This is something I’ve found myself saying over and over to coaching clients in the past few weeks.
For some of them, it’s because they’re being challenged to reinvent themselves in the face of the pandemic. They have been forbidden to do their normal work, such as making a live action film, or performing on stage, or running workshops, or exhibiting in galleries.
So they are having to come up with something new, in some cases because the survival of their business depends on it.
It’s a massive and unexpected and unwelcome challenge – but I’ve been hugely impressed by the way they have risen to the task, with courage and creativity, and delighted for the successes they’ve achieved with their new ways of working.
If any of us had a choice in the matter, we would wish this pandemic had never happened. With people dying every day, everything else pales into insignificance.
Radiating out from the epicentre, the economic fallout is also severe, and just beginning. I would never wish on anyone the fear and pain of having their livelihood under threat.
And it’s also true that we can grow stronger by overcoming a challenge, and it’s only natural for us to look for the silver lining to such a vast and dark cloud.
Because the suspension of the normal rules of society is also opening up possibilities that weren’t there before.
Several clients have told me they are grateful for not having to get on airplanes or go out to meetings or hustle for new business. They can stay at home and focus on their creative work and they are getting a hell of a lot done.
Day by day, they experience the fulfilment of moving forward on a long-cherished dream. And they have the satisfaction of knowing that by creating this new work, they are laying a foundation for their future success.
Another unspoken rule that has changed recently is that failure is no longer personal. If you’re the owner of a business that is forbidden to trade, or an employee of one of these companies, then your livelihood is under threat through no fault or action of your own.
So don’t be too proud to ask for help – whether in financial terms from any government support, or in emotional or practical terms from friends and colleagues.
And when it comes to the arts and the creative industries, the suspension of the usual rules gets curioser and curioser, as Alice would say.
Back in Season 2 of The 21st Century Creative podcast I invited you to ‘play the game you want to play’. Because every creative industry or art world has its unspoken rules, that govern success.
So for instance, the artists who achieve the most fame and critical reputation, and whose works are sold for the highest fees, are generally not found selling their work on Etsy or their own website.
Their work is typically sold via high end galleries, or to private collectors. And any artist who aspires to reach this market needs to understand how this world works, and play by its rules.
And of course many artists choose not to play this game – they would rather have the control and freedom to create and publish and sell their work themselves, without worrying what the in-crowd think.
So my advice to clients is always to ‘play the game you want to play’ whether that means pursuing gallery representation, or a record deal, or a book publishing contract, or doing it yourself, attracting an audience and selling direct.
And until recently, the rules of the game were fairly well established. And if you chose to ignore them, bend them or subvert them, there was always a risk of consequences for your career.
But right now many of these rules are suspended – they don’t necessarily apply. Which means you’re free to experiment and try something new – after all, you have the perfect excuse!
If you see yourself as a ‘gallery artist’ but your gallery is closed, and you’re curious about expanding your online presence and selling your work direct to buyers, then maybe now could be the perfect time to experiment with Instagram or offer a selection of work for sale on your website.
If your business is delivering workshops or coaching or consulting in-person, then you may find your clients are far more receptive to the idea of working with you remotely.
If you’re a performer or speaker used to the thrill of connecting with a live audience, you could relieve a lot of frustration and unleash your creativity in a new arena by making video or audio recordings and sharing them with your audience.
And remember that the normal rules are currently suspended – they haven’t necessarily vanished altogether. Right now we don’t know what the new normal will be like. Lots of things will probably go back to the way they were before, but many of them won’t.
Which means we’re currently living in a period of uncertainty, which is also a window of creative opportunity. It’s possible to do things differently, as a ‘pandemic project’, without being restricted by the usual rules.
And no one expects it to be perfect. We’re all experimenting, all improvising. If you try and fail, so what? A few months ago our situation would have sounded like science fiction. So no one expects perfection.
Plus, there’s none of the usual pressure to follow through and keep doing it forever. In normal times, the received wisdom is that if you start a podcast or a workshop series or a YouTube channel or a blog or whatever, then you should be prepared to produce it regularly, to maintain momentum and build a reputation through consistency.
So your lockdown experiment doesn’t necessarily represent the future of your career. Maybe you’ll want to go back to normality as soon as you can. But maybe your experiment will lead to new discoveries and new options that will open up possibilities for your future.
So whatever you’re having to do to deal with the current situation, find a little time to stop and ask yourself:
What rules are currently suspended in your creative field?
What new options does this open up for you?
If you decide to give yourself permission to create a project with no regard for the usual rules, and no pressure to make it perfect or to do it for long, what can you come up with?
In my case, I did something a little different with a new poem I wrote, about lockdown, by recording it and publishing the text and audio on my poetry site, instead of submitting it to a magazine or competition.
Whenever I have a poem accepted by a magazine, it takes months before it is actually published. But this poem was about lockdown, and I really wanted people to read and hear it right now, when the experience is fresh for all of us. So I put it out there and sent it out to my email list, and was really heartened to hear from so many of you that it resonated with your own experience of lockdown.
The poem is called ‘Lockdown’, and I hope it resonates with your experience of this strange time.
You can hear an audio version of the article in this episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast, starting at 4’59”.