So many young creatives embarking on their professional career are urged to have a Plan B. Once it becomes clear that their youthful enthusiasm for dancing or drawing or words is moving into a more serious devotion, almost all creatives are urged to immediately come up with some sort of plan for career failure.
The odd part is that, for most of us, a Plan B is recommended even before we have failed. Young or emerging creatives haven’t even stretched their professional legs and are already being told that they won’t make it – often by people who haven’t even assessed their abilities.
When I was sixteen, I was forced to meet my high school careers advisor, a scarring event shared by so many creatives. I told him I wanted to be a film director when I finished school. He told me that wasn’t really a job, and I should consider something else. I assured him it had to be a job because actual films were being made by actual people. He then switched gears and explained that I was a girl and from a regional area and therefore film directing wasn’t a job. He suggested advertising as my Plan B*.
However, his suggestion of a Plan B was NOT in fact a Plan B. He wasn’t encouraging me to throw myself wholeheartedly into my film career and keep advertising in my back pocket in case of failure. No, he was suggesting that I throw myself completely into Plan B even before I’d had a chance to see if Plan A was going to work out.
Having a Plan B that is radically different from your Plan A means dedicating precious time and energy to getting that plan into some state of possibility. Nobody ever seems to think about the irony of that. If the same time and passion was dedicated to Plan A, would there even be a need for Plan B? What is the opportunity cost of focussing on Plan B first, and ignoring Plan A? Are we supposed to wait for Plan B to fail, and then go back to our preferred Plan A? And if you’re focussing on preparing for Plan B before you start on Plan A… then doesn’t Plan B automatically become Plan A?
To paraphrase Inigo Montoya – I do not think Plan B means what you think it means.
I have been self-employed in my creative professions for well over thirty years, and not everything I wanted from my career worked out. I experienced my fair share of failure, as all professionals do. However, I didn’t immediately quit once I had failed and move to a totally different plan. Nor did I waste valuable time and energy in my youth on training for something else, in case creativity didn’t work out.
It’s not the path for everyone, but I’m glad I dedicated every hour of my waking life to Plan A, before I had children or a mortgage or the trappings of adulthood. I didn’t come from a wealthy family, so my choice meant poverty for many years, but I have absolutely no regrets. Failing when you have almost nothing to lose is hardly failure at all. One could even just describe it as ‘learning’.
Failure, and risk, are also scary propositions. All three of my adult children work in the creative industries, and when they announced their professional intentions I felt a clutch of fear, even though I have done the same in my own career. The reason for my terror? I have been much more invested in my children’s safety than in their happiness. In fact, most of parenting is stopping kids from doing fun things because it’d dangerous, whether it’s eating sweets off the road or boozing with ne’er-do-wells. Choosing a career in the arts will make my kids happy, but it won’t make them safe. My fear about that is real, and not a good enough reason to dissuade them. The risks are high, but risk is a necessary companion in the arts, business and, in my opinion, in life.
It’s important to understand those risks and put some mitigation strategies in place. Any business that throws all its eggs in one basket will very likely end up with a stinky mess. However, mitigation doesn’t mean quitting, or changing directions completely, if something doesn’t work out. Imagine the state of our economy if every business gave up and went home after one bumble. Imagine our cultural lives if artists did the same thing? Successful businesses – and successful creatives – fail all the time. The question is not how to avoid failure, because failure is inevitable. The question must be – what are you going to do after inevitable failure? Quit and go to Plan B immediately? Or have another go?
I have strategies for what I will do if everything falls over tomorrow, but my first response is NOT to quit and revert to a Plan B. Having other ways of making money, diversification strategies for business and adding other professional strings to my bow? Yes, I have all of those in place, but they are not Plan Bs. They are sensible addendums to Plan A.
Having said that, I am no longer a film director. Yes, it was my profession for many years, but I have also been a writer and an entrepreneur and a business consultant. I have changed my mind, and held multiple professions, not because I needed Plan Bs but because I have been fortunate enough to explore multiple Plan As. I believe that’s now referred to as a ‘portfolio career’.
If you’re a young creative, work out your Plan A, and stick to it. If it doesn’t work out or you change your mind – find another Plan A. If you’re a little older, with more commitments, weigh up the risks of Plan A and see if you want to give it a go. If the idea of failing completely at your preferred plan is a more interesting and joyful proposition than staying where you are, perhaps you have nothing to lose after all.
Final thought? Chances are you are talented, intelligent, and well-educated. By the time Plan A goes tits up you’ll probably be resilient and streetwise as well. You will be readier than ever to find a new Plan A.
* My response to the advertising suggestion from my career’s advisor? I suggested becoming a garbage collector because they made lots of money and then I could finance my own films and not have to worry about the small-minded opinions of people like him. I was sent to the Principal with a warning for being cheeky and a possible suspension. At least I didn’t tell him to go fuck himself!