Challenge or Distraction?
Hello and Happy May! I cannot believe that the year is already almost half-over.
May is one of my favorite months, and I look forward to summer and trips to the shore.
I'd also like to say congrats to all the new grads out there!
Lately, I've been participating in a lot of challenges and contests to keep the creative juices flowing, and in some cases to be seen by art directors who might be judging a contest. Challenges can be great for those reasons, but when do they become a distraction rather than a creative means to an end goal? I'm not sure I have the answer, really, but it does bear a little thought.
I love a good challenge. Sounds cliched but it's true. Challenges stretch your imagination, and as stated before, if the challenge is part of a competition that is being judged by creative professionals, it might get you on their radar. There is, however, a downside to contests and challenges, especially if you're starting out in a creative career.
Challenges can be somewhat addicting. They're fun, and if you're an introvert, entering contest after contest can quickly become an excuse to avoid the fear of networking with human beings, contacting an Art Director or arranging a portfolio review. They can also distract from personal projects that you've had on the schedule to complete but that are time consuming and require a lot of work before even thinking of sending that query out to a prospective client, gallery owner, or agent. Not that I would know anything about that. (Looks around sheepishly) And who wants to do administrative tasks when they could be participating in a fun challenge instead?
Challenges are also great if you're not actually focused so much on winning the challenge as you are in exercising your imagination and doing your best work. In the past, I was so caught up in winning that if I didn't win or gain recognition of some sort, I felt completely rejected, dejected and disrespected. Why bother continuing on? Obviously I'm not good enough and should stop right now. Well, not being good enough might be true, but the chances are actually better that you are just one of many, many, many entrants that judges have to pick from. The odds are high. And even if you aren't good enough (which you may never know unless you start stalking contest judges, which I do NOT recommend), it doesn't mean give up. It might mean that you need to keep creating, keep learning, keep working and you'll get there. You might need a "regular" job to pay the bills for a bit, but don't give up entirely unless you are genuinely tired of trying and genuinely don't love what you are doing anymore. But that has to be your choice, not a choice made by fear of the idea that someone else thinks you're work is no good. This stuff takes time and there is a lot of competition.
Challenges can also be expensive. One contest I was interested in required a participation fee, and then additional fees to be published if your work was chosen. Now, that might work for some people, but if you're fresh out of school and/or bootstrapping, you've really gotta think about it. If you are really confident in your work and have the money, the cash might be better spent just buying a page in a professional directory. Some directories are even free. Which leads us to an even darker side to challenges - they could be scams. Taking your money without ever really delivering anything. I recently read an article on AI-AP that discovered a recent photography contest touting panelists with impressive credentials might have been a scam. When contacted, none of these respected peers even knew about the contest and were surprised to learn they were panelists. Some contests I've seen lately are also thinly disguised attempts at getting creatives to do free work for someone else's business. The reward is that they take your design and use it for their business - and that's it. You have to ask yourself if that's really winning anything at all.
In short, determining whether it's worth it or not to participate in a challenge is up to the individual. I try to participate in challenges that are good for stretching the creative muscles, are trustworthy, and that will be of some benefit to my growth in skill and business, but even those challenges have to be weighed with getting work out there that will actually help further your career and pay the bills. Recently I decided to cut back on the amount of contests I was entering, because it was disproportionate to the level of work I was putting in to make connections with Art Directors at publications I want to work with. I was realizing that I needed to balance these things with scary cold emailing and administrative upkeep, and I didn't think I could do it all. But then, out of the blue, I was inspired to submit something to an SCBWI contest. And in the process I came up with a children's book idea. I was thrilled, and honestly I had no idea that would be the outcome until I had finished the piece for the challenge. So, the process is also unpredictable. I could have passed up the opportunity to participate and also miss out on the new ideas that flowed from the contest. Now I have to work on that idea, polish it, create thumbnails, a dummy, some finished pieces and....oh is that another call for entry in a new challenge in my Inbox?
Thank you for taking the time to read the blog! If you enjoyed reading it, say hi in the comments!
Have a great day!