If You Don’t Play, You Can’t Win

Kristofer Salfert

YYou don’t become inspired if you don’t do anything.
Speaking for myself (and likely other creatives), we all have this itch that we need to scratch by bringing something to life which a moment prior only existed in our mere imagination.

This spring I attended Design Thinkers in Vancouver. One of the speakers was Debbie Millman, speaking on ‘The Power of Self-Generated Projects’ and the benefits she’s garnered from them, resulting in her ultimate career trajectory and success. Her message resonated with me completely, as if she was speaking my own words that I profess to myself, and others – the only difference is, she’s famous, and I’m not (yet).

She gave me the confidence to share my own experiences and advice as it relates to the same topic - how prioritizing self-driven projects can make a creative happier overall and sharpen the axe for your ability to create novelty in your work, ultimately resulting in benefits for yourself, your clients, and employer.

Pursuing Happiness

For me, being creative has been a lifelong passion since I was old enough to hold a tool to draw and scribble. Like many, I gravitated towards drawing, painting, and any form of art as a child and throughout my early school years. My choice of career always revolved around being creative - it was never a question. From aspiring car designer, to architect, to eventual graphic designer, each of my potential career paths shared the common goal of putting something out into the world that formerly did not exist and taking pride in making something from nothing.

Well before I completed my extended education and throughout my career, I have always had ‘side hustles’. Unapologetic, relentlessly ambitious ideas that need no permission to begin, other than gusto to ‘go for it’. My largest pursuit was a clothing brand that I started after high school, and I still take pleasure in crafting and utilizing material as an outlet for creativity and experimentation to this day. My second endeavor was creating my own periodical, where I curated interviews and printed actual magazines to leave all around the city for free. All the while I continue more therapeutic and traditional past times today, such as oil painting and woodworking.

I’m self-aware enough to know that when I have slower moments, where no personal projects are on the go, I find I’m worse for myself and those around me. I’m a grump. I’m not creatively fresh. I don’t feel energized.

The mental benefit and increase in my mood, as well as the heightened productivity and proficiency at work, is directly correlated to the exploration of my personal pursuits. I continuously need to bring my creations into reality to sustain my sanity and my joy. The benefit of having no client brief with no rules other than your own childlike wonder, with limitless exploration and no boundaries, creates an abundance of joy. With side projects, the importance is power in the freedom of not having to make it a livelihood. You just get to make things for you that sooth your soul and hopefully create a trickle effect into other parts of your life.

Sharpening The Axe

Creative fatigue is only natural in our industry. Sometimes it’s hard to communicate to others who aren’t creative that ideas don’t just turn on like a faucet. Some days you sit at your desk before the problem to solve and no ideas come, and other days it’s so organic and fluid that you can’t turn off all your excitement and wonder and you feel like a crazy person. It’s something I think about a lot – how do we harness and further create an ongoing inspiration source within ourselves?

A lot of that wonder at an early age is so ripe for the picking because you can do anything you want when it’s non-objective. Once you’re solving objective problems, you’re no longer creating for yourself - you’re creating for a specific audience. The margin for error increases, while decreasing the personal connection to the creative. You learn how to compartmentalize and disconnect from the outcome – becoming a steward of the brand, rather than fulfilling personal desires.

With that said, I have found that in periods of my career when I am not doing anything for myself outside of the core hours of work, I have less creative energy. I more closely connect to the outcome of what a client approves, and I feel more intimately the invisible corporate shackles for creating only what is feasible within budget or a client's goals.

Maybe not everyone feels this same way, but in my experience, maintaining fun and exploration creatively outside of work frees me from relying on client work during the day to feed my soul and nurture my passion for creativity. I feel it’s dangerous to do so and makes you more tense. Being tense doesn’t create fluid work – being open to the outcome does. By not waiting for permission to unleash all the unbridled creativity I have within me - which cannot always manifest itself within the confines of client work - I’m more motivated, I’m more excited, and I’m more inventive in the approaches and solutions I find myself coming to because I’m fostering a mind that continues to act like the kid who started drawing and wasn’t told what to do. Creativity doesn’t stop at 5pm - it needs to be stimulated like a heartbeat.

Be Your Own Magic

Never wait to do what you want to do. Be relentless and don’t wait for someone to grant you access to the table.

Through my personal pursuits, I’ve ultimately gained invaluable experience I would not have gained so readily had I waited for my career growth to grant me permission to do so, or for the opportunities with a client to present itself.

For example: from learning what to do and not to do in starting a business, I learned how to work with vendors and meet deadlines, how to do my own PR and grow courage in approaching and pitching ideas to strangers and networking with peers, and how to throw events and planning the logistics - the list goes on.

You have the ability to continue being creative and fearlessly ambitious, just as you were as a kid. Don’t let people tell you no – find another opening to have fun in and keep your head in the clouds. Results don’t matter when it’s just for fun. There are no limitations on your personal time, and it no longer matters what your seniority or role at a company is. Your naivety in a given creative field you want to explore is your gift, and you make the rules for how you want your creative experiences to go outside of the confines of work. Get out there and gain the experience you want, big or small, that most importantly is fun for you and fills your cup. This continues to make you an infectious beacon for creativity to all those that you work with on a daily basis, helping you reach your goals faster due to the inspiration by which you continue to exist within and curate within yourself.

As you need, I suggest you continue to recalibrate back to your north star of why you became a creative in the first place through the pursuit of your most joyful projects and ideas. By working on your own projects, the goal and suggestion is not to ‘make it’ with a side hustle or to pour more time and effort into your personal work than elsewhere. It is rather to be intentional as a reminder to us who are creative to continue being curious and excited for how great it is to get to do what we get to do, and to continue in striving to be our best and most inspired, making the child within us proud. Never settle your desire for wanting to discover more.

Go for it!


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