THIN SECRETS FOR SUCCESS no. 1: Put Yourself First

by Luann Udell
This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

Learning how to say “no” can help you say “yes” to your art.

 (5 minute read) (I had to put this in because someone complained repeatedly that my columns are way too long. So, you’ve been warned!)  :^D

Inspired by Lorie Parch’s article “Secrets of Thin People”. It’s been years, but the secrets still apply.

So here we are, Thin Secret No. 1:


Thin people can put themselves first.

People who have a hard time losing weight often put other people first. Then they find they have no time to exercise, no time eat right, or to prevent stress–which causes them to gain weight.

And people who want a successful business, have to do the same: They have to put their business first, and learn to say “no” to the demands of others.

It’s the same with the business side of our art.

When I start to feel like I have no time, all it takes is a quick look at my calendar to see where I’m “spending” it. A volunteer commitment here, board service there, a school project here, family commitment there. And sometimes a little “trim” is in order.

I’m not speaking about the delicate balance of having a rich family, social and professional life. I’m talking about the commitments we take on, with good intent, that end up be a distraction.

How do we know when that delicate balance is tipped? Simple. You don’t have time to make art or grow your business.

Is that always a bad thing? No. As human beings, we enter and leave different phases of our lives that call for constantly changing balance. Very young children and teens need a lot of time–the former because they keep trying to explore electrical sockets, the latter because they do the same with the “electrical sockets” of adult life. Other life demands intervene, and sometimes art and business have to take a back burner for awhile.

But when you constantly find yourself responding to everyone else’s crisis, and your own business suffers, it’s time to find a different fulcrum. (Aha! I KNEW physics would come in handy someday!) We once invited a couple we really liked for dinner. But they couldn’t come, because their cousin’s husband’s mother’s brother (or something like that) was having a birthday party.

Either it was one hell of an excuse to get out of having dinner with us, or they needed a new fulcrum, and fast.

When I was an at-home mom, I had many requests for my time. Possibly people perceived me as having “tons of time”–because I wasn’t really working, right?

But as my business grew, the requests continued. I was perceived as having tons of time because I worked out of my home. That seemingly infinite flexibility was interpreted as constant availability. (By me, too, I should hasten to add. I still find it hard to say no.)

Then when my business was more established, I still received many requests on my time–because I was perceived as “knowing how to be successful” and “having figured it all out”–and everyone wanted a piece of that.

And even now, as I reboot my biz and grow my audience on the West Coast, I still get such requests. I’m now part of an art community (loosely) and I’m (somewhat understandably) expected to support that community, often. (I actually did take on a huge project a couple years ago to do just that. After spending weeks on the project, a technical glitch made it all blow up in my face. And rather than saying ‘thank you’, many people made it clear they found it amusing to see yet another “naïve newcomer” take on such a project, and fail. (To the few people who were thankful, I am so grateful!) 

What makes it hard to say no is, many of these requests are made by worthy people for perfectly worthy causes. And it’s not wrong for them to ask.

But I have to be responsible about saying YES. Or NO.

Also, people have been very generous to me in this industry. It seems only fair to “give back”.

But ultimately, I have to come first.

Only I can make the work I do, to tell the story that’s my story. The art that’s in ME, I’m the only one that can let ‘er rip.

I’m learning to limit the one-on-one “giving back”. I now try to keep it to “one-to-many” model. That’s one reason I started a blog.

And why I joined the Arts Business Institute faculty for a year. And why I write a column for (the former) CraftsBusiness magazine, and now, the Fine Art Views newsletter. These are all ways of “giving back” to my community without feeling I have to constantly respond to requests for free consultation sessions. (It’s no coincidence that they also serve my desire to write, too!)

And as for larger commitments, well, sometimes before another door opens, a window has to close. Another commitment has to draw to a close before I take on another one.

But there’s another, less obvious corollary to this “put yourself first” secret. And that is: Only YOU can do what it takes to make yourself successful.

Parch quotes Anne Fletcher, a registered dietitian who wrote the book THIN FOR LIFE  (2003) which Parch based her article on.  Fletcher says, “When people take the reins (responsibility for their own weight loss), they realize that the solution to weight control is inside them, not in some magic potion or fad diet that their mother or sister is on.”

hmmmmmm……The secret of a successful diet. Doesn’t this sound like what I wrote last week?

Yes, there will be many times when life forces us to make different choices, to take on different priorities.

And yet….

Knowing when—and how—to say “no”, may be the biggest ‘secret’ to creating success for yourself with your art.

(Disclaimer: I’ve used the ideas in the “thin people” article only as a metaphor for other life goals we have, in this case, our art. And not to “lecture” anyone about losing weight. Because, well, look who’s talkin’ here!)

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Editor’s Note:

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THIN SECRETS FOR BEING SUCCESSFUL: A Series of Small Strategies to Help You Get Big(ger)(ish)

My latest article on Fine Art Views, a daily email newsletter on growing your art career.

(Spoiler alert: The choices are small, but many. And you have to keep at it!)

Years ago, I sat on a panel of artists and crafts industry professionals, speaking on various issues and answering questions from the audience.

Near the end, an artist badgered me unmercifully, repeatedly asking me to reveal my marketing “secrets” for the entire audience to hear.

I felt extremely uncomfortable, even resentful, about the demands for several reasons.

First, I wasn’t even sure what was being asked. A list of all my marketing efforts for the past 18 months to promote my artwork? For the last 8 years? The efforts before or after 9/11, the dot com crash and the recession? Did they want to hear all my mistakes, too? Or just my successes? Did they want to hear what I learned? Or what I’m learning now?

How much time do you have?!

I was also frustrated because I had no context for the person asking the questions. I had no idea what their work is like, where they are now in their business plan (or if they even HAVE a business plan) and what they are willing to do to succeed. I had no idea what their personal, financial and professional goals are for their art/business. I had no idea who their market is and what they’ve done to target it or even identify it. How do I know what will be of use to someone else unless I understand where they’ve been, where they are now, and where they want to go?

Finally, I was confused by the assumption that I’ve figured it all out and can neatly box it up and simply give it to someone else. I’m still learning, changing, growing as an artist. I have no idea if I’m even thinking the right way about MY marketing plan. How on earth do I put all this in context for THEM?

But I also felt vaguely guilty. After all, wasn’t the panel discussion a culmination of an entire weekend doing just that?–helping others take their next step by sharing my own experiences and learning? Hadn’t I already mentored a number of people here, and at previous conferences, offering insights and advice freely? Don’t I do that daily with my blog, in my magazine articles, and in other professional development classes I teach?

So why was I feeling intense resistance to this artist’s demands?

I’m been thinking about why these scenarios seemed so vastly different, why I would respond wholeheartedly in one instance and clam up in another.

The next day, as I ate breakfast, I read an article about long-term weight loss in the April 2006 issue of REAL SIMPLE magazine. The article was called “Secrets of Thin People” by Lorie Parch. And I had my “aha” moment.

The demanding person was asking me for my “secret diet” for losing weight.

And I don’t HAVE a secret diet for losing weight.

What I DO have is results from deciding from time to time that I needed to change the daily choices I make in my diet, my activities and my attitude–to achieve a different outcome in my life.

What I feel comfortable sharing is how I got from a person who constantly made unhealthy choices, to a person who (periodically) will make consistent, healthier choices–which, as a consequence, RESULTS in me being thinner. (Er….now and then.)

I still don’t actually diet nor are all my choices perfect even now. But I’ve been successful in MODIFYING many of my choices slightly over a long period of time. And when I make those modifications, the side effects are, I lose weight, I get more fit, I lower my blood sugar and cholesterol to within healthy limits, and I walk/talk/carry myself, and care for myself, differently.

(The ONLY physical “shortcut” I’ve taken through the years is, brilliant red hair. Better living through chemicals and all that.)

I’ll share some of the professional, artistic and emotional changes I made years ago that got me where I am today professionally (with apologies to Ms. Parch for using her article for the structure.)

But for today, rest assured there are no “secrets”, no insider information that is being systematically withheld from you.

I know it feels like that sometimes…. It feels like other people KNOW what to do and when to do it.

But that’s not the case.

Success in the arts, like any other success in life, means staying the course. Staying with one course of action until it has a chance to provide results.

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One thing that helps you achieve success is getting better at what you do. â

But also recognizing when to switch because it isn’t working for YOU.It means making daily choices, often small choices, that eventually… EVENTUALLY lead to big results.

Because, just like losing weight is an END RESULT of making many different, healthier life choices, being successful is an END RESULT of making many different, “healthier” artistic, professional and personal choices.