Forget the Career Ladder: Start Creating Assets

Upward pointing bar graph with coloured pencils for bars

When you follow a creative path, you won’t find any of the usual milestones of success.

Unlike your friends who enter traditional jobs, with clear routes to promotion, finely calibrated pay grades and impressive job titles, there is no ‘career ladder’ for people like you and me; no incremental markers to indicate your progress.

So if you compare yourself to them, it can be easy to feel left behind as they climb higher and higher, from promotion to promotion. It’s obvious to all the world that their career is ‘going somewhere’.

Meanwhile, what are you up to?

On bad days, as you wrestle with another project that stubbornly resists your efforts to turn it into a masterpiece, with no fancy job title, and no promotion or pay rise in prospect, it can feel like you’re going nowhere fast.

If it’s a really bad day, you may be on the receiving end of some well-intentioned sympathy from a friend or family member, asking if it isn’t time you got “a real job”.

(Never mind that the corporate career ladder is a lot shakier than it used to be, to the point where some people are starting to proclaim the end of jobs. That’s a story for another day.)

In his old age, W.H. Auden used to joke “If I’d entered the church, I’d be a bishop by now.” But he hadn’t and he wasn’t. He was a poet – revered by some, ignored by most.

And that was the key to his success. Because of the large body of amazing poetry he had written over his lifetime, opportunities and money came to him. If he had never written those poems, he’d have been just an eccentric old guy wandering the streets in his slippers.

On any given day, the world was not beating a path to his door, demanding another poem. He committed to his writing as a solitary pursuit. But as the years went by, he touched more and more people with his writing, and the world became more and more grateful for his contribution. By the time he died, he had achieved exponentially more than if he had pursued an incremental career like the church or the civil service.

So what can we learn from Auden’s example?

In the course of twenty years spent listening to creative professionals talk about their career aspirations and progress (or lack of it), I’ve noticed a consistent difference between those who are caught up in a perpetual struggle, and those who achieve external success, prosperity, and inner fulfilment.

The strugglers live from project to project, gig to gig. Each new project feels like starting afresh, from scratch. Each new client needs to be pitched and sold from scratch. They are always too busy or too skint to do the work they really want to do. It’s exhausting and demoralising.

The ones who prosper take a longer term approach. As well as living day-to-day, they carve out time to create assets that will make everything easier, more enjoyable, and more profitable in the future. As time goes by, they have more and more assets, and the effects start to multiply – to the point where they achieve exponentially more with their efforts than they had ever thought possible.

What’s an asset?

The word ‘asset’ comes from the Old French ‘asez’ (modern French ‘assez’) meaning ‘enough’.

In economic terms, it referred to an item of property regarded as valuable and available to meet debts and other financial commitments; if you had enough ‘assets’ (literally ‘enough enough’!) you were able to meet your obligations.

An asset can be owned by a person or a company; it can also be a person or a company – a more modern secondary definition of the word is ‘a thing or person of use or value’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

Accountants like to distinguish between tangible assets (physical property such as buildings and equipment) and intangible assets (virtual property such as copyrights, trademarks, franchises, software, stocks and bonds).

The relationship between assets and money can be very direct, as with a building (tangible asset) that can be sold for cash; or very indirect, as in the case of ‘goodwill’ associated with a business, which may be considered an intangible asset that will help to attract customers and income to the business in future.

A crucial feature of an asset is that it is acquired or created in the expectation of future reward.

A property developer buys property in the expectation of profiting from selling or renting it in future. An investor buys stocks in the expectation of future dividends. A company trademarks its name to protect its brand and the profits that flow from it. Publishers and studios acquire copyrights and trademarks in books and movies in order to generate revenue from them.

If an asset stops generating rewards, and starts costing you money to maintain it, it becomes a liability.

Now for the good news:

If you are a creator, you can create your own assets. Out of thin air. (Plus imagination and hard work.)

Some of these assets generate money directly – like a book, an artwork, a software app, or an album that can be sold.

Others create non-financial rewards, and/or generate money indirectly – like a YouTube channel, a podcast, a networking event or a blog.

If you look at your hosting fees and the time you devote to it, your podcast may look like a net loss on your accounts. But looking back over the past few years, you realise how many clients and projects, not to mention how much fun and friendship, have come to you because of the podcast.

Your avant-garde novel may not sell a million copies, but it may win you the respect of the discerning audience you are writing for, and connections, opportunities and money may flow from that.

So forget the career ladder; it wasn’t built for people like us. Instead, create the kind of assets that will bring you more creativity, connections, and emotional and financial buoyancy in the years ahead.

Types of creative asset

For our purposes here I will focus on what I call creative assets.

A creative asset is something you create yourself that (a) is worthwhile and satisfying in itself, and (b) will make life easier, more rewarding, more profitable and/or more fun in future.

As you can see from the list below, most creative assets are intangible; the obvious exceptions are physical artworks and artisanal works.

Types of creative asset:

  • Creative work – your signature asset; your portfolio of the work you are most proud of.
  • Social assets – your network; your audience
  • Reputation assets – your brand; association with prestigious brands (publishers, galleries, record labels etc); prizes and awards
  • Online assets – a website; a blog; a podcast; a mailing list; a social media profile
  • Intellectual property assets – the trademark associated with your brand; the copyright in your works
  • Systemic assets – a productivity system; a business model that generates value for your customers and your business.
  • Business assets – your product range; your company

It’s unlikely you will create all of the above assets; the kind of assets you create depend on your creative discipline and your definition of success.

Every true creator creates for love, first and foremost. So your portfolio of creative work should always be your top priority, and the asset you commit the most time to building.

In addition to that, the three main ways creatives measure their professional success are money, fame (public awareness), and reputation (within their artistic/professional community). Here are some of the most common assets that can help you attract each of these:

  • Money – product; business model; company
  • Fame – audience; website; blog; podcast; mailing list; social media; media appearances
  • Reputation – portfolio; publication by respected publishers; exhibition in prestigious venues; awards and prizes

Scaling assets for exponential results

Whatever path you take, it’s very unlikely that you will succeed by creating just one type of asset – you typical need different kinds of assets, working in combination, to bring you the results you want.

There are two ways you can scale your assets to produce outsize results:

A. Combining different types of asset

As I said, you’re unlikely to achieve exponential success with just one kind of asset. You’ll need at least one creative asset (something to sell) plus one social asset (a connection to customers); and very likely several more types of asset.

It’s great to write a great book, or make a great product. But without social assets (audience, brand, mailing list etc.) it’s hard to sell enough units to make the effort worthwhile.

If you’re great at your work, but terrified of appearing in public, you’ll decline opportunities to speak at conferences or be interviewed on podcasts. But if you invest in your communication skills, you’ll be in a position to embrace these opportunities, and reach more people, and everyone will benefit from that.

Creators who achieve truly extraordinary results have mastered the art of combining creative, social, reputational, systemic, business and intellectual property assets – to the point where it’s hard to tell where the effect of one asset begins and another ends.

B. More of the same type of asset

I once heard the phenomenally successful romance novelist Bella Andre give a talk, where she said she realised that a series of novels started to make serious money when there were at least five titles in the series … so she didn’t stop at five; her Sullivans series has 16 titles and counting.

You may not want to write 16 novels in a row, but when you achieve success with one kind of asset, it’s worth asking whether you can replicate that success.

Sometimes this is a matter of format – you may find it easier to sell prints of your artwork than the originals, so creating a system for creating high-quality reproductions of your work would be a highly valuable systemic asset for your business.

Some assets – such as a fiction series, TV drama, blog or podcast – have replication built into their format. They become more valuable the more books, seasons, posts or episodes you add.

The danger of ‘more of the same’ is boredom; you don’t want to feel you are just repeating yourself. But contrary to modern prejudice, a lot of creativity is about variation within an established form rather than reinventing the wheel each time – think of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Beethoven’s symphonies, the three-minute pop song and the twenty-minute Simpsons episode.


Here are a few examples of creators using different combinations of assets to achieve their ambitions:

The artist who creates a stellar body of creative work (creative asset), and who focuses on developing a network (social asset) among influential gallerists, artists, and other taste makers in the art world. This leads to prizes and exhibitions (reputation assets) in major galleries, which in turn attract wealthy buyers and lucrative commissions.

The artist who also creates a stellar body of creative work (creative asset), but who decides to go direct, attracting an audience (social asset) and building his mailing lists and social media profiles (online assets). This means he has ready buyers for every new artwork, and it is relatively easy for him to add new income streams via licensing deals (intellectual property assets), prints, books and other products based on his work (business assets).

The freelancer who spends time each week writing a blog (social asset) that showcases his work (creative asset), educates his fellow practitioners, and contributes to debate in his industry. Not only does the blog bring him new clients, it opens up interesting new opportunities, such as book deals, speaking opportunities, and products that he sells to his audience (business assets).

The thriller writer who steadily builds a back catalogue of popular books (creative asset). She chooses to self publish, in order to maximise her revenue and maintain control of her copyright (intellectual property asset). She builds a mailing list (online asset) that means each new book sells more copies than the one before it. As her audience (social asset) grows, it attracts the attention of publishers and other partners: she licences translation rights to foreign publishers, audiobook rights to other publishers and options her movie rights to a film studio (intellectual property assets).

The designer who creates a successful agency, doing stellar work, while investing time in developing the skills of her team of designers and fostering a strong culture and design ethos within the company. Not only does she produce great work (creative asset) and build a great brand (reputation asset), she creates a company capable of operating independently from her (business asset) – which means she can sell it when she’s ready to retire and/or move on to her next adventure.

These are just some of the possibilities – note that in each case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Exponential results rarely come from one asset operating in isolation; instead, they come from multiple kinds of asset – creative, social, intellectual property, business – combining in apparently magical ways to produce outsize results.

Your most valuable asset of all

Look in the mirror and you’ll see it.

Your ability to create begins and ends with you. So the quality – indeed the very existence – of all your other creative assets depend on you. Specifically, it depends on:

  • Your knowledge and skills
  • Your reservoir of life experience
  • Your character, courage and resilience
  • Your wisdom, empathy and generosity
  • Your being and presence

So the wisest and happiest of successful creatives make working on themselves their biggest priority.

They are constantly learning, and do not hesitate to invest in training and personal development.

They actively pursue new experiences – travelling to new places, meeting new people, exposing themselves to different environments.

They constantly test their courage with new challenges – physical, mental, emotional, creative and professional.

They treat every experience as a learning experience. To the point where even disasters can become worthwhile – as long as they take the opportunity to learn the lesson!

From the outside, some of this – climbing a mountain, travelling across Asia, running a marathon, learning a martial art, attending a silent retreat, writing poetry, or playing the violin during working hours – can look self-indulgent, or not strictly necessary from a business point of view.

But if you truly want to lead an extraordinary creative life, you need to be extraordinary and creative. So growing and developing yourself via this kind of adventure is not optional.

Your creativity is your security

This year of all years, you don’t need me to tell you what an unpredictable world we are living in. Uncertainty and insecurity abound. And that’s not going to change anytime soon.

If you’re depending on a job, or you don’t know where your next freelance gig is coming from, this can be a truly scary prospect. But the more assets you have, the more money, connections and opportunities will flow to you – and the easier it will be to ride out the storms ahead.

And the good news, as I said above, is that you can create the assets you want, out of thin air. The world of creative assets is a meritocracy – none of us are born with silver spoons in our mouths.

In other words, your creativity is your security. The more imaginative, innovative and persistent you are in creating valuable assets, the more secure you will be over the long term.

And there are no guarantees

So creating assets is the key to a fulfilling and prosperous future. It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

But what if nobody wants to read your novel? Or your product launch is a flop? Or no one wants to option your movie script? Or buy your art prints? Or listen to your album?

Well, that will suck.

And there’s no way to avoid it – there are no sure things when it comes to creativity. There’s always a risk that a particular project will fail. It’s entirely possible that a day will come when you’ll look back at your efforts to create various assets, and it will feel like a complete waste of time.

Note my choice of words: it may feel like a complete waste of time. But it won’t be.

Because even if you write a book and it fails, you still wrote a book. Many people are convinced they have a book “in them”. But most of them never get it out. So whatever the fate of this particular book, no one can take away the fact that you saw it through to the finish. And you learned a hell of a lot in the process.

Even if you create a product, or launch a business, and it’s a total financial disaster, you will have first-hand experience of what it takes to build and launch something from scratch. Like your novelist friend, you will learn a hell of a lot in the process.

Whatever your brand of failure, if you still have the appetite, what you learned will serve you well next time round. Your next project will be better than the last one. It may even be a success, in the terms that matter to you.

Look at the history of any great creator – in the arts, in business, or any other field – and you’ll likely find their early years littered with “failures”. Thomas Edison’s thousand unsuccessful attempts at making a lightbulb. Walt Disney’s multiple bankruptcies. Steven Pressfield’s drawers full of unpublishable novels. And so on.

The usual lesson we take from this – and it’s a good one – is that we should persist in the face of failure. I’d add the rider that those creative folks were aiming for the right kind of success – i.e. the exponential, game-changing, asset-creating kind.

Create time to create assets

So what does all of this mean for you on a Monday morning?

Assuming you’re not independently wealthy, you can’t afford to put all your eggs in the ‘asset creation’ basket. As we’ve seen, it’s too risky. Unless you are uncommonly lucky, it will take months, if not years, before you gain serious traction from the assets you create. Meanwhile you need to balance asset creation with meeting your shorter-term obligations.

In my book Productivity for Creative People, I talked about the four types of creative work:

  1. Ongoing — work you have to do every day, every week or every month.
  2. Events — work related to one-off events, or events that happen at longer intervals than a month, e.g. an annual conference.
  3. Backlogs — things you wish you’d done already, and need to catch up on.
  4. Asset creation — investing time in creating something that will generate ongoing value in the future.

In that book, I focused on helping you reduce overwhelm and manage your workload, so I didn’t tease out all the implications for your career. Here are some of them:

If you spend all your time on ongoing work, you will spend the rest of your career in an endless grind. Maybe you have the energy for this in your twenties, but believe me, by the time you reach your forties, it won’t be so appealing.

Events are exciting, and may well be some of the most memorable experiences of your career. And they can help you create assets – e.g. if you’re a performer then they form your track record; if you’re an entrepreneur, a product launch is critical to the product’s success. But as with ongoing work, there is a danger that you can spend your life working from event to event, with little to show at the end of it.

Clearing a backlog feels fantastic, and it’s well worth doing. But it will only get you to zero. It clears the decks and frees up your mental bandwidth for the next challenge, but it doesn’t move you forward in any significant way.

Asset creation is what truly moves you forward – creatively, personally, professionally, and financially.

So the most successful and fulfilled creatives are the ones who carve out time for asset creation.

In spite of the fact it’s never urgent in the world’s eyes.

In spite of the fact there are no guarantees.

In spite of the fact that there are always distractions and options for more instant gratification.

In spite of the fact that it will take time, grit, and more patience than you thought you had in you.

Twenty years ago, when I first started coaching creative professionals, I had a fairly limited repertoire of tools and ways to help them. But I put in the hours, invested in my training, learned from my mistakes, and kept coaching. On any given day, I didn’t necessarily feel I was making much progress. But looking back, I have to pinch myself when I realise how far I’ve come, both personally and professionally.

Ten years ago, when I started my first blog, plenty of people told me “I wish I had time to do things like that, but I’m just so busy”. I was busy too, but I made the time, by getting up early, because I saw the opportunity.

Now, some of those people are the ones who ask me how I manage to keep popping up on search engines, or how I get so many people to sign up for my mailing lists, or why my website sends me as many clients as I can handle, or how I get invited to speak at conferences on the other side of the world. And the answer is the same: I made the time, I wrote the blog, I learned from my mistakes. And it transformed my business in ways I could never have predicted.

Whenever I publish a new book, it’s great to receive congratulations and well wishes from friends and readers. Yet on any given day, when I stand up to write, there always seem to be plenty of other demands on my time and attention; it feels like the world wants me to do anything but write. And this is how it should be: it’s up to me to commit to my writing, in spite of the fact today’s words could be of interest to no one but me.

Last month, I was awarded third place in the Stephen Spender Prize – one of the major poetry prizes here in the UK – for a passage from my translation of a long poem by Chaucer. I was thrilled to receive the award, as a measure of recognition within my artistic field. Yet, in the two years I’ve been working on the translation, I’ve been on the verge of giving up several times – the poem was too long, the technical demands too difficult, the prospect of success too remote. But I kept going in spite of all that, because the project matters to me.

At this point in my career, I have many more assets than when I started. My life and business are a lot more rewarding now because of them. And the most rewarding thing of all is the satisfaction of creating something new. Something I own, that will help me for the rest of my career. Something I’m proud to point to and say “I made that”.

If you have created assets of your own, you’ll know that feeling. And if you haven’t yet, the sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll taste it … Here’s a framework to help you do that:

1. Take a little time to reflect on your professional ambitions, and the combination of money, fame and reputation that will help you achieve them.

2. Next, decide on the kind of assets that will help you achieve your ambitions. As well as your own personal inclinations, this may depend on the unspoken rules of your creative field.

3. Once you have done this, carve out time each week to start creating the assets that will help you get there. How much time? As much as you can afford – in terms of energy and time away from the things you do to pay the bills.

4. Start building one asset at a time. Only once you are up and running with one asset, should you consider starting another one. For example, get into a solid routine of producing art before you start blogging or sharing your art online.

5. When you start creating a new kind of asset, learn from the best people you can find in this field. Study their example. Read their books, articles, and interviews. If they teach, take their course. Keep asking yourself what elements of their mindset and skillset apply to your situation.

6. Don’t forget the one asset that underpins them all: yourself.

Keep doing all of this, keep learning from your mistakes, and maybe one day, you’ll permit yourself a quiet smile of satisfaction when a well-meaning relative asks why you can’t be more like your Cousin George who’s climbing so high in the fancy law firm.

You and your creative assets

Have you already created assets for your career or business? If so, how have they helped you?

What is your current balance between ongoing work, events, clearing backlogs and creating assets? Could you benefit from devoting more time to asset creation?

Look at the big picture of your career or business: what kind of asset will you benefit most from creating next?

Mark McGuinness is a poet and coach for creative professionals. His latest book is Productivity for Creative People.

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

Productivity for Creative People

Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. It’s an entire book. I love every bit of it, but especially the general confirmation of my being on the right track for the past few years.

    • Thanks Joel. Yes, this is something I’ve observed in experienced creatives, they pick up on the idea of asset creation without necessarily labelling it as such. Hopefully it’s a useful confirmation, or clarification.

  2. Yes! The asset building concept was definitely my biggest takeaway from your book on productivity for creative people; Mark 🙂 I agree that we often create assets without recognising them as such. Once we start to give them that label we automatically start thinking about how we can put them to work for us better. I’m going to download your article and consider it deeply!

  3. Well said, Mark. One thing I’ve learned this last year is to think of all the different ways assets might be used! Instead of just thinking “I’ve written and recorded a nice piece of music for a TV show”, I branch out and think “I’ve recorded a nice piece of music that could be used in a TV show, commercial, podcast, background music for a spa, etc etc.” Maybe I’m more of a marketer than I realized!

    • Yes that’s very true. We’re often so eager to create the next shiny new thing, we neglect to make the most of the assets we’ve already creative. Intellectual property in particular is amazingly elastic, if we’re clued up about the opportunities.

  4. Helen Scrase says:

    This is a magnificent article that has come just at the right time. Its so hard to keep believing and ride the insecurities of being creative as well as put up with pressure from others. I really like the idea of thinking in terms of assets especially when I do worry about my future so much. It’s so hard to stay focussed and confident in your abilities when you’re just a little dot in the crowd. If confidence is key, then I know I need some work. If perseverance is key, then at least I can acknowledge, I haven’t yet given up on my ideas. Thank you so much Mark, you’re an inspiration. My biggest feeling is that I just can’t so this alone. I may just have to buy the book! I will pass this article on to those I know could do with it too. A big Thank you!

  5. Thanks, Mark, for this article and your Pathfinder course which I have been following. It’s been really helpful. I notice you’re a fan of Auden. Me too, and this quote from your “Creative Blocks” piece was a great comfort to me:

    ʻWhy do you want to write poetry?ʼ If the young man answers, ʻI have important things I want to say,ʼ then he is not a poet. If he answers, ʻI like hanging around words listening to what they say,ʼ then maybe he is going to be a poet.(W.H. Auden)

    I think this is the same for visual artists. I’ve been struggling to know what to “say” and under pressure from an art world which seems to expect artists to say something “important” with their work. But really I just like “hanging around paint” and seeing what it can do. You (and WH Auden) have helped me to realise that this is ok, and persistence is the key. I have confidence that it will all come together in good time, and I love the work, so I keep on keeping on.

  6. Bonnie M. Benson says:

    Many thanks for a great article. And congrats on the 3rd place Stephen Spender Prize — literary translation is a tough art!

  7. Thank you for a great article. I need to be reminded regularly that I am part of the equation. I deal with chronic conditions that reduce my horizon and energy. Then I lose the big picture and momentum. Your article fills me with hope and renewal.

  8. Congratulations Mark! By example you lead.

  9. Thank you so much for this wonderful article. Timely and true. Congratulations on your prize.

  10. Congratulations for the Stephen Spender price. In the process struggling hard to find my creative way I always get so much optimism and help with your articles and books! And a big compliment for the way you use the English language to explain. People,like me, who are not from the UK or USA can follow and understand perfectly!:)

  11. Hi Mark
    Thank you so much for this article, it has come at the right time. After a year off in the fashion industry ( bar a couple of jobs here and there – maternity leave) I am back trying to get my carreer back on track. I have thought long and hard about where I want to be and I agree whole heartedly creativity is the key, right now I really NEED to feed my creativity and produce epic shoots. Very eager to get back and make it happen!!

    Thank you and congratulations on your prize
    Debsx

  12. Virginia Wygal says:

    Many, many thanks Mark for a wonderful article! The timing has been perfect as I try to figure out what my next step should be. Sometimes, as a creative, I get so caught up in the emotional aspect of following my dream that I forget the practicality of the process toward it. This has been a reminder that small steps toward a FUTURE payoff are equally important. I have read through Productivity and am now on the second read, this time taking notes! Thanks again!
    Virginia

  13. Hi Mark,
    Mark you mentioned the value of investing in one’s creativity as an asset as well as the many levels to consider how to market one’s self. You spoke of liabilities v. assets and the power and dangers of both. You’ve provided a wealth of information regarding internal and external value of one’s own identification regardless of one’s own comprehension!

  14. Congratulations on the Stephen Spender Prize! And many thanks for the great article, Mark. Couldn’t have come at a better time! I’ve been finding myself getting caught up in “busy work” and not focusing enough on creating a body of work for the long term. You’ve given me a lot to think on.

  15. Denise Brooks Hammond says:

    Congrats on your Stephen Spender Award and thank you for your creative insights. I see the creative journey working as moving in a spiral effect. We may feel as if we are going around in circles, but every learning opportunity moves the spiral upwards. I am undertaking a Masters of Professional Practice (creative writing) at the Sunshine Coast University QLD Australia. I am enjoying the collegial support of my peers and lecturers of the writing community. The networks available to keep me moving in the right direction and add to my motivation.
    As do your research and sharing of your work with us creative boffins whom often doubt our capabilities.
    Your comments regarding the utilisation of our personal skills, persistence at staying on track are pertinent. Our networks are certainly an asset too. They add to Social Capitol which is often undervalued. Yet they are in fact the most valuable resource in our human society.
    Thank you for publishing your encouragement to focus and keep at it, no matter what