Do You Need to Shed Limiting Beliefs to Find Success as an Artist?

I’m continuing my sass from my last post. If you read my last blog post about avoiding expensive masterclass cons, then you know I have beef with this concept.

TLDR: No.

Have you heard any creative influencer on social media preach the guru type self-help that your limiting beliefs are blocking your potential? That if you just shed yourself of “but I can’t succeed at this” and “I don’t believe I can make money as an artist” thoughts that you will find success? That money will flow toward you almost magically because the universe is like “YAAAAS QUEEN! Why didn’t you believe in yourself sooner, you boss babe!” *showers you in hundos*

Did those influencers then also try to sell you a product? An ebook, a class, a course, a workshop, a lifestyle, etc.?

The reason I want to talk about this topic isn’t that I think believing in yourself and your potential doesn’t have benefits, but that this really good thing for mental health has been co-opted for capitalistic purposes. High paid coaches, MLM uplines, motivational speakers, and financially successful business owners preach that removing limiting beliefs will help you make more money and find success.

This is bothersome for a few of reasons:

  1. This assumes that a lack of belief is the only thing holding you back. Not lack of skill, aptitude, opportunity, or resources.
  2. The diagnosis of “chronic limiting beliefs” is often coupled with the prescription of “buy what I’m selling to fix it.”
  3. Some sources will impress upon you that if you fail, it’s because you didn’t believe hard enough, which triggers shame.
  4. The focus is almost always on material gain as a reason to correct your internal belief system.
  5. It invalidates a huge population of people who suffer from mental illnesses who struggle on a daily basis to even get out of bed, let alone shed their limiting beliefs. (*me*)

I fully support any advice that genuinely decreases suffering and increases happiness and fulfillment. But I don’t like when that advice does more harm than good, and when that advice comes with a hefty price tag. If you have listened to mentors giving this advice and it worked for you, that is great. But if you are more like me and have a hard time with this sort of messaging (possibly due to years of clinical depression, anxiety, trauma, or other mental disorders) then this post is for you.

Instead of saying “removing limiting beliefs makes life more enjoyable, helps you pursue your passions with more energy, and find meaningful fulfillment more easily,” people focus on money and success as the only reward we should care about.

I’m here to say that believing in yourself is not the main ingredient in the recipe for success. It’s not your ticket to a 6-figure income. It’s not a means to a capitalistic end. It sure as heck wasn’t what led to the successes I’ve found in my career.

Your belief system is not the reason you’re not successful.

You don’t have to believe in yourself to succeed. You also aren’t guaranteed to succeed by believing in yourself. Don’t get me wrong, I want you to believe in yourself. There have been times when belief carried me forward when everything I did seemed to fail.

I wrote a blog post two years ago how belief in yourself can help you overcome failure. In the post I described two kinds of people. One who believes in themselves and tries things and one who doesn’t believe in themselves and doesn’t try things. It was overly simplistic, and I realized now there are a few more kinds of people.

Take these 5 belief systems below:

Person A- Believes they can do something and then tries it.

Person B– Believes they can do something, which prevents them from trying, because why go through the effort? They already know they will succeed.

Person C– Doesn’t believe they can do something so they don’t even try.

Person D– Doesn’t believe they can do something, but tries it anyway because what do they have to lose?

Person E– Has no belief system about the end result, enjoys the process, and does a bunch of stuff just for for kicks.

Person A is the ideal that these coaches/teachers/influencers will advertise. This is the go-getter. The unstoppable confident entrepreneur. They accept no failures and keep moving forward. This is the person I described in that old blog post. I’ve channeled Person A in some dark times to pull me through, but that isn’t my default setting at all. It takes a lot of energy to be Person A.

Then you have Person B who throws a wrench in things. They believe in themselves and don’t succeed. Why? Because they didn’t take action.

Person C is the worst case scenario. Lack of belief and lack of action. This is who the coaches and teachers will spend the most time on as a customer. They will try to convince you that the lack of belief is the true issue, when in reality the belief system is slightly irrelevant when measured up against the lack of action.

Now, Person D and Person E are my favorite. Person D doesn’t believe, but that doesn’t stop them from trying (this is often me these days). Person E, lives in the present moment, takes joy in the process, and will probably ultimately find the most success because external pressure to succeed is released thus giving them more freedom to play. Person E is my dream. My ideal. My hopeful Zen. Success or not they enjoy their journey.

What do you think matters more? Belief or action?

Belief vs Action

I like to dream big. I dream about a lot of stuff that I believe are highly improbable of ever coming to fruition. Not impossible, though. If it can happen to someone, it’s proven to be possible. But will it happen to me? Improbable.

I keep using my dreams of finding success with writing as a personal example, because I’ve already proven to myself that I can sell art and pay my bills. There’s no belief needed there anymore. I just have to keep making art, but with writing, I haven’t proven anything more than my ability to write blog posts and Instagram captions.

The big dream I have is publishing a novel. I have a dream to see my fiction work on the New York Times bestsellers list. Do I believe my writing skills are good enough now? F*** no. Do I believe it’s going to happen? Nope. I didn’t even believe I could write a novel from start to finish until wrote the last line of one. Here’s the thing: I tried anyway, and I will keep working toward that dream just for kicks.

I don’t need to believe in specifics of a dream to try. I don’t need to believe I can succeed to enjoy the process. Just as I didn’t need to believe in myself that I could gain followers on Instagram or sell my art. I just had to try.

I think it’s fair to say that any specific belief is a limiting belief. I like to keep my beliefs lofty and vague.

The belief that I always encourage myself to have is the belief that things are possible, but I try to keep my intentions vague and open. I believe I can find fulfillment. I believe I can do good things. I believe I can be happy. I believe I can find success. That gives me the energy to move forward and I can define the specifics as I go. It also keeps me open to receive opportunities and success I didn’t plan for.

Odds are good I will never see my written work on any sort of bestsellers list. I don’t believe it’s not going to happen. That’s a limited belief, right? Am I woe is me about it? Am I stopping myself from moving forward? Nope. I’m still going to finish the final draft of my first novel and send it to literary agents. Belief or not, I will take action.

As you scroll through social media or try to find inspiration from leaders around you, be wary of anyone who tells you that beliefs alone are holding you back. Definitely be wary when they try to sell you something in the same breath.

Start with Action

Your limiting beliefs are only holding you back if they are holding you back from taking action. Believing in yourself is f***ing hard when you’ve spent years failing, struggling with mental health, being hard on yourself, not living up to external expectations, or being told you can’t do something. So start with a tangible step forward.

Be Person D. Or better yet, forget about the end result entirely and be Person E. Just do things.

Set small SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) that work toward a vague positive belief. If I want to see a novel get published, I have to start with writing the first line of the first chapter of the first draft.

Your belief system doesn’t really change reality. It changes how you experience the world, but everything remains the same outside of you. This is why I bristle when creative influencers claim the key to success is believing in yourself and then they coach you on how to believe.

Belief is fuel to carry you forward. Success comes from all the actions you take along the way.

You can’t predict the future. You don’t need to know and you literally can’t know the answer to “Can I do this?” until you actually try. The better question is “How can I do this?”

Take action. Enjoy the present. Enjoy the process. Do things just for fun. Oh, and to continue with my sass from my last post, don’t give money to someone to fix your limiting beliefs unless it’s a licensed therapist.

***

Please leave questions and comments below while commenting is open or reach out to me directly through Instagram or email. I’d love to hear from you! Make sure to sign up for my email list below to never miss a blog post. New posts are published every week (kind of). And if you’d like to see more content like this in the future, consider becoming a Patron of mine! (See details below.)

-Kelly

@messyeverafter

Do want to help me create more blog content? I want to keep providing content like this for free, but I need your help. If you enjoy my blog posts and gain any inspiration from the content I put out there, please consider becoming a Patron of Messy Ever After on Patreon. Pledging just $1 a month enables me to keep helping artists like you. Plus, you get extra little perks!

Further Reading:

Avoid Creative Masterclass Cons and Scams

It seems like every time I get on social media I see a sponsored post from a creator trying to peddle a masterclass or creative course to me. I’m normally a pretty positive person, but my sassy side got triggered. *deep exasperated breath*

First, I want to make it very clear that I am not criticizing all masterclasses or online courses. If you have paid for a creative masterclass of some sort, you did nothing wrong. Honestly, even if you paid for what I consider to be a con/scam, maybe you thought the value matched the price you paid. I didn’t want to write this post to demonize anyone trying to teach you something while making a profit. There are many great courses offered online. I wanted to write this post to bring awareness to a trend of artists selling advice and trade secrets at a premium while using predatory sales tactics to do it.

Why all the sass?

So many reasons.

I can’t stand when people prey on our dreams as creators. I can’t stand when people con money out of those they know can’t afford it. I can’t stand when people manipulate by using shame, guilt, insecurities, and desperation to sell a worthless product. I can’t stand when people pose as experts and pass on sketchy or vague advice at a high cost.

Manipulation in general frustrates me, but I definitely can’t stand it in the art world.

Sponsored posts from self-proclaimed successful creators keep pitching me ways to “get rich selling your art” and “learn how to make abstract art that sells” and more. I click on the ads and study the profiles out of pure curiosity. Some are legit and try to sell a specific skill for a reasonable price, but some are scams that sell inspiration, a perspective shift, a belief system, or a promise that “you too can make hundreds of thousands selling your art online.”

Creative masterclasses, get rich quick plans, paid artist communities, “free” webinars. An artist starts off saying something like “I never thought I could be a full time artist, but not only did I quit my 9-5 job, I also made over 100k selling my art online.”

They all sound the same after you’ve seen enough of these posts, and most of them lead you through the same click-funnel template. They cast a wide net with sponsored posts, entice you with a free webinar where they sell you the artist dream, then they dangle a masterclass that will make these dreams come true in front of you. They tell you to invest in you dreams, your future, and nonchalantly drop the $2500 fee on you at the end while creating urgency to jump on the great deal. Oh and bless their hearts, they have payment plans! *rolls eyes*

“This is better than any art school. You want to succeed, right? You can be like me and all my masterclass graduates. Look at how successful I am. I’ll teach you everything you need to know in this 8-week class, but you have to sign up now. This offer won’t last.”

They all follow the same template because it works. One time I watched an hour long webinar from a woman selling a masterclass on how to create and market masterclasses. She was vehement that you don’t even need to be an expert on the subject to create a class about it, and don’t be afraid to raise your prices. People will find a way to pay for it just because you have declared it is valuable.

The value is arbitrary and the content doesn’t need to come from an expert.

That’s a huge problem.

Artist vs. Con Artist

There is one Instagram profile in particular that really tickles me pink. Her sponsored posts keep showing up in my feed (obviously in part because I keep tapping on them out of curiosity). I’m going to liberally paraphrase what I’ve seen from this artist’s marketing copy below:

“Manifest the money you dream of. Don’t be afraid it. Call to the universe to reward you. Practice abundance and wealth will find its way to you. Squash your limiting beliefs which are what really hold you back from succeeding! I am very successful. I exceeded my wildest dreams as an artist and you can too. I used to be afraid of money, until I practiced a new mindset, and now I’ve made over $250k THIS YEAR ALONE!”

For one, ew. Two, co-opting wellness tools like an abundance mindset for future financial gain feels sketch. The whole point is to feel abundance in the present moment regardless of wealth or material possession, not to physically attract more things and money by being some sort of abundance magnet. But I digress…

Anyway, my personal favorites are the posts that address “haters” (like me) who question the validity of what these teachers have to offer with language akin to this: “People will get triggered by your success, because they are jealous and are so limited by their own beliefs about money that they can’t manifest income the way that you and I have. This system works. Trust me.”

Let me be the first to say, yes I am triggered, but as a full-time working artist who can pay her bills off art sales, no it’s not because I’m jealous of the “success” of these creators. It’s knowing the whole goal of waving their success around is to make other people feel bad enough about their own circumstances that they open their wallets to scammers like this.

I don’t mean to sound like a cynic here. I believe it’s important to think positively, and I really don’t have a problem with people trying to help and empower other people. I do it all the time. I toss out positive encouragement like it’s parade candy. But stuffing creative advice into a hyper-capitalistic machine with all the tools for success being behind a giant pay wall cinches my sassy pants real tight.

Creative people are being exploited by other creative people and it truly breaks my heart.

Capitalism and Creativity

I am not going to condemn any and every creator trying to market an online course for profit. A teacher’s time is valuable. Good teachers should be paid well. Education is beneficial. I am always trying to learn new skills, but I will criticize anyone charging a premium for their knowledge of “industry secrets”. I’ll criticize it with more intensity than I criticize fine art schools for charging tens of thousands for an art degree that has very little ability to recoup the costs for a majority of students.

I will not argue that some of these online masterclasses or ancillary products could provide helpful advice. I will not argue that people have bought into some of these programs and had positive results. But I will argue that the predatory tactics are being used in a lot of ad copy I’ve seen and it grosses me out.

Everyone is trying to sell you something, including me, but the product offered is not inherently more valuable as the dollar value increases. Again, as the woman selling me a masterclass course on selling masterclasses taught me: Raise your prices. People will find a way to pay for it.

Can you trust the teachers?

In short, I’d say be wary of every single person selling you something, including me. Especially online. Because it could all be a lie.

The success they claim to have. The money they claim to make. The positive reviews they advertise. Their backstory. Their fantastic life. The expertise they claim to have. The secrets they claim to know. It could all be flashy marketing and not at all true.

This may make me sound like a weirdo conspiracy theorist to be all “trust no one!” But for real, the internet is the last place you should place your trust. Lead with skepticism.

Before you give any self-proclaimed successful creative entrepreneur your money, I want you to check into them. Look at their social media accounts. How many of their posts are dedicated to selling their masterclasses versus how many posts focus on their art? How much do they actually create new art? Posing with the same handful of pieces in different outfits while holding paint brushes over and over again is a great staging, but could also be just that. Staging. How many authentic comments do they get on their posts? Are they doing the thing they claim they can teach you to do?

How to spot a Masterclass con:

If an artist is paying for sponsored posts to show up in your news feed that sells you a course on how to sell art, I would wager their primary source of income is not selling art. If an artist pays for an ad to sell you a course about leveraging your social media following to sell your art but only has 5,000 followers, I would wager they are not the social media experts they claim to be.

What is most likely is that you have turned into their revenue stream. Why sell a single $2000 painting when you can sell a $2000 class to multiple artists who desperately want to learn how to sell a $2000 painting? It’s way less work. If they get 5 artists to sign up a month? Whew. Who needs to sell art with income like that?

If it sounds too good to be true, it is. If it comes with a high price tag and preys on your dreams, run. I want to provide more specific examples of predatory sales tactics and flashy language I have seen on the countless ads that pop up in my social feeds.

Take a look at this list of example ad copy and the vulnerabilities they prey on:

  1. “I did it and you can too.”The level playing field: This preys on your desire for validation and encouragement. Believing in big ideas is scary. I am all for encouraging people to chase their dreams, but we are all built very different and have different circumstances. There are some things that you can do that I can’t and vice versa. There are some privileges that others have that we don’t.
  2. “I never thought I could do this either.” Creates vulnerability and relatability: Preys on your need to be validated a and encouraged again. They were just like you before learning the secrets outlined in their masterclass. But they weren’t just like you. Some people selling you a dream often omit their own privileges that helped them succeed.
  3. “I’m going to share the 3 secrets I used to make my dreams come true.”-Letting you into the cool kids club: Preys on the worry that your lack of success ultimately comes from just not being part of the inner circle. That success isn’t about hard work, but industry secrets you haven’t been taught yet. The truth is, there’s no one-size fits all creative system that will lead all of us to success.
  4. “Work smarter, not harder. I’m writing this on the beach right now.” Hacking the system: This preys on your desire to rest. But nothing replaces experience, practice, failure, and persistence.
  5. “I made *insert huge number* my first *insert small timeframe*”- Get rich quick: This preys on your desire for change and financial relief. Creative careers take time. I cannot stress this enough. I was impatient when I started, but no masterclass could have sped up my development. Not a single one. I needed practice. I needed to experiment. I needed time. Also, don’t trust someone who leads with how much money they make.
  6. “Extinguish your limiting beliefs.”-Believe your way to success: This preys on shame and puts all the accountability of success onto you. Teachers that push a change in mindset as a key to success can blame you for not believing in yourself hard enough when you don’t make that $100k they promised you could. (Just FYI, It is not your belief system’s fault that your online store isn’t getting traffic.)
  7. “I quit my day job to sell art using this system.”- Living the dream: This preys on a need to escape your current life. It’s flashy ad copy and preys on your unhappiness. (You don’t need to quit your day job.)
  8. “Other people will doubt you, but I believe in you.” – I’m your true ally, outsiders are enemies: This preys on a desire for community and validation, and discourages you from questioning the teacher and accepting outside criticism. (Nobody can predict your potential. Not even you and especially not a high paid coach/teacher. PS This tactic is used in cults.)
  9. “Look at all my success.”- Establishing credibility: People lie on the internet. I can very easily mislead you if I wanted to. How can you verify how much someone made without seeing their financial statements or taxes? You can’t. Now, some people are honest, but if a bunch of these red flag phrases are used in ad copy along with the credibility claims and high price tags, be wary.
  10. “Don’t just trust my word, look at all these reviews.”- More credibility building: The internet is the wild west for reviews. Reviews are used for good and for evil. Some are legit, some are faked, some are paid. They are usually the icing on top of the marketing click funnels.
  11. “Act now, this offer is ending soon.”- Create urgency: Preys on your fear of missing out. This is used by good and bad actors. Alone, it’s not a cause for alarm.
  12. “If you believe in your passion, you’ll find a way to pay for this.”- Testing your dedication: This preys on the insecurity that if you’re not willing to invest in your dreams, then you really aren’t a real artist anyway. (YOU DON’T NEED TO SPEND THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS ON MASTERCLASSES TO BE AN ARTIST OR START A BUSINESS! Sorry for yelling.)

This list isn’t every tactic used to sell overpriced courses, but it’s a lot of what I’ve run into the last few weeks.

If you have dreams, they can be exploited.

I hate seeing people be manipulated and taken advantage of. I’ve been that person. I have fallen for flowery language. I have been sold worthless products and ideas because I had dreams open to being exploited. Do you know how many diet changes, skin creams, supplements, naturopath visits, essential oils, teas, and more I’ve tried in the pursuit of fixing issues with my body? I’ve dreamed of clear skin that doesn’t itch like a mother-effer from eczema, rash up from allergies, or break out from hormonal acne all through my adult life. Thus, I was vulnerable to damn near every marketing tactic in the wellness industry. I even found myself trying to “manifest” clear skin at night by thinking about it as hard as I could before I fell asleep. Did any of it help? Nope. Not a single thing. Especially not the thinking part. That just made me more hopeless.

Some of these creative masterclasses are no different in my opinion. Just like how you can buy a $5 supplement vs a $60 supplement that claim to do the same thing, you could pay for a social media crash course on Udemy for under $20 or a $1000 masterclass taught by a well branded influencer and get the exact same education. Or, better yet–go spend your money on art supplies and watch free YouTube videos instead.

The most dangerous part is when the people selling these products believe their own sales pitch. I would honestly rather the person selling an overpriced masterclass know they are over charging. Rather than the alternative where they have a genuinely overinflated sense of value, and really believe their advice is worth that much. Their confidence can be intoxicating, which means they can more easily get money from people, and spin any failure as the student’s fault and not the teacher’s fault.

Who can you trust?

Not everyone is trying to exploit you and take your money. There are genuine, knowledgeable people out there who want to see you succeed and want to teach you the skills needed to do it. Actual experts and successful creators that thrive when nurturing others. They will also charge you reasonable fees or none at all for concrete steps to learn a new skill. Not multiple hundreds or thousands of dollars to teach you how to “manifest your income”. Once you know how to spot a sketchy sales tactic, you can also feel more comfortable spotting a valuable teacher.

Here are some of the things I look for in valuable mentors, teachers, and friends in the arts community:

  1. Artists that didn’t pay to get into your social feeds.
  2. People who don’t ask anything of you.
  3. Communities that lift you up without a sales pitch.
  4. Knowledge that doesn’t come with a price tag. (Like YouTube, library books, blogs, conversations, social media groups etc.)
  5. Mentors who encourage you to have patience and stress that building a creative career doesn’t happen overnight.
  6. Mentors that are realistic and focus on what you really seek.
  7. Mentors who don’t tell you all your dreams are going to come true, but still encourage you to follow them.
  8. People who encourage you to practice, fail, and work hard.
  9. People who don’t promise riches. (I often tell people not to make art into a career if they want a bunch of money. Not because it’s not possible, but because I believe primarily seeking money stifles the creative spirit.)
  10. People who nurture your passion.
  11. People teaching a specific skill and not a flashy idea/dream. For example: How to sell your art online vs. a masterclass on how to make $100k a year selling art online. One is a concrete skill that doesn’t prey on your desperation for money and is in a free blog post online, and the other will probably cost as much as your rent.
  12. Look for artists that focus more on selling their art than anything else.
  13. Look for products that provide value at a reasonable cost. I’m not saying don’t pay $9.99 for an ebook with advice from an artist you trust. That won’t break the bank and the time spent putting resources together should be rewarded.
  14. Look for tangible proof of credibility beyond ad copy and sponsored posts. It’s easy to fake a lot of things online and blatantly lie, but you can still get a good feel for someone’s credibility through online comments, engagement, accessibility, and behavior. A lack of engagement can be illuminating too.
  15. Look for people who lead with their passion.
  16. Look for people who inspire you. Not manipulate your insecurities, shame, or vulnerabilities. If they make you feel “less than” or down about where you are now, keep on scrolling.
  17. Look for people who aren’t presenting you with a problem only to sell you a solution shortly after. Ex: Do you want to quit your day job and make art all day? (presenting the problem) I did that and I can teach you how to do it too! Register for my class! (solution).
  18. Trust the people who speak about the boring and unpleasant truths about chasing your artistic dreams. (I feel another blog post coming on…)

The hypocritical elephant in the room.

Okay, I think I’ve covered most of it. Except one thing.

I sell consulting services to artists. I’ve worked with a lot of artists. I have made money off an artist’s desire to succeed. Sometimes I worry that I am doing the exact thing these other creators are doing, but then I look at my blog, my consulting prices, and my main streams of income.

I sell my art. That is my main focus and always will be. I write these blog posts when I need a break or feel so sassy I can’t shut up. I do consulting sessions when artists seek me out after reading this blog. (Which contains a crap ton of free information.) My consulting sessions aren’t advertised in sponsored posts and I don’t mention them often on my social media channels. We all need a little direction sometimes, and I enjoy being a resource, but if I start making reels touting how much money I’ve made as an artist to sell consulting work or some other garbage, please don’t trust anything I ever say again.

Pay for classes at reputable institutions. Pay for books from artists with long careers of selling art. Take classes to learn specific skills and techniques, and not for the secrets to success. Value is subjective, but nobody has a secret to success. No matter how much someone charges you to learn how to make 6-figures selling art, it doesn’t make the advice more effective or more plausible. It’s a con and that preys on your dreams.

But hey–maybe that’s my limiting beliefs talking. <–Another blog post is definitely in the works for that topic. In the meantime, I want to hear your stories. Want to tell me about your experiences with learning from other creators online? Good and bad!

***

Sorry this post got so long! I had a lot of opinions….

Please leave questions and comments below while commenting is open or reach out to me directly through Instagram or email. I’d love to hear from you! Make sure to sign up for my email list below to never miss a blog post. New posts are published every week (kind of). And if you’d like to see more content like this in the future, consider becoming a Patron of mine! (See details below.)

-Kelly

@messyeverafter

P.S. If you do want help with your online branding, Instagram account, or selling work online, then check out my consulting services. You can easily add a session to my online calendar now. But again, my blog covers a lot of topics you might have questions about. Start there. I’d always rather you spend your money on art supplies than my time.

Read more about my consulting services and book an appointment today.

Do want to help me create more blog content? I want to keep providing content like this for free, but I need your help. If you enjoy my blog posts and gain any inspiration from the content I put out there, please consider becoming a Patron of Messy Ever After on Patreon. Pledging just $1 a month enables me to keep helping artists like you. Plus, you get extra little perks!

Further Reading:

Don’t Work for the Promise of Exposure

Artists, creatives, and the ever-evolving exposure con.

*big sigh* I’m feeling sassy.

I try to be grateful for every opportunity that comes my way, but some opportunities aren’t actually opportunities at all. Especially when the ‘E’ word is dropped into the conversation.

Exposure. I have a love/hate relationship with this concept.

Artists at every level have been fed an exposure pitch, and many artists (including me, too many times to count) fall for it, because exposure is something artists need to reach their goals as creators. More eyes on your work equals more potential for success, right? Yes, of course–but also no, because it has to be the right kind of exposure. I’ll talk more about this later.

First, what does an exposure pitch look like?

Exposure pitches comes in all shapes and sizes. Basically, someone will ask you, a creative person, to provide a good or a service to them, either for personal or commercial use without any intention of paying you, because your work will be seen by a new audience. Sometimes, these arrangements can be beneficial. Sometimes this is the start of a partnership. A lot of times, it’s just a waste of your time and resources.

Creatives of all kinds hear these opportunities. For example:

Graphic designers might hear, “Will you design my business cards/logo/product packaging/website for free? I’ll give you credit and tell everyone to use you for their graphics.”

Musicians get, “I’m hosting an event and would love to have performers. I can’t pay you, but there should be a good turn out.”

Artists, “I’m opening a new office downtown and there’s a huge wall behind the reception desk. I’d like to display your work. You can put your business cards on the desk for anyone interested. No, I don’t want to buy it.”

This is a very short list of examples. I bet you have your own experience with someone offering you exposure as payment. (Want to leave your stories in the comments below while commenting is open?)

Exposure is not payment. Your skills have value.

Exposure itself isn’t a bad thing. Exposure is great! It is what allows artists to find new customers. I love exposure! What I don’t love is when people/businesses/opportunists think exposure is a replacement for money.

Exposure is not money. Exposure does not guarantee money will find you. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Exposure by itself is not a fair trade for your goods and/or services. Sure, sometimes exposure pays off and you get access to the right audience, the right buyer, the right connections that eventually lead to a sale, a commission, a professional relationship, etc., but exposure is not a guarantee for any of these things.

Exposure is a gamble. Maybe you will get something out of it, but most of the time the person offering you the exposure will get the better end of the deal. When an exposure opportunity presents itself, make sure it’s the right kind.

What is the right kind of exposure?

Recently, I had someone pitch that I “donate” one of my pieces to fill the window of an empty storefront inside of a mall until they get a new tenant to rent the space. Had they asked me four years ago, I would have jumped on this free exposure and been excited. My response today was “You can rent a piece from me.”

The store front would have gotten plenty of foot traffic. There would have been a lot of new eyes on my work. My name and social media info would have been displayed. Maybe someone would have wanted to buy that piece. Who knows, I could have missed an opportunity by passing on the offer, but I’m definitely not losing sleep over it for two reasons.

Reason One: They approached me. I would have been providing them a service (filling the window to make it look more attractive). I would have taken the item out of my online store (where it has a higher chance of selling) and driven it to the mall for installation, and I would have received no guaranteed return from my time and efforts.

Artists need to stop thinking everyone is doing them a favor and start asking themselves what service they are providing. Hanging art to make a business look more attractive is not a favor to me. I would be adding value and should be paid, but why would a business go buy art when artists will jump at the opportunity to provide it for free? Artists need to stop agreeing to this.

Reason Two: This was the wrong kind of exposure. It was the wrong setting, the wrong context, and the wrong audience for my work. My art is not a pair of shoes or a candle at a home goods store. It’s not an impulse buy, nor a mass produced consumer item. People are not going to the mall to look at or buy art. Had I agreed to take exposure as payment, I find it unlikely anything would have come of it.

It’s important to know who your audience is, what you are selling, and where it belongs. The right kind of exposure will connect you with an audience that overlaps with your target audience. Hanging your art in a dentist’s office might get eyes on your work–but of all the people going in there, how many people a.) like buying art b.) like your art and c.) are actually thinking about buying art at the same moment they are nervous-sweating about the filling they are about to get?

If you are going to work for free, focus on the right exposure, but even then you should plan on getting no real benefit. Unless a payment is discussed ahead of the work you put in, you need to set expectations low.

Case in point: When I was in California, I was asked to do live-painting at a two day art festival as entertainment. I could display some of my work behind me while I painted, but I couldn’t sell my work since artists who applied to sell at the event were charged a few hundred dollars for a booth. I thought this was fair, and brought a stack of business cards to hand out to anyone who stopped by to watch me paint. I was happy to trade my time in exchange for the exposure, because this was the perfect place to find art buyers. Or so I thought. I thought this audience was my ideal audience. It was a well known fine art event in a Southern California city known for having money. My brain went: “Alicia Keys bought a house here! I’m gonna make so many lucrative connections! Yay, commissions! Sell all the art!”

Spoiler alert, I did not sell all the art, or book any commissions. I passed out some business cards. Gained a few followers on Instagram. Sold one print off my website. Got knocked into while I painted, and I had multiple people let their dogs pee on the little patch of grass a foot from where I sat. I spent 20 hours between two days to make $30ish dollars. Even when exposed to the right audience, things might not go as you hope.

I’m not saying don’t work for exposure, but never work for exposure alone.

Don’t skip on every non-paying gig that presents itself to you. I’m not saying exposure isn’t worth as a whole. I’ve spent a lot of time doing things that didn’t make me money, but I’ve learned a lot about what I should and shouldn’t do in the future to find success as a result. If you have never done what someone is presenting to you, then you don’t know the outcome. In that case, the experience alone might be worth it.

I wouldn’t take back most of the things I’ve done in the pursuit of finding success as an artist, but I can definitely say that I am getting more protective of my time and I’m less willing to work for no guaranteed return.

Not all exposure pitches suck.

When you are just entering the creative world, every experience is valuable. Exposure is necessary for success, and it’s not easy to know what opportunities are worth exploring. When someone approaches me with an exposure pitch, I ask myself a few questions:

What do you have to lose? Time? Money? Evaluate your risks and ask yourself if you are okay getting jack squat in return for the investment you put forward. I set expectations low and spend as little money as I can to prepare.

What do you have to gain? The possibilities are endless, but what’s the probable outcome? Be as objective as you can here, but sometimes you never know until you try.

Who are you working with? Is this a new company? A potential future partnership? Another artist or creative that has just as much or little to give as you do? If you are approached by someone who has little to give, then maybe exposure is a satisfactory payment for you. I’ve asked musician friends to provide content for my videos on IG in the past. I wasn’t exactly rolling in money at the time, and could really only offer my audience as payment, but working with other creative people is a great experience on its own.

Now, If you are approached by a big brand or an established business that can afford to pay you, then think twice about that exposure pitch.

What audience will you reach? Designing a free tattoo for your high school acquaintance won’t generate much exposure for you. Creating art for a celebrity with 1.5 million followers on IG on the other hand is a different story (but they can afford to pay you…). Know your audience.

What can you learn? Will it be fun for you? New experiences are important. Take responsible risks and try new things. Maybe just for the hell of it.

Exposure doesn’t mean squat without a call to action.

If you agreed to work for exposure, once you get an audience’s attention, what are you going to do with it? If you don’t give direction, you are wasting that exposure. If you are displaying at an event, make sure people know they can buy your work. Hanging your art at a business? Make very clear signage, and give directions of how to buy your work. Live painting somewhere? Bring a butt-ton of business cards and tell people how they can support you. When I did this, I should have put a big sign up that said FOLLOW @MESSYEVERAFTER or OPEN FOR COMMISSIONS. If I ever do live painting again, I will do it differently.

Don’t waste your audience’s attention once you’ve got it. Figure out your call to action and maximize the use of the exposure someone has given you.

Maybe you won’t make money. Maybe you’ll learn the hard way as I have so many times that exposure is often a con to get you to provide goods and services for free. In that case, you will still have gained something. Maybe you’ll find yourself writing a blog post about it years later to help other artists. #worthit

Know and declare your worth.

This is something that every artist will come to with time, but artists need to set aside their desperation to be validated as creators and start seeing themselves as businesses and established creators. Opportunities for exposure are great, but don’t work for free when you provide a valuable good or service. Don’t work for free when you can spend your time on paying clients.

If you take anything away from this post, artists and creatives as a whole need to start declaring their work isn’t free. Put a dollar amount on the work you do. Those who respect your work will pay it. Those who don’t aren’t worth your effort. Those who simply can’t afford what you are worth might deserve your generosity if you deem the work is worthy.

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-Kelly

@messyeverafter

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