Hard Times – Part One: When There’s No Work…

I wanted to write a piece about enduring and overcoming “Hard Times”, but I didn’t want it all to be from my perspective, so I asked around for some input from friends and colleagues. The following shows my questions in bold, their responses in italics, and my thoughts in plain text. If it sounds like I’m giving advice, please feel free to ignore it. Take what is useful and leave the rest.

Part One – When there’s no work…


“Put the financial handbrake on and call around”


Limiting your outgoings during hard times is obviously a good idea. My favourite part of this advice is to “call around”. Don’t tweet, don’t facebook, don’t email – pick up the phone. In order of effectiveness, using the phone always comes first. Then email. Then social media. But sometimes when we are feeling the squeeze and work has gone quiet, the last thing we feel like doing is talking to other people. In my head I usually imagine that everyone else has a full diary and every job they are doing is a well-paid dream job, so why would they want to listen to me moaning about my situation? But I have to remind myself that we all need support, and the best way to find a solution to a problem is by asking for help. Pick up the phone. Do that first.


“A terrible spiral of self-doubt, self-loathing, worthlessness. Eventually hits a zen-like state or the drought ends. In the former, I carry on being ready but stop actively being terrified. In the latter, it’s like a huge burst of energy; like the sun has come out after a very long storm.”


This is such an honest response, and there is a lot of truth in it. When you are freelance, every job that comes in can feel like a validation of your whole self. By that logic, when there are no jobs coming in, it can feel like you are being rejected completely by the world. A little detachment can go a long way. When work comes in, I try to remember that it’s just my business that is being validated, not my whole being. Similarly, when the work goes quiet (again), it just means that I am on the other side of a repeating cycle. More work will come in, and then it will go quiet again. This is guaranteed. It is the reality of freelancing.


There is a very important phrase in the quote above: “carry on being ready”. When I am half an hour away from stage time, I try to be ready – dressed appropriately, gear set up, body warmed up. When I am three weeks away from my next job, I carry on being ready – make sure my gear is all working, my website is updated, business cards printed, showreel current; there are always things you can do to carry on being ready.


“This is a good time to research a new area or write.”


I once met a visual artist who painted during spring, summer and autumn, and every winter he researched a different artist. He would spend all winter reading biographies of that one artist, letters they wrote, doing studies of their artworks. We might not be in control of our work schedule in this way, but we can remember to use the quiet periods to listen to new music or read about the lives of other musicians and creators. One of the most interesting things about reading biographies of creative artists is learning about all the projects that didn’t happen. A boxer once told me “You train 100% because by the time you get in the ring, you’ll only remember 30% of your training.” The same applies to our creative endeavours. What makes it to the stage and what comes out of the studio is always only ever going to be a percentage of the original vision. Keep developing new ideas, keep working on new collaborations. Some of them won’t ever see the light of day, but that is not a problem unique only to you. It’s universal; but we still get to share 30% of our dreams with the world.


“I tend to put my energies into something musical that’s nothing to do with my work – even if it’s only for an hour or two a day, it helps.”


Putting your energies into something musical that has nothing to do with your regular work is a magical enterprise that will generate unexpected results. I highly recommend it. Investigating a different artform can also be very instructive, especially when you go back to your first art and realise how much you actually know already.


“Most importantly, if there is an end in sight to the fallow period it is important to rest and catch up with family and friends.  It may also be a good time to reacquaint oneself with oneself.”

If you’ve been working in the creative arts as a freelancer for more than five years, then it’s likely you have a capacity for very hard work and intense focus. You might not realise it, but you have probably also developed a will of iron, and an ability to withstand a lot of uncertainty and worry. This combination of intense hard work coupled with periods of deep “worrying” is guaranteed to induce exhaustion. Because there is usually no set rhythm to these cycles of productivity and “rest”, it can be very difficult to put in place a regular routine of self-care. In your professional life you have probably developed some very good techniques for being flexible and aware to the moment; remember to apply these skills to your personal, inner life as well.



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