Over the past few years I’ve had a lot of folks asking me for advice on starting a nonprofit, starting a gallery, or getting their own pursuit (whatever it may be) off the ground. I give whatever advice I'm able to for their particular situation... but have always felt torn between wanting to help excited people (young and old) with their project and having my own stacked schedule. I hope this next series of posts help remedy that at least a bit.
There are a ton of articles and books about how to start a business, how to run a nonprofit, etc. I read many of these books as I went through the process. Some of the most valuable lessons I had to learn weren’t found in those pages but in my own struggles.
So, as I begin this next blog series, I wanted to make "sanity guide" first. Without further delay, here are ten suggestions or keeping your sanity while pursuing your dream.
Suggestion# 1 - Start with what you love.
Sounds obvious, right? Not so much. I’ve had friends that go into a field or business venture hoping to turnover quick cash (mistake #1, if we're starting a secondary list) and within a month or two, they are noticeably tired and spent.
I’m going to throw out a random guess that 99% of businesses started are NOT profitable in their first year. Some businesses, not in their second year. Some, not in their third. Starting a business (or organization) takes time, dedication, and often tons and tons of labor for which one may or may not be compensated for.
If you aren’t doing what you love, that will *suck.*
There will inevitably be late nights. There will inevitably be frustrations with city and/or government and/or getting things in motion. There will be setbacks. If you’re not doing something your passionate about, it’s going to make all of the struggles that much harder. When I hit the wall, it was still, beautiful moments at the gallery that reminded me why I was pushing myself and why it was worth it to TRY HARDER. It worked.
(I'd like to be... a lion tamer!)
So start with what YOU like to do. Do you have a passion for gardening and find that you’re good at it? Start there. Some people don’t like the idea of turning their hobby into what they do for a living or making “work” out of it because then it ceases to be as much fun. Seriously? Some people really do enjoy their work, and even if you “lose a hobby” you’ll find more hobbies, I promise. This way at least you’re filtering away all the work you don’t like and replacing it with work you DO like.
Suggestion#2 - Surround yourself with people that are both positive and practical.
When the “still, beautiful” moments weren’t fulfillment enough for me, I had very, very good friends that were excellent sounding boards for ideas, voices of reason when I needed a clear picture, and incredibly encouraging at the times I needed them the most. Before we had volunteers at the gallery, it was my friends that helped me clean, paint, hang, and feel good about the work I was doing (even if it seemed unrealistic to somebody else.)
While sometimes “devil’s advocates” can be helpful, surrounding yourself with too much negativity can squash your momentum and your spirit. I’m not saying “ditch your negative friends” - but kind of.
Is there anybody in your life that discourages you more than they encourage you? Turn to folks that are positive and practical (and not just me.:) ). But here’s my positive and practical advice for you: It IS possible to bring your creative ideas into fruition, no matter how offbeat you think they might be. It may require tons of hard work, it will require dedication and perseverance, but it’s completely possible and ultimately rewarding.
(Ae board = positive and practical, but also hug-able.)
Suggestion# 3 - Be willing to accept and share ideas
There was a time at the gallery when I was very stubborn about the “creative process.” Some people say this is justified - I was crafting the initial space and identity, after all. But the more I opened up to others, the more I learned the more I had a lot to learn, and the better the ideas became.
An example: I used to select the exhibitions all on my own. As the board grew, we began to bring ideas and select shows as a group. We gave each other feedback on themes and descriptions. The shows became more complex and sophisticated, and the burden of work was shared across a greater number of people.
Suggestion # 4 - Don’t be personally hurt when somebody craps all over what you’re doing.
It’s going to happen. Especially with the arrival of the internet, there’s no shortage to jerkies and their jerky opinions. The jerks may even be your own family. (::gasp:: but aren’t families supposed to be totally and unconditionally supportive?)
I’ll quote Jim Hightower on this one - “Don’t let the folks that say it can’t be done get in the way of the folks that are doin’ it!”
‘Nuff said! You can’t please everybody no matter how hard you try. Naysayers and downtalkers will be inevitable. Besides, you’re doing what *you* love - not what they love, right? Don’t be hurt and mostly -don’t let it stop you!
(So far, so good!)
Suggestion# 5 - Strive to improve
That being said... you’re not perfect.. If you get a bad review, don’t write it off and just assume the critic is just a jerk.
Altered Esthetics is by no means perfect, and we operate as a learning organization. After each show or event, we ask ourselves “what worked,” “what didn’t,” and take “notes for next time.” Many of the systems we’ve implemented are in order to make artists’ experiences better and better, as much as financial constraints allow. I’ve carried that concept with me to other areas also.
Things in the world that have been totally perfected are few and far between. Especially when it comes to nonprofits, even when you’ve got your services down - the community your serving will be aging, evolving, changing. Always looking for weak areas and ways to improve will avoid potential hardships.
What are your weak areas? As you grow your organization or idea, surround yourself with people that complement (not compliment) you, rather than duplicate you. One of my mentors once told me “great leaders aren’t people that can do everything - great leaders know their weaknesses well and put in place people that can make their team complete.”
Be okay with mistakes. What are your weaknesses? (And don’t say “I work too hard!” - this isn’t an interview.) Are there people you know that don’t seem to struggle with these things (or have overcome or compensated for them in other ways?) Learn from them.
Suggestion # 6 - Don’t ignore the books
It’s easy to go from “not a lot of activity” to “holy cow, where did all these receipts come from?” to “HOLY $#!&, I owe how much in taxes?”
My advice? Start tracking everything and saving receipts from the beginning, and I mean EVERYTHING. - Mileage - Chunks of the phone bill - Supplies - Meals and coffee consumed during meetings etc etc.
(I heart crunchy calculators almost as much as i heart spreadsheets.)
There are a number of benefits to this. You’ll be able to write of a significant chunk of these expenses come tax time. Once push comes to shove, you can even monitor your lost wages; in any case you’ll know how much you are ACTUALLY spending on your endeavor - and whether or not it’s worth it.
For artists and musicians, my friends at Fox Tax Service have an awesome planner to help track expenses.
This rule pertains not just to the financial books - but the research also. Never has tons of information been so readily accessible. Find it, filter out the crap, and use it to your advantage. Let somebody else make the mistakes first.
Suggestion #7 - Be transparent and helpful.
“Today a lot of products are created that don’t solve a need — instead, they create a new one. Forget it. Help people.” - Georgina Laidlaw, Daily Blog World.
I really think in helping people more often than not, you help yourself also. Be honest with the work you are doing. (Rule #6 helps with that quite a bit.) Share information. Be transparent. I have learned far more from teaching others and being willing to share information than I ever would have by hoarding it. ---------
Suggestion# 8 - Think long term as well as short term
This is a cliche, but it’s sooooo true. Doon’t forgeeeet the big picture! When you're on the dancefloor, imagine the view from the balcony - and vice verse... (it's all about the context.)
(and don't freak out too much if a few pieces are missing)
Suggestion# 9 - Be organized in whatever way that makes sense to you
I know some people that couldn’t survive without their PDA. I would probably be lost without pen and paper. I am a listmaker and probably always will be! I can do online checklists and do so when I’m training, but they don’t quite fill me with the joy pen and paper does. I tried google tasks, GotMilk, and a few other computerized lists that just don’t do it for me. I carry a little notebook with me all the time to obsessively write down thoughts, ideas, and lists.
Ae is another story. We rely heavily on the wiki we’ve implemented, as well as googledocs and other sharable documents to keep us organized and on track.
Point being: it’s not one size fits all. As projects come and go, during busy times my brain hits a go-mode where I switch into over-ride and rely heavily on my lists and previous planning to get to the next phase.
Stay under-whelmed as much as possible by organizing in a way that you understand and can continue. Find the right fit for you and the right fit for your organization - just stay organized. Does your brain process information better while you’re drinking coffee at a coffee shop, or in a quiet office? Do computers distract you? There are way too many other factors in play to worry about using a system you hate.
Suggestion# 10 - Keep balanced.
(balance = a thing I cannot do in heels...)
If you take anything away from this list, take away this one.
Find a good balance that’s a healthy fit for you and the people in your life you rely on. This isn’t always easy to establish or maintain, but it’s so incredibly important.
My fiance is a musician and we’re both “busy” people, in a generic sense. We love being active and have a lot of hobbies and passions. When I began graduate school we began to plan “date nights” and trips to the cabin more regularly. Even though we saw each other every day, it gave us something to look forward to and helped pull us away from the day-to-day distractions. When he began touring, we made it a point to plan our own trips also for those same reasons, and because it allowed us to reconnect after spending time apart. Sometimes the decisions to work less and hang out more weren’t the easiest decisions to make financially - but they were the best decisions for our relationship without question.
Speaking of balance, for the past 7 years or so I’ve also lived without television. It’s not that I’m totally disconnected - I watch a few shows and certain movies through Hulu or Netflix, and get more than I want of sports and news at the bar in a more social environment. What getting rid of television did for me specifically was break the habit of coming home, turning on the TV, and watching nothing “in the background” for hours on end. This is not small beans. Most of my friends and family give me a hard time about being “so busy” - but I really feel as though I’ve simply replaced one hobby (television) with several other more interactive, arguably more productive ones. (running a nonprofit, interacting on facebook, blogging.) I used to think most people underestimated just how much time they really spend watching television - and a recent study confirmed that suspicion.
“The Nielsen Co.'s "Three Screen Report" -- referring to televisions, computers and cellphones -- for the fourth quarter said the average American now watches more than 151 hours of TV a month. That's about five hours a day and an all-time high, up 3.6% from the 145 or so hours Americans reportedly watched in the same period last year.”
That’s a lot of freaking television - and wayyyyy less time than I currently spend on any Ae related activity, even in a busy week. This also isn’t just about avoiding the advertisements - goodness knows there are still advertisements on the internet. It’s about knowing my weaknesses and having more control over how exactly my time is sucked away.
For me, it’s the whole “rocks, pebbles and sand” principle, and maybe you’ve already got that balance. For me, removing the things in life I didn’t need and replacing it with things that were more fulfilling took a bit of fine tuning.
(and you know you can trust my advice!)
So, that about swrpums it up. My guide to keeping your sanity while pursuing your dream.
- Start with what you love.
- Surround yourself with people that are both positive and practical.
- Be willing to accept and share ideas
- Don’t let it slow you down too much if somebody craps all over what you’re doing
- Strive to improve
- Don’t ignore the books
- Be transparent and helpful.
- Think long term as well as short term
- Be organized in whatever way makes sense to you
- Keep balanced
In my next post I'll be talking about first steps - getting ready to put the wheels in motion. But first - I know there’s lots of knowledge out there, and I'm curious. If you had to add anything to this list, what would it be?