In previous blogs in this series, I’ve advocated a shift towards more short-term rather than long-term thinking. This blog expands on that idea, with approach of keeping lots of irons in the fire.
This won’t necessarily be a popular approach — many will advocate for more single-mindedness and clarity of purpose. But what I’m about to suggest doesn’t necessarily prevent his clarity of purpose either. I’m not suggesting a directionless, take anything that comes approach. I’m more suggesting that, as long as you know your rough direction of travel, it is worth keeping open-minded and your options open.
It’s also worth noting that I’m speaking from my experience as a freelance theatre director and facilitator — though I think this outlook can be equally applicable for most freelancers or small company owners.
As we progress in our careers, there’s a tendency to lock ourselves into a way of work or a type of work that we do. At the start, we’re more prepared to experiment, to explore and to grow. We’re also more prepared to fail and to improve. Quite quickly, however, the period of self and business development stops, and we try to settle into fixed ways of operating. I think this happens for a number of reasons: knowing what’s worked in the past; fear of getting things wrong; more knowledge of how others operate and not wanting to appear out of touch or wrong. Whatever the reason for it, we tend to narrow our focus and our approach.
Now, why is that a problem? When things are going well, it isn’t. But when things start to become to go wrong or we become restless, it leaves us with very limited scope. We box ourselves into one way of operating, if that fails, it’s very difficult to adapt and change.
In the arts this is very often the case. To take an extreme example, if you put all your focus and energy into one big project. A project akin to ones you have successfully delivered multiple times before. On previous occasions, you have received a helpful Arts Council England grant in order to complete the project, but this year you fail to get the funding. Suddenly, the whole thing comes crashing down. You have to postpone, reschedule, reapply etc etc and before you know it, that’s a year gone before the project can be attempted again.
If, by contrast, you had multiple, smaller projects on the go at the same time, you’ve spread the risk much thinner. If you’re working with many different partners, who all have their own funding applications in, then the likelihood is that a few of them will get funding and you’ll have paid work to do.
If, at the same time, you’re running workshops, applying for the odd part-time job that utilises your key skills (maybe in a completely different sector), and writing to companies and venues that might need your skills, then your chances of something coming off are massively increased.
Now, this sounds like an awful lot of work — and, to some extent, it is. But it also helpfully reduces the stakes on each project. If you put all the pressure on one or two projects to succeed, every element of that project takes a long time because it has to be perfect. Whereas, if you go into each project with an acceptance that it might not come off and you’re just going to do the best you can, then you’ll get far more work done. Perfectionism is your worst enemy. It paralyses action and doesn’t necessarily make the end product any better.
To take an example of this, the job or workshop applications that I knock out really quickly and honestly, without overthinking or trying to be word perfect, are invariably my most successful. The same goes for letters I write to directors I admire.
So, I say, embrace spreading yourself thin. Make this a virtue. To add multiple metaphors, throw the net wide and see what you catch. It will take the pressure off. You’ll be energised by how many potential projects you have on the go, and you’ll get more work done by removing the barrier of perfectionism. Keep adding those irons to the fire.