Emotional Labor is the Hard Work of Making Art

“Emotional labor is the hard work of making art, producing generosity, and exposing creativity. Working without a map involves both vision and the willingness to do something about what you see.” – Seth Godin

Although it was first defined about 40 years ago by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, I don’t think I‘d ever heard the term “emotional labor” until I started reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin. In fact, other than physical/manual labor vs “other”, I had never thought about it as a separate type of work.

Emotional labor can exist in whatever you do – if you’re a house painter, the quality of work is an emotional investment. Maybe you have more of a map to completion, but you still have to account for the unknown (mistakes, level of difficulty, etc.), and only you can determine whether or not you care about the outcome and how you get there.

For the branders of the world, it’s the same concept. What makes our work “emotional” is seeking out a gap (instead of ignoring it), confronting it with energy (instead of dread) and having “the willingness to do something about what [we] see.” We all want our work to mean something, not only to the customer, but to ourselves. What we often aren’t prepared for are the caveats that come with giving it your all.

No map? That’s scary.

Free reign is a dream come true, right? Kind of. The dream part is having no creative restrictions. The scary part is, you’re still tasked with producing a solution that needs to 1) work well, 2) attract overall buy-in, and 3) exceed customer expectations.

So, how do you overcome the scary part?

Have confidence in yourself and your process. You were hired because of some thing(s) you can do (or have the potential to do) really well. Last week, our team spent a few days away from the office to examine our workflow, brainstorm and plan internal projects, and renew our creative juices. The overall theme? Nothing is impossible, so, go nuts…but have confidence, believe in your abilities, and most importantly, get started.

Praise is not guaranteed

There’s no rule that says your customer has to render applause. We’ve all experienced those gut-wrenching let-downs when we’ve poured ourselves into a project and it was less than well-received, right?

I distinctly remember when our comedic high school play did not get the laughs we intended, though we had given up nights and weekends to reinvent and rehearse those scenes continuously. I remember the grad school project I sacrificed all human interaction to focus on, and, instead of receiving an anticipated “A”,  I got a not-so-favorable grade when my professor just didn’t “get it”. I experience that now when I excitedly present something to a client and they couldn’t disagree more with my vision.

Even if your skin is fairly tough, you won’t forget the hours you dedicated to a project that failed or required major revisions before it was accepted. You won’t forget that heartbreak.

But as Godin reminds us,

“It’s not an effort contest, it’s an art contest. As customers, we care about ourselves, about how we feel, about whether a product or service or play or interaction changed us for the better.”

So, how do we gage what the customer wants in order to maximize our efforts and minimize our heartbreak?

At Proof, we have multiple check-ins with a client at various stages of a project. We take these meetings very seriously by analyzing tone of voice, truly listening to all feedback (even when we don’t agree), and putting ourselves in the customer’s shoes. After all, the product isn’t intended for us – we have to think like the consumer.

Emotional labor isn’t always fun. It’s not neatly packaged and quick, fairytale endings are a lovely surprise rather than an expectation. But it means something. Ultimately, part of what you’re selling is the emotion you put into and pride you take in your work.

It may not always produce immediate satisfaction, but if you’re willing to work through the hiccups and push past the hurt, you (and your client) will see the difference. True investment and pride shows.

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