Friday, September 6, 2013

6 Tips on How To Avoid Work

Star Trek; the Borg
If you've regretted not starting or finishing a painting, then you've experienced resistance. We all have. Steven Pressfield says that, "most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the un-lived life within us. Between the two lies resistance." And, as the Borg in Star Trek like to remind us, "resistance is futile."

Right unicorn, wrong planet
But what if your dreams are unrealistic? My un-lived inner life was once to be a unicorn-tamer on Planet Nipple, but then I grew up and realized that that was ridiculous. Now I crush out the fire of my dreams before they have a chance to poison the monotony of my day. The truth is, painting makes me quite unhappy. It's boring and tedious for the most part, but it's all I know how to do. It's a bit of a trap, and to paraphrase Homer, my own witlessness will one day cast me aside. It's not that I want to do nothing, I just want to do other things. Sometimes I have to admit, painting your toilet-bowl to look like "pink" marble is just not that attractive to me.

I'd like to think I could've done a better paint job

It's not always easy to turn down work, but I've been known to run from it like a cockroach from sunlight. Still, there are times when you might legitimately want to say "no." I was once painting a mural in a bar in Northern Ireland and was approached by a certain Catholic paramilitary organization and asked if I wouldn't mind painting an exterior mural of the pied piper carrying an Irish flag and leading a bunch of kids out of the rubble. It was to be painted between the hours of 2-6am, but don't worry about the cops, "there'll be a lookout."

Monty Python: Michelangelo and the Pope [Video Link]

The most notorious example of reluctance on the part of a painter was a commission for Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo first tried to avoid the job by repeatedly telling the pope that painting was not his artistic forte; sculpture was. When that failed, Michelangelo insisted that Raphael could execute a finer fresco.  Yet, as Vasari tells the story, "The more he refused, the more the impetuous pope insisted."

 When that too failed, (according to Ascanio Condivi in his biography The Life of Michelangelo), "When [Michelangelo] had completed the picture of The Flood, it began to mildew so that the figures could barely be distinguished. Therefore, Michelangelo reckoning that this must be a sufficient excuse for him to escape such a burden, went to the Pope and said to him, "Indeed I told your Holmess that this was not my art; what I have done is spoiled, and if you do not believe it, send someone to see." The Pope sent San Gallo, who when he saw it, realized that Michelangelo had applied the plaster too wet and consequently the dampness coming through produced that effect; and, when Michelangelo had been advised of this, he was forced to continue, and no excuse served."

Pope Julius II ordering Michelangelo, Bramante and Raphael to build St. Peter's, 1827, by Horace Vernet
This sort of arm-twisting took its toll on Michelangelo, who once confided his resentment toward the pope in a melodramatic letter to a friend: "Here I am, having lost my whole youth chained to this tomb [the church] . . . and my excessive loyalty which is unrecognized is my ruin. Such is my fate. I see many people with an income of two or three thousand scudi [an Italian coin] remain in bed, and I, with the greatest labor, toil at impoverishing myself." No doubt followed by him crying into his lacy sleeves and quaffing cheap hooch from a goblet. Damn papal commissions always getting in the way of a good snooze.

Michelangelo was, I suspect, like the rest of us. It's not that he didn't like painting, it's just that he didn't like it all the time. And he knew when to spot a shitty client when he saw one walk through the door with a papal entourage. Here are some great tips on spotting and avoiding problem clients, which is really the point of this whole post. It's not about procrastination, or unrealistic dreams of becoming a professional frisbee player. It's about taking the good jobs, trusting that others will come, and leaving time for the fun stuff in between.

1. Have a Little Faith.
Trust that as a freelancer, the phone is going to ring and that next job will always come in. You don't have to accept every job that comes along.

2. Get a Little Bit Bitchy.
Nothing works better with particularly nasty clients than a little push-back. Tell them that you don't like to be treated badly, and be prepared to walk away no matter what the cost.

3. Raise Your Price.
A good friend once advised me to pick my highest price, and then double it. Send them the estimate, or tell them the price in person, then say nothing. Keeping your mouth shut right here is the best strategy. If they want you, they'll still hire you, and that added profit margin may make their bullshit acceptable.

4. Leave a Paper Trail.
For God's sake, stick to this if there's even a whiff of nastiness coming off the client. Set up a payment plan, and stick to it. Demand a hefty 50% deposit payment up front. I have friends who've started jobs without even the deposit payment, worked their asses off, then had the client change her mind about the color. My friend got not one penny, and was stuck for some major payroll expenses.

5. Be Specific About Money.
Spell out what is and particularly what is not included in the scope of work. Add a clause saying that any additional work will be charged at $X per hour/square foot. Write in the estimate the date you want final payment (for example: COD, or 30 days after completion of work), and schedule progress payments. Your deposit (if you followed Rule 3) should be enough to cover most, if not all, payroll and material expenses. Tell them exactly when you expect a further progress payment of 25%.

6. Stick To The Schedule.
If they don't make any of your scheduled payments, be prepared to stop the job until that check clears.

Also recommended:
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
The Four-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss
How to Avoid Work, by William J. Reilly


  1. I freelanced for more than a decade — and in advertising — and I too learned how to spot problem clients. I turned down the one who said she wanted something "sort of impressionistic and sort of hyper-realistic." And I turned down a project when six admen consulted with me in a conference room, each carrying a coffee cup. That no one thought to also offer me coffee indicated more than I needed to know about the rest of the job.

  2. I just ordered the War of Art. Thank you for the information. Resistance is futile and it does stop creativity. Interested in his point of view. I am re-watching the Star Trek series and just saw that Borg episode. Patrick Stewart was great. Resistance is a demonstration of the Law of Attraction. What you resist will persist unless feelings/thoughts change. Just wrote in my blog how momentum also needs to be considered. Why do the agony and the ecstasy? At some point Michelangelo had to know he was doing it all and it was great, good and enough. He deserved to feel great like the amazing visionary that he was. We should all feel great and therefore attract great clients. Love your blog. It is so educational. Your work is amazing. I also have a classical arts blog and would love to do a blog on you and your work.

  3. Hi Melanie,

    If you like Ravenna Mosaics, you'll probably really love Sicis too ( if you don't already know about them. Bisazza is another cool, contemporary, mosaic inspiration. (

  4. "It's boring and tedious for the most part"
    And AGAIN larfed like a drain...painting IS BORING! If I can't finish something in 30 mins I know it won't be any good. AND IF I work more than that, I ruin it by overworking.
    BUT what I reelly wanted to say was the Veronese sequence FUNNIER than Monty Python, so wonderfully, insanely silly. I fell in love with Veronese soon as I ran across that...and he KNEW he was pushing out the boat and was I bet not at all surprised prissy inquisition folk came knocking...that dog is doing a full frontal in front of Jesus having dinner. Lawks a mighty. PLUS courtesy of perspective he's BIGGER than Jesus. Gotta larf.

  5. I was just remarking to a friend how irredeemably rotten to the core I've become, hardly doing a thing that doesn't "inspire" me and then have the audacity to complain about that in turn. Oh well, life is too short to drink anything but truly exceptional wine...