Embrace the tension: how to fight the fear and run a successful creative business


I caught up with a couple of freelancer friends this week, and we ended up chatting about the various trials of working for yourself. While their issues were different, they followed a common theme – namely, how to live with the ebb and flow that’s a big part of working for yourself.

Deciding to set up your own business is an exciting thing, and a big part of the excitement comes from the fact that you’re flying solo. You run the business you want, structure your own days, and own all your achievements.

But flying solo has big implications. There’s no safety net. You have to deal with updrafts, downdrafts and even occasional turbulence. What happens if you don’t? You crash and burn.

Balancing work, creativity, and your regular day-to-day responsibilities can feel like a more-than-full-time occupation, and it’s easy to question whether you’re Doing It All Wrong. There’s got to be some magic formula that will turn your life from messy and imperfect to calm, collected and trouble-free, right?

Wrong. Working for yourself is all about that tension – and there are ways to live with it, and even embrace it.

The I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing tension

What I hear from a lot of newbie freelancers is, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Newsflash: none of us do.

One of the most common pieces of advice I see for people who are considering starting their own business is “Just do it!”

While there’s a lot to be said for that kind of carpe diem attitude, it’s easier to slap it on a JPG and upload it to Pinterest than it is to actually embrace it. Should you start thinking about your new venture today? Yes! Should you quit your job as soon as self-employment starts to tempt? Probably not.

Fake it ’til you make it is very much a thing. If you can offer something of value, and you know there’s a market for it, it’s absolutely OK to make a tentative start while acknowledging that you don’t know A, B or C.

What it’s not a good idea to do is go in full steam ahead with no intention of getting to grips with the fundamentals. You end up short-changing your customers and clients, and putting yourself (and anyone who relies on your income) in a tricky position.

So what can you do? Personal development is crucial. And I don’t just mean two painful days before you get started – I mean regular, ongoing, never-ending personal development. You are your entire business, and as such, you’ll never stop needing to learn, develop and adapt.

The day you decide you know it all is usually not long before the day something bites you hard on the arse.

The Where-is-the-money-coming-from tension

Working for yourself means giving up a regular salary. Most newbies have grasped the idea, but the reality can be another thing entirely.

The truth is that, at first, you’re unlikely to make the same figures that were earning in salaried employment. You can do all the right stuff, prepare like a pro and throw yourself into your new venture, but the fact is you need time to gain traction – whatever that traction looks like to your business: blog followers, email subscribers, Facebook likes, word-of-mouth customers etc..

It can feel like you’re pouring endless days of your life in, only to get little or even nothing in return.

So what can you do? Prepare in advance. Make sure you have enough in the bank to survive for at least three months; adjust that (cautiously) if you’re looking at part-time work.

Consider part-time work if your finances won’t stretch – leaving one job and taking on something else while you build up your business is another option. There’s no shame in tipping the scales gradually – the more success you have in your business, the fewer hours you need to take on.

Sit down and work out your finances. Decide what you need to earn, and the hours you need to spend – and the prices you need to charge – in order to achieve that. Set SMART goals and financial projections – and if you don’t know how to, look it up. Meanwhile, work at reducing expenses at home. Assess, re-assess, and curb your spending.

The Art-vs-business tension

Finding a way to turn your creative passion into a sustainable, profitable business is a dream for a lot of people. But here’s the thing with dreams – they’re not real.

The reality of running a business can be a rude awakening to people dreaming of photogenic days in beautiful cafés and blogs with thousands of instantly enamoured followers. Admin. Customer service. Finance. Tax returns. Social media scheduling.

These aren’t the things we dream of, but they are the things that will keep your business running properly. And while it can be tempting to let the boring stuff slide, it’s vital to remember that the boring stuff is keeping your creative stuff afloat.

So what can you do? Schedule. Make a list of what you need to do each week, then think about your natural timings: do you lack energy mid-afternoons? Use that time to do monotonous stuff, like bookmarking links and responding to emails. Inject some life with a good cup of coffee, a session in a café, some music.

Then identify your creative times. Schedule them in, and enjoy the time. Don’t peek at your work emails. Switch off your social media. Make a conscious decision to focus on yourself and your creativity.

The What-am-I-doing-with-my-life tension

Existential angst is a seemingly unavoidable part of being creative. And when you’re in a situation that inevitably involves tension – such as working for yourself – that can become magnified.

It’s easy to fall into a cycle of what I call “periodic panics”, where you find yourself gradually losing your grip until you enter a panic phase. You claw yourself out, promising to handle it better next time, and then you realise it is next time and it’s all happened over again.

“What am I doing with my life?” and “There has to be something more than this!” are two of my personal favourites – nothing like a bit of sudden, deep-seated hopelessness to reinvigorate you and your business, amirite?

So what can I do? Manage your life, manage your expectations. I love this quote, from Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive:

“THE WORLD IS increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more?

How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind.

To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.”

Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

One of the biggest lies we’re sold is that you can have it all. You can’t. Time is finite, energy is finite and, in order to operate within a capitalist society, we need to earn money.

What you get to decide is how to earn that money, and how to spend the time you have when you’re not earning it. Take some time out, and consider three things:

  1. What you have to do
  2. What you want to do
  3. The time and resources you have to play with.

The key is to find the right balance – and tension – between the first two categories by using the third. This should be a gradual exercise that you come back to over time.

Time and money constraints will dictate much of it, but by having a structured idea of what you want from life, and by making gradual changes towards that goal, you can keep the panic at bay.

Summing up…

Finding balance is something we often talk about when we’re on the subject of business vs. creativity. And while balance is important, it’s also helpful to address the level of necessary, useful tension in your life.

While tension can mean being stretched tight with no room to move, it can also mean keeping up a certain level of strength. And while that’s not always a fun thing to think about, it’s a vital one. Running a creative business does require constant, regular effort – if you let the rope go slack, you lose traction, and you lose momentum.

No one is going to love every minute of running their own business. You’re going to be bored sometimes, and frustrated, and cross, and sick of it all. That’s natural.

Let go of the fairy-tale and embrace working for yourself for what it is: a brilliant opportunity to take some of the bite out of your ‘need to’ category, and tick off more of the items in your ‘want to’ category.


Where do the biggest tensions lie in your business? How do you handle them? Comments below, or come and chat on Facebook or Twitter!

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  • This is such a helpful post, really balanced and gives a newbie like myself plenty to think about. Thank you for sharing your experience and hopefully I can tip the scales of part time work more in the favour of full time self employed 🙂 #Stayclassy

    • Really glad you found it helpful, Stef – if you’re new to freelancing, you might enjoy the Quick Fix Clinic on my Facebook page every Tuesday at 11am, where you can get advice on the challenges you’re facing at that time. For more general advice, I paste the sessions here on the blog afterwards, too, so have a nosy through and you’ll find plenty of pretty easy-to-apply advice 🙂

  • A great post. Very helpful. I have just started earning money from my blog. I don’t see myself giving up my full time job just yet but I would love to be able to work part time xx

    Thanks for linking up with #stayclassy

    • That’s fab news – it’s hard enough to keep a blog running, let alone get some income from it, so you’re clearly going about things the right way. Just a case of keeping on keeping on, now, and finding new ways to monetise your online activities without selling out your brand personality. #StayClassy and other social media campaigns are a great way to raise your profile 🙂

  • Oh my god your posts are so helpful! I haven’t started my own business – although having a blog is somewhat similar- but I have started a new job and I have felt the “I don’t know what I’m doing tension”. You’re so right, I need to fake it until I make it. : ) Thank you so much for sharing with #StayClassy!

    • That’s so lovely of you – thank you! Congrats on the new job – and yes, fake it ’til you make it! Nobody knows everything, especially not right away, and pretending you do/should only leads to trouble 😀

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