With creative industries (and our world) in constant flux, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of certainty or confidence. Women in creative fields face a distinct set of challenges, from questions of representation to finding the right fit for a mentorship to nuances of navigating an ever-shifting career landscape and everything in between. Below, we gathered advice and wisdom from women who have established their own roadmap in their respective fields. They shared with us guiding principles, hard-earned lessons, and turning points that have shaped their lives and supported them as they pave the way ahead.
Anne Helen Petersen’s article on millennial burnout struck a chord with those struggling to make sense of their feelings of frustration and immobility. For Petersen, it came from a personal misunderstanding of what burnout feels like, and examining the way she, like so many of her peers, had become mired in “errand paralysis.” The piece was more than a viral hit, as it also symbolized a personal moment of clarity for Petersen herself.
“I do think that writing about my own burnout—and the burnout of the larger millennial generation—was a creative breakthrough for me, which allowed me to think through so many phenomena on the macro and micro level in a new way.”
Petersen’s personal switch from the strictures of academia to journalism was the start of a creative watershed moment, as she realized that her writing and approach was a better fit for a platform like BuzzFeed, while still allowing her to draw on the discipline and rigor nurtured during her years teaching and publishing. Leaving the comfort of a familiar space is one of the most difficult leaps to take in any professional career, but making the change and following your instincts can be the push you need to realize your full potential.
For Alexis Lloyd, being at the helm of a burgeoning field was often a lonely pursuit. As she says, “I’d been working in a developing industry for a long time, so I was often the most senior person doing what I do. I’d never really had the mentorship that comes with reporting to someone who deeply understood my craft.”
An unexpected connection with John Maeda ultimately changed the way she viewed her work and how she saw herself as a leader. The new perspective allowed her to deepen the idea of what it means to nurture a team and make space for creativity and networks to flourish.
“Give the people the space to surprise you. You can try to drive a really direct path toward the outcome that you want. Or you can plant a lot of seeds that maybe don’t seem related to each other and let them grow. Then you’re acting as the gardener for the environment, figuring out levers you can pull to help the whole organism come along with you.”
As Smart’s Director of Design, Stephanie Yung was used to making decisions for her team and taking charge of a process. When she found herself at a personal watershed moment, she struggled with knowing how to forge ahead on her own.
“I was 40, single, and had just had gone through a breakup. I understood that a breakup was not going to kill me, yet I was so upset. I realized it was because I wanted biological children. And I hit this moment where I said, ‘Get over yourself. You could do this on your own.’ It’s one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.”
Embarking on the path of parenthood proved to be rife with moments of vulnerability, confusion, and sadness. However, this difficult time also sparked Yung’s idea for Project Junior, an app that makes the fertility process one based in community and communication. Ultimately, her pregnancy and experience of parenthood profoundly changed her management style.
“I feel the importance of projecting and leading by example. I have a high standard, and that’s how I primarily used to lead: ‘This is an example of the quality of work we really need to aim for.’ But now I realize it’s just as important to lead by showing the other things that make your career fulfilling and make you a good teammate.”
For Nicole Katz, the family printing business didn’t hold much appeal early in her career. But her actions spoke louder than her words, as time and again, she found herself pulled into the art world orbit. When she eventually took the reins of Paper Chase Press, she made a point of continuing to nurture supportive communities. Paper Chase is now a hub for artists and creatives in Los Angeles, drawing those who share the passion for the process of printing.
“You have to sustain the community that sustains you,” Katz says. “We’re keeping people interested in print… That’s our long game: making projects happen so that we continue to support the print community, and the medium in general.”
One of the easiest ways to lose touch with your sense of confidence and creative impulse is to feel the obligation to accept every invitation and collaboration that comes your way. For those early in their career and struggling to find a foothold in a creative industry, it’s an understandable instinct. For women, a request can often come hand in hand with the cultural expectation to be agreeable and flexible. So saying no (and sticking to it) is an important practice to nurture, crucial to setting boundaries and keeping your spark alive.
For artist Shantell Martin, learning to decline also symbolized a creative breakthrough that came in the form of setting boundaries. “Knowing how important it is to let yourself say no to things—and being able to trust my intuition on why I do the work I do and why I don’t do the work that I don’t do,” has had lasting impact.
Data journalist and illustrator Mona Chalabi is used to negotiating. She will be the first to tell you that it’s a hard-won skill, earned through experience and drawing on the advice of fellow artists. Her own approach to accepting new work and fielding requests is based on wisdom passed on by a fellow creative in her field, “There are three questions you want to ask yourself before you take a commission. The illustrator Hallie Bates was telling me this: Is it good money? Will I grow professionally from it? And will I enjoy doing it? And each job has to satisfy at least two of those three criteria.”
Having a set of prompts or questions in place to revisit with each challenge is a way to maintain your perspective and remind you of your core priorities. While each new obstacle or opportunity brings specific considerations, taking a moment to decide what is most important to your growth and sense of creative fulfillment in the present can add much needed clarity and direction to this oft-elusive process.