Advice — Into the unknown: Ten creatives on working through times of uncertainty

Posted 27 May 2020 Written by Lecture in Progress

Over the past few months, we’ve become all too familiar with a “strange and uncertain” state of play. But if the human mind is conditioned to fear and avoid the unknown, how can we best find our footing in it? We wanted to dive deep into this feeling and find out how others have embraced it; so we’ve called upon ten brilliant creatives to tell us what they’ve learnt from times of uncertainty. From navigating the 2008 recession and staff cuts, to a major health scare, here they describe how these experiences have become valuable life lessons.

Working through economic uncertainty

Tarik Fontenelle: Turmoil can present opportunity
Chief research officer at ON ROAD, Tarik is very much a “child of the recession”. He tells us about the moment he saw a line of people waiting to be fired and how it completely changed his perspective as a junior.

A moment of uncertainty for me was when I began working in the creative industry at the exact moment the credit crisis hit, in 2008. At the time, I was bunking off of college to work for a small consultancy I had helped to set up a few months before. I was fresh and ready to start my career, and then…cue the crash. I will never forget the line of people preparing to be fired in the office.

I took many lessons home with me that day. First, that I am definitely a child of the recession, so to speak. Secondly, times of great turmoil can also be times of great opportunity: when I started ON ROAD it was with the idea of helping businesses navigate disruptive times just like the credit crisis or the Covid-19 pandemic. Lots of businesses, ideas and opportunities emerged from the last economic catastrophe and I think we can expect the same from this one.

Ben Steers: “It drove me to succeed”
Creative director and co-founder of Fiasco Design, Ben looks back on the tumultuous 2008 credit crunch that left him working in various call centres and making next to nothing.

Internships weren’t really encouraged by my university, so the importance of getting real-world experience under your belt before graduating was never communicated. When I graduated in 2008 the recession hit; the job market went flat as a pancake and unemployment was the highest in 20 years. I spent about a year working in various call centres, doing mind-numbing work for eight hours a day, making peanuts.

When we eventually set up Fiasco, the time I had spent working in these places really drove me to succeed. I never wanted to go back to that. I’d like to say that there was some grand five-year plan, but there wasn’t. It was started out of necessity. We went in with nothing and thought, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ It’s amazing how far hard work and commitment will get you.

Ross Middleham: Attitude is everything
Content and social lead at the Met Office, Ross was once called into a meeting and told he’d have to fight for his position in the company. He tells us how he turned a destabilising moment around.

The trickiest spell for me came after I’d been with the Met Office for a few years. Unexpectedly we were called in to a room by the management team and told that headcount had to be reduced. That had a direct impact on the design studio, as we’d have to halve our team and all reapply for our jobs. Being the last to join, I feared I would be first to leave. It was a real shock.

The one thing that sticks in my mind from this moment, is that I listened to myself. Don’t wait for someone to tell you what you want to hear. I gave it my all – I wanted to make it as difficult as possible for the panel to not choose me. Attitude is everything, always remember that.

Taking the leap into freelance life

Ines Alpha: Change as a moment of realisation
3D makeup artist Ines spent years working as an art director in advertising, until a health scare forced her to reassess her priorities and take a leap into new, unfamiliar territory.

I worked for an advertising agency for seven years as an art director, [but] my ultimate dream was to make something special, on my own accord. One day I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and spent two weeks in hospital. It was a real shock. However, it made me realise I had to change something in my life. Once I left the hospital, I quit my job and started doing 3D makeup experiments. Luckily we have a good unemployment benefit system in France, which bought me some time to experiment and up my skill set.

Eventually, my community on Instagram began to grow, I started getting interviewed by magazines, and the commissions began to trickle in. When I got my first paid job I thought, “Ok, I haven’t done all of that for nothing.” You’re never really sure how long it’s going to work out for, but you’ve got to take the risk. My advice on facing the unknown would be to take the risk of doing what you love, never work for free and build up your resilience for tough situations.

Joy Yamusangie: Perseverance, self-belief and odd jobs
Before their career as an artist picked up, Joy knew that change was coming, and the only way to embrace it was to quit a job in retail and face the change head-on.

I’d been in my retail job for three years, and at that point, I began to think about leaving. I was curious about going freelance full-time, but the fear of failure, financial instability and the unknown was overwhelming. After a lot of thought and research into self-employment, I handed in my notice.

At first it was extremely difficult – I had no commissioned work and I didn’t know when that would change, so I picked up the odd job to keep me steady. Through this transition I learned to have patience, perseverance and to keep believing in myself.

Aniefiok Ekpoudom: Everything is a process
Aniefiok, or Neef, is a freelance writer, researcher and strategist. He took the plunge and quit his full-time job to go freelance. Having decided to go ahead and trust his work, he tells us his story.

I left my full-time job to go freelance on a whim. I felt like my career was starting to stagnate and I knew the direction I wanted to take my life in – to tell stories and work with publications and agencies. However, the gap between where I was and where I wanted to be felt huge. My journey didn’t happen in the way I had planned, or in the timeframe I had hoped. Careers are long roads; you need to try and blend patience with positive action.

For those wanting to do the same: be ambitious, but don’t put pressure on yourself for things to happen straight away. Everything is a process. Try and make small and incremental steps, every day. Rely on structure; this gives you the kind of consistent discipline that sheer will power can’t. Those small steps will eventually lead you to that big vision you have.

Alice Pomfret: Embrace the unknown but prep your finances
For magazine and book designer Alice, the unknown is a familiar part of freelance life. Having found herself in a sticky situation abroad, she recommends protecting your finances first and foremost.

Weirdly, I feel comfortable with the unknown. Often as a freelancer you can never predict your next steps, so you can never really feel settled. Most recently, I experienced the unknown when I left my job. I moved halfway across the country to focus on my magazine and freelance work full-time. Quite dramatic, right?

Back in October, I remember being stuck in Malta with about £2 to my name. All of my invoices were overdue and I didn't have any savings to fall back on. It was at that moment I learnt how important being in control of your finances was. You need to know when and how you're going to get your next invoice, what you have lined up, and if you don’t have any work, how long you can last without a cash injection. Since then, all of my invoices get paid into one account and I essentially pay myself a monthly wage – regardless of how much work I’ve taken on that month. Also, don’t forget to put some money aside for the taxman!

Switching career lanes

Mairi Claire Bowser: It’s a chance to work in another sector
Freelance set decorator Mairi Claire was attracted to the film industry for its spontaneity. She sees this current period as a chance to set her mind to something new.

The unknown is what attracted me to the film industry in the first place – not knowing what projects I’d be working on, who I’d be working with, or where I’d be. So in a strange way, Covid-19 has given me more certainty on the latter two. I’m at home with my lovely cat – and that’s not too terrible a thing.

I’m in a fortunate position where I have an MSc in environmental management, so I will be looking to move into a full-time role in environmental work until we have a clearer idea of what the film industry will look like, and in what respect I would want to be a part of it. It’s daunting to not know where my next pay cheque will come from, but I also see it as an opportunity to move towards something different, possibly in a different sector.

I’ve learnt not to hold onto expectations of what something should look like, or be. Even in a dire situation like the one we’re all in, there is a lot to be thankful for and learn. It’s important to tune into your instincts, recognise what makes you happy, what skills you have to offer, and then help people by offering those skills.

Chrystal King: Things always find a way of working out
Now a product designer at Depop, Chrystal started out in architecture but knew it wasn’t a good fit. She describes how she went from having no idea what to do next, to landing on the right path.

While completing my architecture degree, my dream was to live and work in Paris, and eventually I moved there to work for an architecture firm. But once I was there, I realised it wasn’t for me. After my contract ended I moved back to the UK, knowing I needed to change the direction of my career. I wanted to do something creative, but I didn’t know what. I began trying different things but I was constantly rejected – I even received a rejection email on my birthday!

During that time I built up my faith with God, and that gave me peace that everything would work itself out. Not long after, I broke into the world of UX and UI design. Remember to exhaust all the practical steps, stay positive and have faith. Things always find a way of working out in the end.

Finding a new sense of balance

Jasmin Sehra: Take things at your own pace
Just when things were picking up for illustrator, Jasmin, the effects of Covid-19 meant her commissions took a deep dive. She tells us what it’s taught her about her approach to productivity.

This, currently, is a period of the unknown. I’ve honestly never been in a situation where I’ve felt more alone as a freelancer, with almost all my jobs having been cancelled – especially when things started to gain real momentum.

I’ve learnt to be mindful with my time by spending it doing other things that I enjoy like exercising, cooking, creating, unwinding with a movie or some games; anything to keep my mind refreshed. It's important to take things at your own pace. I’ve found that social media, although inspiring and often a great space to share your work, can be quite mentally detrimental.

I think the one thing you can’t do is stay stagnant, but that’s not to say never rest. It’s a weird period for all, and I’m continuously learning to balance rest and work.

...

This article features many of the talented creatives we were due to include in the Lecture in Progress spring 2020 newspaper. The entire edition was set to be themed around ‘Navigating the Unknown’, but was unfortunately paused due to lockdown. However, we’re thrilled to still be able to champion these stories at a time when the theme is more pertinent than ever.

Posted 27 May 2020 Written by Lecture in Progress
Illustration: Camille Soulat
Collection: Advice
Mentions: Aniefiok Ekpoudom, ON ROAD, Ben Steers, Ines Alpha, Joy Miessi, Alice Pomfret, Mairi Claire Bowser, Depop, Ross Middleham, Jasmin Kaur Sehra

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