Why Creators Need to Be Professionals

Lunchbox illustration from the cover of Turning Pro by Steven PressfieldIn the mid-nineties I made a decision to dedicate my career to helping creative professionals.

At the time I was working as a hypnotherapist in a fancy West End therapy clinic.

As well as the usual issues that bring people to hypnotherapy – stopping smoking, losing weight, fear of spiders/heights/snakes/success, anxiety, depression, and various types of addiction – a small proportion of clients seemed to belong in a different category.

They said things like this:

I’m a novelist. A publisher has paid me an advance to write a novel, which I’ve spent. But I haven’t written the novel. And the deadline is in two months…

Can you hypnotise me to get over my writer’s block?

Or this:

I’m an actor starring in a West End play. Every night, all eyes are on me, and I’m terrified. Some nights I feel myself shaking so much I’m sure everyone will notice. I’ve got away with it so far, but I’m terrified of losing it on stage, walking off and never coming back on again…

Can you hypnotise me get over my stage fright?

As well as writers and actors, I worked with designers, film directors, singers, artists, dancers, composers, architects, entrepreneurs and people engaged in all kinds of other weird and wonderful professions.

Because I’m a writer myself, I felt a natural affinity with these clients. We got on like a house on fire, and it wasn’t a coincidence that I did my best work with them. They were the ones who were most consistently thrilled at the end of our work together, and sent their friends along to see me.

So they were the people I decided to help.

Realising that most of them didn’t really need therapy, merely some help with the emotional labour involved in their work, I decided to set up a specialist coaching practice for creative professionals.

Not all professionals are professionals (yet)

Now on one level, ‘creative professional’ simply means somebody who does creative work for a living, or to a professional standard.

For some people, the phrase is a contradiction in terms: they see creativity as a childish, playful activity that has nothing to do with work, responsibility or professionalism. While there’s some truth in that idea, I find it’s more common among people with relatively boring jobs and a Romantic image of the artist’s way, than among actual artists and creators.

And there was something else about these clients that attracted me to them: a passion, even a fierceness, that drove them on in spite of the difficulty of their work, and the uncertainty, rejection, criticism, poverty and other obstacles that blocked their way. It was this quality that made it a privilege to work with them.

Sometimes the quality would be very highly developed – in an experienced pro, who’d been there, suffered that, faced it down and created consistently amazing work. They were still human, and still suffering, but there were fewer and fewer situations where they felt seriously out of their depth.

Others were relatively new to their chosen path, more prone to feeling overwhelmed by the challenges they faced, but with plenty of enthusiasm for the journey.

And others were still dithering, still hovering on the edges of committing to their life’s work, and still retreating into anxiety, complaints, addictions, and drama whenever things went wrong.

It wasn’t until a few years later, when I read Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art, that the word ‘professional’ took on a deeper meaning for me, very close to that indefinable quality I noticed in my coaching clients:

The moment an artist turns pro is as epochal as the birth of his first child. With one stroke, everything changes. I can state absolutely that the term of my life can be divided into two parts: before turning pro, and after.

To be clear: When I say professional, I don’t mean doctors and lawyers, those of “the professions.” I mean the Professional as an ideal. The professional in contrast to the amateur. Consider the differences.

The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps.

To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro it’s his vocation.

The amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time.

The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week.

(The War of Art)

Fast-forward to 2010 and I was lucky enough to meet Steve on the internet, and interview him about The War of Art. That interview and the follow-up have been two of the most popular posts I’ve ever published here on Lateral Action.

So my ears pricked up – and I knew yours would too – when I heard from Steve that he had written a follow-up to The War of Art, focusing on what it takes to turn pro, and called, appropriately enough, Turning Pro.

Turning pro is a decision. But it’s such a monumental, life-overturning decision (and one that is usually made only in the face of overwhelming fear) that the moment is frequently accompanied by powerful drama and emotion.

Often it’s something we’ve been avoiding for years, something we would never willingly face unless overwhelming events compelled us to.

Turning pro is like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 or the assassination of President Kennedy. We never forget where we were when it happened.

(Turning Pro)

Why we need to turn pro

Cover of Turning Pro by Steven PressfieldSo why is it so important for every aspiring creator to turn pro?

Because if you don’t, then you won’t have what it takes on those days – and trust me, there will be plenty of them – when you wonder why you’re doing this, and you’re tempted to give in to Resistance. Or to give up altogether.

You won’t aim high enough to produce truly outstanding work.

You won’t persist long enough, or work hard enough, to turn your vision into reality.

You won’t put up with the stresses, poverty, loneliness and disappointments of the journey.

You won’t have the strength to deal with the mind-bendingly difficult people and situations you’ll encounter along the way.

You won’t have the resilience to bounce back from inevitable rejection and criticism.

You won’t have the strength of mind to avoid the distractions of money, sex, fame, drugs, or whatever other temptations are strewn in your path.

You won’t have the satisfaction of knowing that you dedicated your life to doing the work that only you can do – and seeing the impact it has on others.

But if you turn pro, you can do all of this, and a lot more that you would never suspect.

It won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t happen quickly. But once you make the fundamental decision to turn pro, everything becomes a lot simpler.

Every time you are faced with a challenge, you know in your heart how an amateur would respond, and how a pro would respond – and it’s up to you which one you pick.

What happens when we turn pro is, we finally listen to that still, small voice inside our heads. At last we find the courage to identify the secret dream or love or bliss that we have known all along was our passion, our calling, our destiny.


Motorcycle maintenance.

Founding a clinic in the slums of Sao Paulo.

This, we acknowledge at last, is what we are most afraid of. This is what we know in our hearts we have to do.

(Turning Pro)

At 132 pages, Turning Pro is a fairly short book, and I’ve seen some people describe it as a quick read – which it is, but only in the sense that whisky is a quick drink. In both cases, you’re dealing with strong stuff, so it’s better to sip slowly and savour!

To learn more about turning pro and how to do it, you can pick up your copy of Turning Pro from Black Irish Books – Steve’s new publishing imprint. And if you haven’t yet subscribed to Steve’s blog, it’s one you definitely won’t want to miss.

Over to you

How do you relate to the concept of turning pro?

Do you remember an occasion when you made the decision to turn pro? What difference has it made?

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  1. I read Turning Pro as soon as it came out, and I agree that any creative professional (or aspiring creative professional) would do well to take the lessons to heart. What Pressfield describes is professionalism, I believe, in just about any field, whether one considers that field as creative or not.
    The reason I think the ideas in Turning Pro are particularly important is that there are so many voices pushing the exact opposite approach to creative work. That is, there are persistent voices urging creative people not to work seriously at craft, to do only what comes easily, not to subject work to a critical eye, not to develop a conceptual direction for work but rather just to see where ones efforts lead, and so forth.
    It is so valuable to listen to counsel from those who have achieved high quality creative results and interesting that so much advice comes from those who haven’t.
    I cannot remember when I turned pro. so in my case I do not remember such a watershed moment. I do remember almost thirty-five years ago when I saw something invariably done wrong and put myself forward to say “let me do it.” And I never turned back.

    • The reason I think the ideas in Turning Pro are particularly important is that there are so many voices pushing the exact opposite approach to creative work. That is, there are persistent voices urging creative people not to work seriously at craft, to do only what comes easily, not to subject work to a critical eye, not to develop a conceptual direction for work but rather just to see where ones efforts lead, and so forth.

      Amen to that. Those are the unglamorous bits that we skip at our peril.

      As Banksy put it:

      All artists are willing to suffer for their work. But why are so few prepared
      to learn to draw?

  2. My copy of “Turning Pro” is winging its way to me as I write. I read Steve’s blog regularly.

    And I think I haven’t turned yet.

    I feel like I know what I need to do. I ship my art despite living in poverty and the fact that said art is swallowed into a black hole almost before I launch it. I overcome Resistance (or at least, I see it, feel it, taste it, and *most* days overcome it) and get on.

    But I still think I haven’t turned pro quite yet. It’s not the empirical things, the letting stuff get in the way or the days I don’t produce. It’s the knowledge that I haven’t felt that click, the physical jolt I’ve experienced at other junctures of my life when I knew positively that I was crossing a bridge.

  3. I have forwarded this to my son, Tristan Tomaselli, a writer/graphic designer. I know from my own experience how difficult this road is but how much it is like needing to breathe or eat…has to be done! I have been at this art business for about 40 years. I still struggle but make headway every so often and it is enough to motivate me to continue! I’ve not made much money but I feel I’ve had a richer life than a lot of people I know who took the safe way, with steady but boring jobs. It was something I could never do and, while it’s been tough emotionally and financially at times, I’ve never beens sorry. And I agree with Banksy, getting your drawing skills honed is VERY IMPORTANT if you want to be a successful artist. When you know how to do something the right way it gives you freedom to take off with it, change it, distort it and really know what you’re doing.

    • I’ve not made much money but I feel I’ve had a richer life than a lot of people I know who took the safe way, with steady but boring jobs.

      There’s a point in the book (p.107) where Steve says something very similar. There’s a point we (hopefully) reach when we stop comparing ourselves to others and accept that, fundamentally, we made the right choice in committing to our path, in spite of all the trials and tribulations.

  4. Excellent post, Mark! Can’t wait to get my hands on Steven’s book. Thanks for letting me know about it.

    I’m a bit different in that I approached freelancing as a business first. It wasn’t born from a creative drive. I was in corporate sales and I wanted to quit my day job to go out on my own. First, I thought I’d buy or start a traditional brick-and-mortar business. But when I realized that I could write strong copy (and that I enjoyed the process), I decided to become a freelance copywriter.

    Because it was always a business first, professionalism was always paramount. That meant, among other things, meeting all deadlines, being a joy to work with, being clear in all my client communications, keeping up with the latest trends and approaches to doing the work, and so on.

    The downside of all this is that the creative aspect of what I do sometimes suffers. I write for the client, not for me. I give them what they want, even if I sometimes disagree with how they want to communicate their message.

    At the same time, the success I’ve enjoyed as a copywriter has enabled me to pursue other creative outlets. So I think that in the end this approach has served me well.

    • Thanks Ed, I think this book will definitely appeal to you.

      I think you’re describing a classic dilemma – what Hugh MacLeod calls the Sex v Cash theory – where we have to do thing A to pay the bills, but maybe thing B is where we have more creative freedom.

      Personally I love working with clients, and I also relish having poetry as a space where I write what the hell I like, regardless of anyone else. And going back the other way, I’d probably go mad if I tried to write poetry all day every day, so it’s great having the coaching and training to get me engaged with the rest of the world.