3 Rules For Creative Workers To Keep Their Business In Order

Maybe art can’t be rushed, but even the most creative work has deadlines to abide by when it enters the marketplace.

3 Rules For Creative Workers To Keep Their Business In Order
[Photo: Eddy Rissling, The Come Up Show]

A couple of weeks ago, the musician Lauryn Hill arrived two hours late to a concert in Atlanta, much to the consternation of her fans. Later, the singer, who’s rather notorious for late arrivals and the occasional no-show, explained on Facebook that the reason she sometimes shows up late isn’t because she doesn’t care.


The creative process, she said, cannot be “easily classified or contained.” “I am at my best,” she wrote, “when I am open, rested, sensitive, and liberated to express myself as truthfully as possible.” Unfortunately, though, the Atlanta show was contained, because the venue cut the sound promptly at 11 p.m. due to a strict noise-curfew policy.

What’s more, many of her fans weren’t having it, demanding a refund for the experience. One wrote, “What a bunch of esoteric nonsense. You’re not reenacting the transfiguration. Your fans ‘aligned’ their money and calendar with your scheduled show. Accommodate that.”

It’s been said that art can’t be rushed. But what happens when the people who pay good money for your talent meet those creative efforts with much less flexibility than the way you approach your craft? Here are three rules for creative people to keep the business-side of their art in consistent working order.

1. Don’t Disparage The Deadline

When it comes to creative work that’s commercially viable, you’re going to have a deadline. Whether you work for an ad agency, as a freelancer copywriter, or as part of a big design team, your work lives and dies by the deadline.

Artists are notorious for their tardiness, and this may be normal for a creative, but chances are that whoever’s paying for the work won’t care if that’s the norm when it comes to creation–it isn’t when it comes to delivery. In the end, you were paid to do a job, and that job is probably tied to a schedule that determines the work’s value. Your job isn’t just to do the work–it’s to do it in a timely fashion so that you get the opportunity to do it again.


2. Don’t Explain Your Process

Artists tend to feel misunderstood, often for good reason. And for those who don’t consider themselves creative, it’s easy to misjudge this behavior as laziness.

That’s rarely the case. Creative types tend to work hard yet march to the beat of a different drummer, and we love them for this. But for those who commission and buy creative work, the creative process behind it is secondary–we often don’t even want to understand it. We just want the result.

In this sense, if you want to do creative work professionally, you have to think both like an artist and an entrepreneur. Reflecting on Hill’s recent flap in Atlanta, the musician and writer Questlove wrote, “[Artists] HAVE to think like a businessman in order to please the fan. Every aspect from walk in music to the pacing of the show has to be combed over.”

How you get the job done is up to you, but don’t waste the client’s time explaining your genius if that’s not what they want. They’re paying for a product, not a process.

3. Never Forget You’re Running A Business

The scholar Lewis Hyde wrote in his book The Gift that art lives in two economies: the gift economy and the market economy. In the gift economy, artists produce art not to be paid but for the sake of sharing a gift with the world. In the market economy, goods are produced primarily as a tool for economic growth.


In premodern societies, it was the community’s responsibility to support artists. But how do artists make money today? Hyde argues that you have three choices if you don’t want to starve:

  1. Get a wealthy patron to pay yours bills (which today is highly unlikely).
  2. Don’t quit your day job (which is, of course, a practical decision that many make).
  3. Sell your art directly to the market (and accept the responsibilities and pressures associated with such a choice).

Lauryn Hill clearly chose the third. When you do this, your work enters the market economy but still remains a part of the gift economy. She’s far from the only artist who’s made this decision only to struggle with its implications. And she’s right to acknowledge that it can be confusing for artist and audience alike.

So how do you do work that, in Hill’s words, is both uncontained and still has a container (i.e people’s expectations)?

Here’s how: If you aspire to do creative work and make a living off that work, you have to learn to move with people’s expectations. Artists often find this uncomfortable. But without taking yourself too seriously, you need to take your clients very seriously and treat them with care, delivering your work on time and offering as few excuses as possible.

Save the mysteries of the process for conversations with friends, not fans. In general, the customer doesn’t need or want to understand you (though some of course might)–to a much greater degree, they need and want your work. In other words, they just need to pay you and be happy with the result.


Don’t make the mistake of imagining that creative work is somehow immune to commercial expectations. It isn’t–as the marketplace will ultimately demonstrate every time. Once you start taking money for your work, you enter a new economy and have to be willing to accept the responsibilities that come with it. You need to make things that are both a gift to the world and something that the market will reward.

You can’t rush art, they say? Well, of course you can. That’s the only way art ever gets made.

Jeff Goins is a writer who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his family. He is the author of the national best seller The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffGoins and subscribe to his weekly newsletter with tips on business and creativity.