Vulnerability isn’t a “pity party”: it might find you new work

As part of a series reflecting on what it means to be creative, illustrator and author Ben Tallon considers why being honest about how business is going could keep you on track.

It was a lesson learned before but catastrophically forgotten. This time it ambushed me next to the cake table after a christening. Small talk with a friend of the family who I’d not seen in the flesh for several years drifted onto how work was. I let him have all of it – full disclosure – work’s not been good, six months and counting of only scraps, the savings dangerously underweight.

Expecting an eruption of glamorous client names and projects, his face looked bewildered as he questioned this, reminding me that Instagram told a different story.

It was on the way home that I cursed myself in the car, asking my wife how I could have been so stupid not to remember the first time this happened.

In my formative days, I said yes to anything. Didn’t we all? That anyone was willing to pay me to draw was the ultimate payoff for toiling through a 7-year creative education. Some of this work – while I was immensely grateful for it – did not inspire me, but it was drastically better than the full-time factory jobs I’d been taking on through the employment agency for two post-graduation years. They came back each month and paid me fairly, until they didn’t.

My assumption was that they’d simply fancied a change in visual style, or there wasn’t a column that month. When I finally emailed the art director to say hello, it turned out that they’d seen my shouting about my new clients The Guardian and Channel 4, and assumed I had now elevated myself to a tier above their station. Double assumption. I was mortified. While it was indeed something of a lived dream to illustrate for The Guardian and Channel 4, this work came only sporadically and those clients had an abundance of great creative talent to work with. What the less sparkly clients brought was a precious degree of security in regularity; a love of and trust in my reliability to deliver.

By painting a picture of glowing success through my marketing efforts, I had forgotten to show a vital thread of vulnerability. Vulnerability, whether people like to admit it or not, is at the heart of the creative professional and in my stasis, I had reverted to type, lunging for my heavy hitting client names and shiny badges to stop the rot. Vulnerability makes us human and makes us reachable. I learned this when I met the clients I put on the pedestals of my imagined illustration industry, only to hear them share the same problems, worries and life challenges I had. By living the highlight reel, the lie started to eat me. Of course, I scrambled back and told them they had this all wrong, and in some cases, we resumed business.

It’s not that we shouldn’t showcase the good stuff, but without the yin, there is no yang. As month three rolled into month four of my latest malaise, my creativity at large suffered because I felt cut-adrift, so my ideas were full of fear as I chased immediate remedies.

“Vulnerability is in danger of becoming a hashtag”

Thankfully, I started to openly blurt out my fears of professional derailment to anyone who’d listen, sneaking it into Linkedin posts, dog walk chats, and pub visits alike. And then work began to come. Not much, but more than the nothing I’d accepted as terminal. Some of it came directly in response to this honesty and openness. I began to check in with people to see how they were, go to London, say hello and commit to talks for little more than expenses again. Once more a part of the ecosystem, organic momentum gathered and at the time of writing, I’m on the brink of several new projects being confirmed after an unprecedented run of near misses.

Vulnerability is in danger of becoming a misnomer as the latest social media hashtag. Let’s hope it doesn’t. Neither should it be seen to be about weakness or the hosting of a pity party. I’ve found that when we are true to ourselves and move towards problems with a mindset to challenge and overcome them, the outside world has a way of helping us along. I’m very proud to have made work for recognised clients, but the truth is they come and go, while clients who do not possess the same global wow factor often bring an honest relationship, and if we don’t maintain it, and meet them halfway, they might look for it elsewhere.

“The creative industry is rife with posturing”

One constant across the several hundred people I’ve interviewed over seven years for The Creative Condition Podcast is vulnerability’s defining role in their paths and outward-facing identity. The creative industry is rife with posturing; illusions and facades that can too often prove a barrier between what we hope our brushes with stardom will bring in en masse. While nobody wants to see reels of their clients crying in the bathroom, humble, human basics can go a long way to remedying those freaky quiet spells, and help reshape our creativity at large.

You can listen to an audio version of this article in full below.

Ben Tallon is exploring “the nature, behaviour and psychology of creativity” as part of The Creative Condition. This is a current podcast and a book is set to follow in late 2023. 

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  • Michael Grills March 31, 2023 at 7:25 pm

    I’ve never been good at the vulnerability of being an artist—especially public expeditions of it online. I come from a history of not being allowed to be a burden on anybody except my loving wife. So she gets that part of me while the rest of the world sees either strength and success or nothing.

    But I’ve been working on it. I went into the studio to work on my personal art and shed a bit of the illustration (maybe someday I’ll go back to it), as right now, my curiosity has taken me to other places.

    I’ve never wanted to talk about feelings. Just create. But I’m learning, as you stated here that it might not be enough.

    My biggest fear was that It would be a “pity party.” But as I get wiser I’m realizing, I don’t want to tell my stories of vulnerability for people to worry about me, even consider me, but to help others through their own struggles. I’m hoping over the second part of 2023 that I’m able to start doing that. In fact, I look forward to it.

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