Ten lessons on creativity, career and life from Lisa Congdon

Photography by Chris Dibble

Words by Madeleine Dore
Art by Amelia Goss featuring photography by Chris Dribble

Since making the move from working in education to becoming a full-time artist over a decade ago, Lisa Congdon has accumulated a wealth of wisdom on developing a creative career, building discipline and routine, as well as defining and redefining success. She's written books the subject, but in our interview with the prolific artist, she generously shared many gems to inspire us to create on our own terms. 

1. On the importance of creative discipline…

“I think a lot of creative people and artists are criticised for being disorganised or flighty. While that might be true for some people, I think there are a lot of creative people who are really good at managing their schedules and being really productive.

“Often times, that’s part of what makes some artists really successful – it isn't necessarily that their art is much better than anybody else’s, it's that they know how to manage their time and get stuff done and be productive. It is a combination of using inspiration but also discipline to get things done.”

2. On the art of saying yes and saying no…

“At the beginning of my career, I had this mantra that I would say yes to pretty much everything that came my way. For the most part, if something was a good opportunity for me, I said yes. The more work you do and put out into the world, the more work you get because more people know what you and want to work with you.

“Now, you could say I am in a period of saying no. I think it is important when you are an entrepreneur, or a freelance artist, or anybody who is running their own business and collaborates with other people, to really keep your values in check and make sure you’re doing projects that really resonate.”

3. On moving through burnout…

“About five years ago, I started to feel stressed out in a way that I hadn't previously – I was waking up with anxiety and often had a sense of tension in the pit of my stomach. I loved the work I was doing, so it never felt like a chore, but eventually in the tenth year of my career I started to have physical symptoms as a result of the stress – chronic back and neck pain and headaches. I was having trouble sleeping and I was travelling a lot, too, so my body was getting thrown off constantly by jetlag.

“It got to the point that one morning I woke up and realised all of a sudden,  ‘I can't do this anymore, this is not fun, I don't care that I’m making a lot of money, I don’t care that I have notoriety as an illustrator, I’m not having fun anymore. I have to change and make some big changes and cut back.’ ”

4. On the attachment to working hard…

“Cutting back was a hard process because I had sort of become attached to working really hard – I had forgotten what it was like to not work all the time, so when I forced myself not to work I would feel a little bit stressed out about what terrible thing is going to happen.

“I think often we push the envelope with something until it's not working for us anymore, but just because something isn't working doesn’t mean that it is an easy habit to break – instead I still found I had a lot of internal resistance in the beginning and I continued to fill the free chunks of time I had created with work instead of relaxing.”

5. On unlearning the work equals success paradigm…

“When I first became an artist I was broke, like many artists are. You have to work for a few years before you can get consistent work and get consistent pay and unless you are independently wealthy or you have someone supporting you, it is often really stressful just for the financial reasons alone.

“I got into this pattern that if I wasn’t working, I was losing money, even if it was on a personal project that may not immediately lead to money. This became a mindset that work equalled success. I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with that to a certain extent, but the problem was when I started making an income and getting steady work, I maintained that pattern and it was very hard for me to take breaks. I was riding this wave of success but not taking advantage of the fact that I didn't need to work as much.

6. On compartmentalising your day…

“I discovered early on that in order to get a lot done, it helped to break up my day into 45-minute segments. Let’s say I had five different projects I was working on – say, client work, a gallery show, personal work or interviews – and they were all due around the same time. Instead of just diving into one for an entire day, I would set my timer and try to work on all five in one day to help me finish them all on time.

“Now it’s still the same, but I just have less stuff to do and I do them in a slightly different order every day.”

7. On meeting self-initiated deadlines…

“What has worked for me in the past to meet internal deadlines is to make something public and use it as an accountability mechanism.

“Setting yourself up with some external accountability is helpful and also choosing a project that you are intrinsically motivated by or passionate about really helps keep the momentum up.”

8. On letting go of projects…

“I started this 100 day project of drawing hands and then about 40 days into it I burned out and didn’t want to do it anymore. In the past, I would have just ploughed through and done it anyway – I don’t know if it was because of my ego or being quite tenacious that way – but now I’m at a point where I don’t really care about letting go of a project.”

9. On remembering that creative projects are not always going to being fun…

“There will always be times when it feels painful and there are going to be days you don't want to do it. It’s okay to give up a project that isn’t working for you after a while if you're not into it, but sometimes the discipline to force yourself to continue to do something is where all the magic happens.

“Often we are resistant to engaging in a creative project because by a certain point, it feels like drudgery. But underneath the lack of new ideas or the uncertainty of what direction to take something in, it is actually fear that is driving the resistance – this isn't going to be good enough, or how do I make this different to what I made yesterday? If you can push through that fear and force yourself to sit down and do the thing, that is where the growth happens. It’s actually in the monotony that the magic happens, but you just don’t know it going through it.”

10. On setting your own rules in this life…

“Remember you set your own rules. Part of why I worked so hard for so many years was this sense of keeping up and this sense of having to do all the things right now. But what I have learned is that those were just rules I was making for myself – no one else was telling me that I had to work that hard or take on that many projects at once. This idea of having to do have done something by a certain time in our lives is really something we invent for ourselves and I realised I could make new rules for my life. We have control over our lives and that’s pretty cool if you can orient yourself to that in a healthy way.”

Further reading: A day in the life of Lisa Congdon