Is Your Creativity Keeping You From Making Money?

Is Your Creativity Keeping You From Making Money?

As a creative person, you pride yourself on doing things differently, ditching the template, and standing apart from featureless, clustered, homogeneous masses.

But what if your shunning of the status quo is actually sabotaging you from making money? Fine if you want to keep your pursuit boxed away as a sideline interest… but what if you want to make your passion a full-time gig?

If you’re an architect you probably wouldn’t try to innovate new ways of building a solid foundation. You’d stick with what’s proven and what works. But that’s often what we do as creatives.

Instead of giving someone an easily verifiable outcome, we shape our offering in a way that confuses other people for the sake of being different. Or worse: rather than solving a proven problem, we try to convince people they have a problem they’re not yet aware of (and set ourselves up for a lot more work in the process).

I know a lot of people that don’t want an email list because that’s what everyone does. I know people that don’t want to do a product launch because that’s how everyone does it. They’d rather be more creative and approach things in a new way.

This is a bad idea.

Innovation is best when it happens around content, vision, and message, not with proven structures and systems.

Car makers don’t laugh at the predictable monotony of the modern wheel. They innovate around structure, design, and performance.

Though it may be painful to follow the status quo (as a bleeding heart non-conformist, it hurts me too), when it comes to business systems and models, do what’s been proven to work. Whatever the proven, tested structure is in your field, embrace it and focus your creativity in the places that matter.

Here are some examples of systems that work:

  • Creating an event around the launch of your product
  • Building an email list by giving something highly valuable away for free
  • Writing a book and using it to support your consulting/coaching
  • Taking your passion and teaching other people how to do it (example: if you’re a knitter, teach others how to knit)

These are all proven strategies and tactics for creating a thriving business. Violate them at your own risk.

When it comes to content and messaging, however, this is the place to let your creativity shine. There are all sorts of opportunities for you to innovate on how you deliver, present, and structure your content.

You might do this by…

  • Using metaphor to structure the product. Charlie and I did this with The Dojo.
  • Developing a new / smarter marketing strategy.
  • Creating a unique and memorable experience for your customers.
  • Innovating with the delivery method (Danielle’s FireStarter Sessions are a great example of this).
  • Cultivating a remarkable brand.

These are just a few ways you can stretch your creative muscles. I’m sure you can think of more.

However, the single biggest place I see people trip up creatively is with their message vs. their solution. Every day I see a lot of people get into trouble confusing these two things.

And it makes sense. For creatives, the message is the sexy part. It’s essentially your “reason why” or deeper purpose behind things. It’s exciting, it’s your rocket fuel for moving forward. But it often doesn’t make for a sellable solution.

Take my message for instance, “live and work on your own terms” — I think this is a powerful message, and a lot of my readers agree. But, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would pay me for coaching to help them live and work on their own terms. It’s ambiguous and unclear of exactly what that means. And because of that, it’s hard for anyone to evaluate whether coaching would be a smart investment for them.

On the other hand, they would probably be more willing to pay me to help them quit their job and create a purposeful business. That’s a specific solution that people can identify and externally validate. You know when someone has quit their job and is working for themselves, you can actually see it and verify it. But it’s hard to know when someone is living on their own terms.

My solution is a specific, tangible expression of my message that people care about and need.

Without the message (and the deeper purpose), the solution is kind of lame. There’s no driving “why” behind it. It’s flat and uninspiring.

In the same way, the message by itself is interesting, but unlikely to amount to a profitable business without a clear vehicle for expression.

My message allows for a lot of creative expression. I can say things like “cut the cubicle umbillical chord” and “become your own master.” But I’m not going to try to innovate when it comes to a proven way to manifest this — working for yourself.

When it comes to building a creative business, the key is to harness both sides of your brain to harness their appropriate strengths. Use the creative hemisphere when you need to create a compelling message or do something to stand out. Mobilize the practical side when you need to figure out the smartest, most effective, proven way of doing something (whether it’s novel or not).

Our creativity is a sacred gift, but it shouldn’t get in the way of us doing what works.

Has your creativity ever kept you from making progress? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

photo courtesy of Norman Lear Center

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Comment & Add Your Voice

Gregory Rader | March 11, 2011 at 4:29 pm

This is a very interesting question and one that I think is a lot more difficult if the message is your primary passion (as it seems to be for you).

I wouldn’t say so much that my creativity prevents me from making progress so much as it just makes it much more difficult to niche down to a practical product/solution. As you say:

“For creatives, the message is the sexy part. It’s essentially your “reason why” or deeper purpose behind things. It’s exciting, it’s your rocket fuel for moving forward. But it often doesn’t make for a sellable solution.”

Focusing and specializing on a small piece of that big, exciting, sexy message feels limiting. What about all the other implications of the message that aren’t addressed by the one specific solution you are offering? (rhetorical question) It is also challenging to make this connection clear for your readers or audience…how does the product/service naturally follow from the message? How is your product different from people selling something similar but backed by a different message?


Jonathan March 14, 2011 at 7:43 am

This is definitely a challenge, and it’s also something I think you should spend most of your time on when you first start your business. It’s really the foundation that everything is built upon.

Jasmine March 11, 2011 at 5:33 pm


You wrote another post just for me.

Thanks, Jasmine


David Walsh March 11, 2011 at 8:26 pm

SOLID. Way too many smart people are making the same dumb move: they’re creating products around ambiguous, qualitative, aspirational outcomes. They’re not solving perceived problems. They’re not even trying to manufacture new problems. They’re just selling “wouldn’t it be nice if…” outcomes to people are already living without.

And you’re right – misplaced creativity is the surest way to shoot yourself in the knees. The last place you want to be clever and unnecessarily creative: your product’s promised outcome/value. Tell people what you’re giving them, and be damn clear.

Sharp post. Good reminder to innovate on the message/brand, not the platform, process & mechanics of sharing it.



Ziemba March 12, 2011 at 10:00 am

Spot on Jonathan,
Cleverness vs Solution …

If you want to make your passion your income then key in on the word want. What is it that you really want? What are you attracting in your life? Are you shunning the status quo for its own sake? That may sound cool but the reality is you will have to get a job to support yourself, and by following that path the very thing you are opposing you are strengthening. Thinking like this is immediately satisfying, you are giving the finger to all those fu*king launches, constant email barrages, and no substance free pdf giveaways.

Fu*k them all. Man that is so satisfying, so clever. What was the problem again? Oh yea I keep putting my cleverness in front of my mission, dang-it.

Hitch your creativity to what works and get what you really want, freedom.

The beauty of doing this is you raise the bar, you elevate launches, email lists and the like.

Make me want to hit my refresh button, now that is fu*king original.


Brent Partner March 12, 2011 at 9:14 pm

It seems to me that you can be creative in the production of your product or content and stand apart from the masses. But in the marketing and distribution of ideas you should wear a different hat. In the traditional mediums an author, artist or company would pass off the marketing and selling aspect of a product to those who knew how to sell. As stand alone online entrepreneurs we have to be more mainstream and traditional in the marketing and distribution aspects of our businesses


Marty Herald March 13, 2011 at 9:06 am

Oh my, this does hit home. I’ve always had a problem with an overwhelming urge to make everything look and work better, and yes way too often that translates into reinventing the wheel and wasting a lot of time.


Amber J. March 13, 2011 at 6:52 pm


This is my first time checking out your blog, and I will come back. I needed this post. Man!

Keep up the good work!


Justin March 13, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Let’s not re-invent the wheel here. Do what works and then you can add your own creative flare to it.


Nea | Self Improvement Saga March 13, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Some people are visionaries and I admire that. What makes them special is that they are willing to try something new even when others think they’re being stupid, holding themselves back or wasting time. I admire that so much. It always pays off, even if the payoff isn’t always cash.

I think people should define what success means to them…and what is enjoyable. If what matters most is making extra bucks, then go for what you know will pay in dollars and cents. Thankfully, there are plenty of people willing to sacrifice immediate financial rewards for something that’s more important (and enjoyable) to them. We all reap the benefits when one of those crazy, pointless, creative ideas turns out to make life easier for everyone.


Micheal Frank Morgan October 12, 2015 at 4:37 pm

Hi my name is Micheal Frank Morgan and I love how you sound because I am one of those people who say are stupid no I am not the smartest men on earth but the way my mind works out of this world I lived a long life I am 30 now and been through a lot seen a lot but I am only 30 have a life time ahead of me as I text you I am going to pick up my cousin I still am living a life that I never thought I would be but the good side is I have learned from it all I work but don’t like it what I love is music science and technology like I said my mind is not here in this time not the smartest men in the world but my mind is not from this world that is what some people say about me I think outside the box and further beyond looking for a new opportunity always have been my dream is to change the world help people that is something that I dream of all the time

Zardoz March 14, 2011 at 12:14 am

This is such a great article. Creativity is one of my strong suits, (Thanks Landmark)and it has driven me mad with indecision. I’ve been very productive since I dropped being creative and put on hard working.

It’s logical to follow the path, or rish getying lost.


Zardoz March 14, 2011 at 12:16 am

That’s risk getting lost. I’m typing in the dark because the fruit flies are hungry. I’m not kidding.

To get rid of pests, turn off all inside lights and open the door.


Lach March 14, 2011 at 4:11 am

Great piece. I’ve fallen into these traps before. Had some thoughts about the tangible / intangible stuff though:

While it may be easier to sell based on a specific, tangible outcome, it’s actually the less tangible, less graspable emotional benefits where people actually get satisfaction. Quitting jobs and starting businesses maybe objective things that are easier to measure and verify, but unless you are actually “living on your own terms”—those objective things don’t matter. There’s plenty of people who started their own businesses who are not living on their own terms even if they started out with that intention. So in those cases, the tangible benefit is no benefit at all.

Interesting that in your key solution: “Quit your job and create a purposeful business”, the most important, compelling word is “purposeful” and yet it’s also the least objective.

So I think that it maybe the case that creating a compelling offer (what people think they want) and delivering what people *actually* want might be two different things.


Jonathan March 14, 2011 at 8:00 am

You’re right Lach. What people want and what they think they want are often two different things. And our work as solution providers is to gain as much intimate knowledge of that gap as possible.

Also, even though your solution or outcome you’re proposing is to say, lose weight, it doesn’t mean you can’t also use the message of “have the energy to play with your kids.” One always facilitates the other. The tangible outcome just allows you to see a clear path for how you reach that.

Kate Bacon March 15, 2011 at 4:48 am

Spot on Jonathan. It is so easy to get so caught up in being “different/creative” that you reject logical marketing wisdom. Thanks for stating the difference so clearly.



K March 15, 2011 at 11:14 am

Great post.


Bob P March 15, 2011 at 7:46 pm

What a great article. A great mentor of mine once told me the reason I was struggling to find “my passion” in life, or the “perfect J.O.B.”, was mostly because I was using logic when applying for and accepting new opportunities. Every time, my heart wasn’t in it and I would leave and search for the next thing that I thought was “right”. Logically, of course.

Instead, he mused, why not follow my heart to figure out what I want… THEN use logic to figure out how to get there. I had it backwards… just as I often do in my business. I need to follow my heart and maximize my creative side more with my content, vision, and message, and not try to be so creative in my business model. Instead, my business model should follow logical systems that are proven to work!
Thanks for the great content and great “ah-ha” moment for me!


Sandra / Always Well Within March 16, 2011 at 2:22 pm


This is a valuable and potent message. I don’t find creativity to be the problem. I do find that there can be resistance to doing things the tried and true way that can interfere with moving forward. It’s something I’ve been looking at more deeply myself.

Thanks for raising this topic so clearly.


Joyce at I Take Off The Mask March 19, 2011 at 4:26 pm

Well said and appreciated. We should not be different just for the sake of being different, or for the sake of hiding behind our masks,fearing to go all out only to be rejected in the end. The world awaits the unique gift that only we can offer, let us not be ashamed of using time tested methods of sharing it!


David March 27, 2011 at 9:21 pm

It’s crazy how sometimes I feel the need to reinvent the wheel sometimes when there is already a perfect good and proven system available. Being aware of this is the first step so hopefully I will catch myself more and more before I make this mistake.


Andika March 30, 2011 at 12:19 pm

I’m a college student that’s currently figuring out how I could have my own business from what I love.
Thanks for the post. It gets me think.


Suzanne April 4, 2011 at 11:23 am

I am married to a creative with his own design and build business. It’s very difficult for him to express his value. He wants people to hire him based on who he is, but he’s not wiling to promote himself adequately. Even creatives must learn these valuable lessons!


BirenShah December 27, 2011 at 2:20 am

verry irritating, verry obnoxious post… because it seems to be ‘true sounding’…


especially for a person like me, who’s life’s tendency is to break structures and challenge systems (not that my ‘personality’ likes or enjoys it)

thanks jonathan .. seems to be an important message – at least for me, since i (my life) am always being pitted against systems and structures… break-downs and break-throughs…

just to think out loud: how does one USE existing systems n structures trying to break down systems n structures?


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