Shop Talk

How (and When) to Say No to Creative Work that’s Not Right for You

This post was inspired by Charles Webb’s recent work on Accepting Rejection, which if you haven’t read it, check it out.

It evolved in opposition to dealing with rejection: which is the sometimes appropriate need to say no to creative work that doesn’t quite suit you anymore. We all have to pay bills and I’ve lived in houses with artists that literally included an open fireplace with wood pulled off a nearby train track to heat it over winter, so I understand that we all need to be able to heat ourselves in winter and feed ourselves every day. There’s a focus on making this happen in many creative communities (online and IRL) that address this concern. I’m interested in what I see as the next step, when you’re paying the bills, but still saying “yes” manically to remotely-creative jobs in the hopes of further cementing a career in this difficult, unreliable field.

There comes a time when it’s important to pull-back, and curate yourself and your artwork a little more, and part of this, (I think), is saying no more often to jobs that you don’t really, truly need anymore. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, because you will have to make a judgement call about your capabilities and in effect, you’re backing yourself by saying no to jobs that are beneath you. You’re betting on your own odds, which is amazing and exhilarating and scary as heck.

Perhaps you’ve been trained at school, or via mentors to say “yes” at every creative opportunity, which in the early days can be great, but there’s also a weird clash that occurs when you have that choice to say no. It can be quite strange and weird and a bit like you’re painting up a ladder. Precarious.

I spent a day asking a range of professional artists, writers and designers for some tried and true tips on how to knock back jobs you’ve been asked to do politely without pissing everyone involved off. Here are the bare-bones, practical tips.

"how about no." by thebiscuitgirl

1. Say no quickly

Reply to emails or phone calls quickly. It is 150% more frustrating if someone asks you to do a three day design job, and you take 7 days to reply to their email. It stalls their search for a designer, slows everything down, and they might not ask again.

2. Be realistic about what you can do, and communicate that

If you’ve been asked to photograph an event or exhibition, communicate the nitty gritty details like how many photographs you can produce, etc. Get crazy-specific about what you can achieve, and if it’s not going to be a good fit, that’s a polite way out for everyone.

3. Be very, very nice about it

I feel kind of ridiculous writing this, because it seems like common sense – but it’s nice to be nice to people, and everyone I spoke to re-iterated this. Be very polite and thank people for their interest and for thinking of you. It’s completely appropriate to express that you may be interested in working with them again (if you want to), and don’t be scared to write a follow up email in a few weeks to keep the lines of communication open.

4. Don’t say more than you have to

If someone is asking you to do an entry-ish-level creative job, it’s okay to give them a one sentence reason why it won’t work at the current time. Don’t explain the life story of your sick puppy with hip problems/collapsed ceiling or elongated personal story. It’s alright. Keep the focus on work, and remember it’s okay to not give away all of yourself and your life when you’re essentially writing a polite no.

"How About No" by pantskat-vantas

When to say no to jobs you probably don’t really need

Here’s a list of some ideas of when you should say no, in the hopes that we can all look at the makeup of our own artistic fabric and say no to things we should have said no to a long time ago. Was it really important to shoot a friend-of-a-friend’s engagement photos for $25 and a sandwich? Maybe? But probably not.

  1. When there’s no money
  2. When someone throws things at you
  3. When common decency seems to be a quaint afterthought
  4. When your artwork gets tested on animals
  5. When people swear at you
  6. When you won’t get any credit for your work
  7. When you’ll get paid very little but your ideas will be plagiarized or featured heavily
  8. When it’s no fun anymore
  9. When you are belittled
  10. When your co-workers go from charming Mad Men-esque drinkers to full-blown alcoholics
  11. When a “two day job” turns into a one month marathon
  12. When nobody is really, actually in charge
  13. When everybody thinks they are in charge
  14. When your client/boss/manager doesn’t seem to be in the same space-time continuum as you for a plethora of personal, psychiatric, or spiritual reasons
  15. When skills are required that you don’t quite have, and the person hiring you thinks you “probably might” have them
  16. When you will be working for a cult (no, seriously though, don’t)

"bob" by vinpez

When did you know it was time to say no on creative creative jobs that didn’t suite your talent and skill level? What have your experiences been like? Let’s hear about them in the comments below.