Friday, June 15, 2018

Fan Creator Pulse Check: Are You Still Okay?

When you're your own boss or working on projects solely for the fun of it, it can be easy to lose track of how your time and effort are being used and what you're getting back for it. Even if you're doing creative work gratis and for the fun of it, you are still tapping into commodities like time, energy, and brain power to make it happen.

There's nothing wrong with doing a "passion project" or a free gig if it's something you really love and really want to be a part of. You are the one who decides not only what you're worth, but what's worth it to you.

That said, sometimes our desire or willingness to do something can blind us to just how much we'll be giving of ourselves, either at the beginning or over time. And just because something is solid at the start doesn't meant it will remain that way. Similarly, something being feasible for one person doesn't mean it's feasible for another.

Whether you throw in on fun work, passion projects, "exposure" projects, or what have you is your decision. But you owe it to yourself to check in on where you are every once in a while and make sure that the passion hasn't become a drain.

This isn't an exact chart. It's simply what I do now, about once a week, looking over anything that isn't a contractual, bill-paying deal. (Though it's good to check in on that, too.) Finding yourself giving a less than positive answer on any of these isn't necessarily a sign to throw in the towel. But it is a sign that you might need to have a talk with yourself or whoever it is you work "for."

Solo Projects

These are projects that start and end with you. You answer to no one. If you put down your tools tonight and decide not to pick them up tomorrow, the project will end.

-- Why did you start this project? If to achieve a certain goal, is it still realistically achievable? If for fun, is it still fun?

-- How reliant on outside response is your satisfaction with this project? If you were to suddenly receive no interaction on it, would you still enjoy it? If you feel you are not receiving satisfactory engagement on it right now, can you quantify what "satisfactory" would be?

-- Does this project help you learn? Are you continuing to get practice and pick up new skills as you continue with it, or has your creative growth reached a plateau in this particular area?

-- Have you ever risked another area of your life for this project (sleep, paying work, communicating with friends and family)? If so, is there a way to rework your schedule so that it can fit into your life and vice-versa?

-- If you have a communicative fan base, has their interaction affected you positively? This doesn't necessarily mean that every encounter is positive, but does it average out to being more positive than negative overall?

-- How much of your work is out of desire, and how much is out of routine? Are you sticking to it because you're accustomed to sticking to it, or because you find the project fulfilling?

-- Imagine quitting right now. Weigh your immediate gut reactions. Are they about yourself or other people? Do you feel a sense of relief or disappointment?

-- Now do the opposite. Answer this question with the first thing that comes to mind: "I don't want to quit right now because..." Are you the focus of your answer? Is something else? Is someone else? Is the focus of the answer something you know for a fact, or a hypothetical?


These are projects that involve more than one person, but still a relatively small group, all doing equal amounts of work and bringing something that is inherently theirs to the table. If one of the members were to quit, the project would either end completely or be significantly different. Depending on how you answer these questions on your own, you may want to go to your partner for a cross-check, to see if there are any issues you can resolve rather than deciding to quit entirely.

-- First off, is this truly a collaboration? Is every party involved doing an equal amount of work, holding each other to equal levels of accountability, and cutting each other equal amounts of slack? If not, or if you are unsure, skip to the next set of questions.

-- How often do you and your collaborator(s) talk about the concept of the project? That is, how often do you talk not about what needs doing, but rather how you feel about as a whole? Do you keep regular tabs with each other on how everyone's doing as part of the project, as more than just content creators?

-- Do you dread the idea of working on the project on a regular basis, more than just an occasional desire to take it easy or get past a difficult bit in your work? Or do you notice your collaborator(s) doing the same?

-- Imagine you need to put the project on hold for a week because of an illness, job/school commitment, or a vacation. How would your collaborator(s) react? Would they be understanding? Would they only be understanding in certain cases? Now flip the script: how would you react if your collaborator(s) wanted some time off?

-- Is there any hidden income? That is, is one of you benefiting more than another? This could be by way of money, notoriety, or any other "bonus."

Unpaid Employment/Volunteering

These are projects in which you are not a collaborator or decision-maker, but rather are bringing your skill set to a larger team. Situations like this may be charities or non-profits, conventions, doing spec work for a creative circle, etc. You may get "perks" but you do not receive a salary. Quitting the project would be about the same as giving notice on a job.

-- Do you have the whole story? While not everyone is entitled to every piece of information in a work environment, transparency in business dealings -- especially unpaid business dealings -- is important. Are you confident you are well-versed in the workings of the group you're working in?

-- Do you have control of your schedule? While committing to an unpaid job isn't clearance to slack or ghost, unpaid workers deserve final say over how their time is used. Ask yourself: would you be expected to drop everything for this gig while doing a day job, spending time with family, or practicing self-care? If you're uncertain, what does your gut tell you?

-- What do you receive from this gig that you cannot get anywhere else? Friendship? Experience? Education? The ability to give back to the community? A platform to make a change that you wouldn't have anywhere else? And are you still in a position where doing your work does not conflict with that?

-- Have you been promised anything? Eventual pay, better opportunities, or the like? This could also be vague non-promises, such as "someday we hope to" or "if we do well we're looking to" statements. Are you working towards a "maybe," a "yes," or content to be where you are without an end goal?

Overall Concerns

These apply to one or more of the above situations -- they're also good things to check in with when it comes to paid work, freelancing, or anything you devote a lot of time and energy to.

1. Are you stuck on a sunk cost? Note that a lot of my questions above ask you to check in on why you're still here, how you'd feel about quitting, and how you would at this moment justify not quitting. The concept of "sunk cost" refers to the human tendency to stick with things that we've invested in, be it financially or emotionally. And it means that, even if something we're doing isn't delivering (or is potentially affecting us negatively), it's harder to give up the longer we've been at it.

2. Are you happy with how you're conducting yourself? Engaging in any project of any size, with any number of people (including just ourselves), will affect our emotions and our personality. A good and fulfilling project with good people can bring out the best in us; a toxic or draining atmosphere can literally make us ill. Check in on how you feel physically, mentally, and socially. Note highs and lows. 

3. Can you work through the dry spells? Notice that one thing that never shows up on this list is the idea of projects "feeling like work." They are work, and once in a while we'll just wish we could do nothing. An occasional bout of "this is hard and I don't wanna" isn't a deal-breaker; anything that takes effort will hit us that way sometimes. Rather, ask yourself how well you survive those times, how long they last, and how readily you come out the other side of them.

4. Have things changed? This is a big one. Probably the biggest one. Something that gave us joy last year or last month may not offer that now. We may have found something that is more fulfilling, and sticking to the old project prevents us from exploring this new avenue. The people we work with or the scenes we work in may have changed. Or we may have. A very smart lady in my networking group talks about "inevitable growth," and it's true that as we explore our options, we will change. Sometimes checking in on our projects isn't a matter of divesting ourselves of something negative, but rather realizing it's time for the next thing.

As I mentioned before, a "negative" answer to any of these isn't a deal-breaker or a sign to give up, necessarily. It's more the beginning of a talking point with ourselves. Say you're doing a solo project and you realize that your main motivation for working on something regularly is that it's become habit. Knowing this, your next step could be a realization that you have no other motivation besides that habit, and you may drop it and move on to the next thing. Or you might change it up... take the project off its strict schedule and work on it when you feel inspired, or transmute it in some other way so that it doesn't become a grind.

What this all boils down to is: things change. People change. You will change. You will want new things, you will want to explore new avenues, you'll want to avoid old ones. And if you are giving of your time, energy, and experience for free, you deserve the space and the right to re-examine these elements. And often.

If the scenario you're in doesn't want you re-examining these elements... well, that's another thing to bear in mind.

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