When times are tough, you can find new opportunities by describing your skill set and the value you offer a different way.
We’ve all fallen into the same trap at one time or another—when things get tough and work seems to dry up, you say to yourself “I should have chosen a different career.”
You don’t need to change what you do, just the way you communicate it.
Regardless of your discipline, there will always be only so much work to go around. Sure, connections and contacts make a big difference, but you can also find new opportunities by expanding the context in which you work. And let’s face it—developing a new context in which to tell your story is easier than developing a new career.
If I could distill my career down to two underlying quotes, it would be Jackson Pollock’s statement, “New needs need new techniques,” and my Grandfather’s advice to “Work hard with what you’ve got.” Both play equal roles here.
Work always requires new techniques as times and needs change in terms of skills and capabilities. Contextualizing and communicating the value you offer with what you do needs to change as well.
If you are a reader of my blog or follower of my work, there’s a pretty good chance you’re in the creative industries. We’re a resilient and resourceful group, sure, but also a rather insular group vs the rest of the world. We have to realize there is such an expanse of offerings and skills out there that re-contextualizing and repurposing your offering is now part of the survival game. Thinking differently about how the economy of creativity and the larger economic world integrates is key to be able to find new opportunities.
There are simple title swaps many already use: writers talk about being communication specialists; artists as visual experts; designers as real-world problem solvers, and so on. You can still be a writer, artist, and designer, but you can’t communicate it that way if you want to break out of the constraints of opportunity each discipline carries with it.
When I begin to communicate a new project, I choose the words used very carefully. Words like creative, culture, design all carry a weight that need to be factored in.
No one will say they do or don’t like a song because they’re not a musician or don’t know much about music, but people often refuse to share an opinion about architecture, design, or art, because they are not an architect, designer or artist, and therefore “don’t know anything about” the field. Rephrasing and creating a new context for what you do also creates a more open and receptive field of understanding for others that allows wider engagement and uptake of your offering.
If I’m doing a public project in a city, I immediately ask the team and those we work with in the city to think of the team as a “public office” tasked with improving the public experience of the city. “Public experience” is something everyone gets.
The office worker in the coffee shop, the Mom dropping her kids off at school—everyone has a different take on what the public experience should be, but hearing that someone is looking after the public experience is broad enough to get under even the most cynical radars. Whether it is public art, urban design, cultural programming, whatever the offering, reframing it as improving the public experience changes the dialogue in a valuable way.
It is also important to reframe where your services are operating in the lives of people or the life of the city and the path towards an improved future. Whatever the existing state of an individual, community, or the city is, and whatever the desired future is, the middle point in time is where the project plays.
Wherever you are in the system, a municipal employee, architect, agency, commissioner, artist—whatever role you serve, you are playing in the middle tier, a transition between past and future.
I’ll close with the second quote that has motivated me through the years: “Work hard with what you’ve got.” We all have unique skills, and many have some serious skills that I’m envious of. Working hard with what was at hand worked well for our ancestors to get through tough times. It’s no different today—we need to work hard with what we’ve got. What we’ve got are our skills—communicating them in a new way is the hard work we have to do.
So begin talking about providing a service in a new way; perhaps one that creates a fulcrum point between the present and the future—regardless of your discipline. Your role is to create a line that divides before and after in the public experience of the city, or the before and after moments in the lives of anyone you are working with and for. You’ll find new opportunities by being the catalyst for a better future.
Sure, it borders on the hyperbolic. But humble pitches don’t win commissions.
To learn a lot more about the power of conditional thinking, my latest book This Could: How Two Words Can Create Opportunity in an Era of Limited Resources will be of interest.
Header Image: circle chart by ProSymbols from the Noun Project