I’ve been a fan of Alex Mathers and his Red Lemon Club blog for quite some time. The site provides really solid advice for freelance creatives of all kinds. Alex’s own speciality is illustration, a topic covered by his other site, Ape on the Moon – so he talks from experience – and of course this means all of his sites and products are extremely well designed.
Alex is releasing a new ebook today designed to demystify the latest social network from Google that hardly anyone seems to know how to use properly, Google+. The guide is designed specifically to help creative freelancers to attract new clients and simplify their online presence. As you can see from the below interview, he knows his stuff.
Please can you describe who you are and what you are up to at the moment?
I’m a London, UK-based self-taught illustrator and writer working on various illustration projects, including something for Wired magazine right now. I run a website called Red Lemon Club that aims to help other freelancers, entrepreneurs and creatives with going it alone, finding clients, doing business, and so on.
I’m about to make a move to Tokyo to experience things from a different perspective and can’t wait!
Did you always know what you wanted to do (creatively) or has it been a process of trial and error to get to the point you’re at now? If it’s the latter, how did you decide what to focus on?
Practically everything that I’ve ever done up until this point has been a result of trial and error, and gradual change. I like to try out new things but also make a point of sticking with something once I’ve started it, and allowing it to evolve over time, fine-tuning as I go.
I’ve stayed focused on particular things, like my illustrations, by always having a vision in mind of where I would like things to go. The thing is, that vision always changes slightly (but not dramatically), and that’s how things progress. When I first started illustrating, things looked a lot different to how they do now.
Yesterday I left the civil service after almost exactly 10 years to the day I started. You can read some background to this in one of the previous newsletters. Somewhat spookily, given this was my last day of repeating the same routine over and over again, this happened on Groundhog Day.
Another coincidence – on the way to work, I was listening to a playlist of 120 cheesy songs and ‘The Final Countdown’ by Europe came on just as I was approaching the building – at which point I started singing along at the top of my voice, obviously!
Man with a Plan or Unemployed Bum?
Because I voluntarily accepted redundancy, I will receive a decent lump sum. If I’m careful, I can survive on this for a year, even if I didn’t have any other money coming in.
My plan though, is to continue to work as a freelance copywriter, which is something I’ve been doing since I cut down my working week to four days at the beginning of 2011 – but now it will need to be on a much bigger scale because this time next year it will probably be my main source of income.
I also want to ramp up my blogging efforts again. The point of this blog was always to help other creative people find focus and achieve their potential – and I’ve only just scratched the surface so far.
Developing a new business as well as blogging is going to take a lot of focus and discipline, even though I’ll no longer be working a day job at the same time. Key to this is establishing productive habits and spending my days wisely.
I also want to ensure I have time for exercise and my own creative projects/experiments, whilst I have the luxury of being able to structure my own time.
Every Moment Counts
Every moment counts for me this year. It’s hugely important. But what’s new? I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t have done some legwork. I couldn’t have done this if I was heavily overdrawn or in credit card debt for example (I do have student loans but it was under the old system which means I can continue to defer them for the time being).
If I hadn’t already been paid for my writing and other work I might not have had the confidence to take the leap (even then it was a tough decision). My previous job, whilst it had it’s frustrations, did mean I got a lot of experience with digital media and marketing, and the fact I’ve been writing, blogging, using social media and producing audio and video content for many years is also a bonus.
Also worth pointing out is that over a year ago, on the advice of Jonathan Mead, I set a very specific goal: to ditch my day job by 31st March 2012. This was before I knew the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy would arise. In fact, I forgot that I had done this until I looked at my calendar for 2012 a few weeks ago, but the intention was always at the back of my mind – never underestimate the power of committing to clear and highly specific goals.
One of my leaving gifts
Everything you do is a step in either the right, or wrong direction to achieving what you really want out of life. That’s what this blog is really about. Whatever situation you’re in right now, it’s a good thing to remember. Of course we can also put too much pressure on ourselves – rest and relaxation, enjoying life and HAVING FUN has to be part of the plan too.
This is an important post for me, and I’d be really grateful if you would share it on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus or wherever you see fit using the handy buttons below.
But as you can see, when it comes to the second part of the process, Chris focuses on a number of categories in his life, e.g. business, health, writing, travel – and then selects 3-5 measurable goals for each. He then maps out the key actions needed to achieve those goals.
Depending on how many categories you have that are important to you, that all adds up to a lot of goals, and can quickly become overwhelming.
However whilst I admire his minimalist approach, and find it useful to an extent, most people are a bit more complex than that. We want to achieve our creative goals, but also have goals relating to health or family and can rarely just drop those whilst we completely focus on one thing.
Where I Am So Far
So I’m aiming to find a middle ground. I do have one main goal for the year – to establish a successful freelance writing business. By successful I mean that I want to be earning as much freelance by the end of 2012 as I do at my full-time job now – but I will also need to keep a strict limit on the amount of client work I do so that I have time for the creative, promotional and admin sides of the business too.
So that’s a pretty huge goal that is going to take precedence this year. I also want to develop some of my other skills to a more professional level such as video and audio production and InDesign etc so that I can offer additional services to writing in future.
I know that establishing regular habits are a key to the success of what I do, but I know from 2011’s morning routine fail that this is not something that comes easy to me. Therefore I’m going to stick to Leo’s suggestion to focus on one new, positive habit per month, and in January I’m going to follow the advice of Sarah J. Bray’s 90 Minute Workday post. If I have that habit in place for when I go full-time freelance on Feb 3rd I think it’ll be a great start.
I am still working on some goals for the other categories in my life as Chris suggests, but I’m still in the early stages of deciding what these are and I expect they will evolve over the next couple of months. I particularly want to work on improving my fitness this year, so in January I’m also going to avoid drinking for the most part which should free up time, energy and cash and enable me to really focus on what’s important.
What About You?
I think that’s enough goal-setting for now. I wanted to share how I’m getting on with this as I know a lot of people will be thinking about this kind of thing right now so I hope it was useful – and I’d love to hear what your main goals are for 2012 in the comments!
If you’re in Glasgow and around between 6 -7pm it would be great to see you (Roddy Woomble of Idlewild is playing a solo set afterwards if that helps persuade you!)
How I Stopped Worrying and Learnt to Love the Tech
I was actually quite slow to get the tech bug, for example I didn’t get a mobile phone until relatively late and I was fairly clueless when it came to computers until the last few years. My first ever blog post was in July 2005 so I was by no means an early adopter of blogging either , although 6 years is quite a long time now that I think about it.
Since I bought my Macbook a few years ago and then an iPhone, I’ve become a bit of a fan of Apple’s products, and I’ve also become quite a geek generally. For over a year I spent a fair chunk of each day reading blogs and trying out new web and mobile apps, and although my attention has now expanded to many other things, I still have a keen interest in modern technology, the internet and the latest gadgets (not that I can afford as many as I’d like).
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s essential to embrace technology if you want to further your creative goals – even if you’re not a blogger.
Note: If you do want other people to find your creative work having a blog is still the best way to get the word out and connect with people online. I may be preaching to the converted on this point though!
Technology Can Help You Go Pro
Obviously technology can help you with the actual act of creation – e.g. Michael Nobbs is now using an iPad for his drawings – and there are powerful programmes like Adobe Creative Suite which are used by designers, photographers and video editors. If you put the work in, these packages can allow you to present yourself in an extremely professional way, allowing you to compete with established creative pros when selling your work.
And whilst decent tech is certainly not cheap, these days you can create things on a reasonable well-powered laptop that would have been unimaginable less than a decade ago. The fact I can now film and edit HD video on my iPhone is mind-boggling to me, not just because I’m a lover of all things Apple and shiny, but because of what it allows me to do – film footage anywhere I am, and share it to the world via my blog.
Technology allows you to connect with the world
Using Skype, I’ve interviewed some of my favourite musicians like Bonnie Prince Billy and Regina Spektor, and received coaching and seminars on a variety of topics from people I like and admire from all over the world. I’ve made a bunch of friends on Twitter, and I can keep in touch with family and friends from all over the world on Facebook. I’m old enough to remember when NONE OF THIS WAS POSSIBLE. It wasn’t that long ago.
Hell even MySpace, which is now dead to me, was useful at the time. I remember when there was as much a buzz about it as there is now with Twitter. My music was appreciated by a few crazy people in different parts of the world, even though most people found it unlistenable tosh!
And I’m delighted to say a bunch of amazing creative people from all over the world read this blog. That’s one of the most exciting things about blogging for me.
Staying aware of the latest trends keeps you one step ahead
Now believe it or not, I’ve never been massively comfortable with bragging about myself. The beauty of blogging and social media means you don’t have to boast about what you’ve done, you just have to show the evidence and it will speak for itself. But on this occasion I’ll make an exception (didn’t take much persuading did it?) as I want to show you how being up to date with the latest trends can be of benefit.
Here’s some stuff I’ve achieved because I’ve embraced technology and the latest trends:
I’ve attracted paid freelance work due in part to my blogging and social media experience.
I was promoted to a digital engagement role at work thanks to my self -taught knowledge in the area.
I was asked to take part in a debate at St Andrew’s University with some very well respected and established journalists and academic figures, because I had written online about the future of journalism.
This weekend I reached 1,000 followers on Twitter for the first time – and it has happened organically just because I enjoy chatting to new people and finding out what they’re doing (and it’s helped that I’ve been on there for over two years).
I founded the I Hear a New World podcast for Scottish culture magazine The Skinny, which I hope helped in some way to raise the profile of some excellent but under-appreciated musicians.
And I”m not even a proper early adopter! There’s loads of people out there who are way ahead of me, but the fact is that by at least being aware of what’s going on in the world of technology, I can foresee trends and take advantage of them if I’m able to.
But Everyone’s a Blogger Nowadays
True, a lot of people have blogs these days, and not all of them are that great. But if you’re not in the game, you’re never going to win. Social networking sites aren’t going to cut it – look what’s happened to the aforementioned MySpace.
Writing for other publications is all very well but you need your own web ‘real estate’ if you want to get people to visit you and follow you over time. You need your own blog (preferably on WordPress) and you need to keep it up to date if you’re really serious about spreading your work to as many people as possible. Of course if you don’t want to to do that, then fair enough but if you’re reading this I’m guessing you probably do!
Just do yourself a favour – include a link so people can subscribe by RSS and email – and use Feedburner so that they can subscribe using their favoured feed reader without having to copy and paste the link. Okay, only obsessive blog readers like me might use RSS, but they’re exactly the people you want as long-term readers as they are more likely to share your stuff with other people.
Technology allows you to teach yourself pretty much anything
This might be the biggie. You can pretty much learn anything you want in terms of creative skills with the information that’s now readily available online.
Personally my first port of call is always books, and I now read a combination of print books and ebooks, either via my Kindle or downloaded directly from the website of the author. You can find info for free on pretty much anything if youre willing to take the time, and there are also a bunch of useful info products and subscription services which will distill this infiormation into an easy to follow guide and even provide it in audio and video formats (though you do need to be somewhat cautious about which of these you invest in).
YES, TECHNOLOGY CAN BE A PAIN IN THE ARSE.
Technology is never perfect, and I have to admit I do get frustrated sometimes when trying to use technology but that’s mainly because I either haven’t taken the time to learn something properly or am trying to do too much too quickly, without proper preparation.
And of course being online all the time does have it’s disadvantages and can be hugely distracting and that’s something we all need to learn how to deal with if we’re to stay sane and clear-minded.
What’s worse, environmentally and ethically there are a huge amount of issues with the sourcing of components and the disposal of obsolete tech.
But it’s hard not to see the positive sides. technology and the internet levels the playing field (at least it does for the time being) and allows anyone who’s got a creative urge to set up a website and get their work out there.
Of course the amount of effort and time involved in doing that is not to be underestimated, but I think it’s fair to say that technology currently gives creative people an opportunity that even 15 years ago would have been unimaginable. Who knows how long it might last? Get on board while you can.
There are lots of blogs which encourage people to give up their jobs and live a fancy-free ‘location independent’ lifestyle but it’s not that easy for everyone and often there’s a lot of planning that needs to happen before that transition can be made.
Why I Won’t Apologise for Having a Day Job
I thought long and hard about whether to start this blog before I had achieved my ultimate aim of being a full-time freelance writer or working in some other line of work that could be defined as ‘creative’. After all, although my current job actually does involve some creativity as I’m working in digital communications, the nature of working in the civil service means that bureaucracy will always trump creativity on a day to day basis.
But over the last ten years I’ve achieved quite a bit creatively alongside my full-time job, whether it’s writing for local magazines and blogging, doing my own radio show and podcast or playing my own songs live. Each thing I’ve done I’ve enjoyed for its own sake, even if there weren’t financial rewards.
Time is more valuable than money
In the latest step in my mission to becoming a Clear-Minded Creative, I’ve recently requested to cut back my hours at work so from next month I’ll be working four days a week instead of five. I’m hoping that this will give me some extra time to write and also to teach myself some new skills. Of course it’s also going to have a financial impact and I’m going to have to be much more frugal than before.
It’s not as dramatic a decision as someone like Nicola from The Redundancy Experiment who has taken voluntary redundancy in order to set up a freelance copywriting business. But I feel like it’s a real step in the right direction. Whilst I’ll still be able to cover my essential costs like my mortgage and bills, I’ll be losing a substantial chunk of the disposable income I’ve come to rely on. This will hopefully give me the extra kick up the arse I need to find some paid writing work rather than working for others for free which I’ve done too much in the past.
“it finally dawned on me that it didn’t matter how much money I was being paid, or what kind of environment I was in, it was still me coming to work: depressed, sarcastic, adolescent me. I realised if anything was going to change, it had to start with me.”
She takes the reader through a process of reframing your negative thoughts and seeing things in a new positive light, suggesting making a list of all the things your job provides for you. So rather than saying “it allows me to pay the rent/mortgage” you instead focus on the concrete benefits, e.g. “it allows me to live in a flat with a telly and broadband internet access, it allows me to have a decent social life, be a member of a gym” etc. From this exercise you can realise that you’re not a victim or ‘wage-slave’, you are actually getting some serious benefits from having a job.
So despite my recent decision to cut back my hours, not everyone has to give up their job or go part-time to fit creativity in. In her book Pierre suggests a few small creative projects you can fit in around work, and I’m sure you have your own suggestions and experiences doing this too.
Tips on Finding Extra Time & Fitting In Creative Projects
“I’ve been getting a lot of good work done on the bus and train, lately. Things like editing the previous day’s pages or working on plans and outlines – the boring tasks that quickly mount up. Generally, if you can organise things so you can keep tasks small, you can cram creative bursts in to the most unlikely places. Technology and connectivity does help, so you don’t get yourself tied up in knots with having different versions in different places (still not quite mastered that one fully, yet).
Rory the Roar-Quacker by Blythe Robertson
I’ve also been working on dialogue sections and have found it REALLY useful. I don’t mean from eavesdropping purposes (although that can sometimes be hilarious) but from the point of view of being able to reference how convincing your dialogue is against the different accents and cadences you here from snippets of conversation.”
You can see some of the results over at Blythe’s blog (as you can see, he is very much a man of letters). He also drew the wonderful illustration of Rory the Roar-Quacker you can see here.
“My tip is aimed at people taking photographs and is an idea that resulted from a challenge I set myself just t’other day. To beat procrastination over what photographs you should make or which project to do next set yourself a quick topic and aim to get thirty pictures in thirty minutes. It will force you to look hard and look fast and think quickly about what you’re doing.
Think about subjects near and dear to you or things that you wouldn’t dream of tackling. My first project was discarded xmas trees on the murky streets of Edinburgh. The outcome should be thirty pictures that wouldn’t cause you great shame if they were stuck up on a wall with your name beside them.”
He’s even just set up a brand new Flickr group for anyone who wants to take part in his challenge.
What do you think? Are you able to fit creativity around a full-time job or are you looking for a job that allows you to be creative full-time? Share your experiences in the comments.
Image: I Think I'm Starting to Crack by Nina Matthews Photography
Hello and welcome to The Clear-Minded Creative, thanks for stopping by
I’ll be posting new content here every week starting from January 2011. But before we start, you probably want to know what the blog is all about – well if you answer yes to any of the following questions then this is probably the blog for you.
Confused about what you want to do with your life?
Desperate to be more creative, but struggle to find the time?
Forever trying new things but never spending enough time on one thing to get really good at it?
Unable to find a job that you enjoy and truly motivates you?
Stuck in a destructive loop of procrastination and “analysis paralysis” as you flounder from one day to the next in a drunken, confused haze?
The Ditch the Day Job Video Diaries are 20 video diaries I have filmed since I took voluntary redundancy in February 2012 – after ten years working in the Scottish civil service.
The videos also feature footage from a couple of adventures I went on to meet other bloggers and self-employed people from around the world and get their perspectives, including the World Domination Summit in Portland and a trip to Oslo.