career longevity.

The bottom line?

Creatives are special creatures, and I am fortunate to count myself as one. But when it comes to succeeding in the workplace, a creative career is subject to the same rules as all others. It just happens to be a lot more fun.

About the Author:

Full-time creative director, motion graphics designer, entrepreneur.
Part-time writer, mentor, educator.
All-the-time explorer of things near and far.

Creative leader and architect of Undefined Creative, a boutique motion design agency based in New York.

Travel addict. Fifty seven countries, six continents, and counting. 

Through my writing, I share insight on travel and creativity, professional longevity, small business entrepreneurship and day-to-day career satisfaction. I write for mainstream creative and entrepreneurial publications, and speak about these topics whenever opportunity arises. 

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