Four Questions You Must Ask Before Starting Any Project

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Let’s face it, you’re not just in this for the money.

Yes you need to pay the bills, and no, you wouldn’t say ‘no’ to that mansion. But if you’re in a creative profession, you went into it for reasons other than your bank balance.

For one thing, you love the work itself. And if you’re honest, you’ll admit there are rewards on offer that have nothing to do with money — such as fame, critical recognition and hanging out with cool people.

All of which makes for a complicated mix of motivations for taking on any new project. This is part of what makes a creative career so interesting — but it can also lead to a load of confusion, disappointment and recriminations.

Like the time you did the work and didn’t get paid for months afterwards, and only after a fight.

Or the time you did a great job but your name mysteriously failed to appear in the credits, so someone else got the glory.

Or the time you took on a project to get a big-name brand on your client list — only to discover they were a nightmare to work with.

Or the time you thought you were being hired to do the sexy creative stuff, only to spend days and days on the nitpicking boring bits.

Or the time you were handsomely paid by a very nice client, only to see the tacky end product — and now you cringe whenever someone mentions it with your name attached.

If any of that sounds familiar, it could be time to take a new approach.

By untangling your own mixed motivations, and finding out exactly what’s on offer, you could save yourself a world of misery. When you’re clear about what you want, and what you can realistically expect, you can fully commit to the projects that are right for you — and learn to say ‘no’ to the rest.

Here’s how you can do just that.

The Four Basic Types of Motivation

A few months ago I published a free e-book How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself), which outlined the four basic types of motivation that drive creative people:


  • 1. Intrinsic motivation — the pleasure you take in the work itself. This is what leads you to stay up all night working on something just for fun.
  • 2. Extrinsic motivation — rewards for work. These can include money, fame, recognition and new opportunities.
  • 3. Personal motivation — the values that matter to you as an individual. Depending on your personality, you will devote more or less energy to pursuing things like knowledge, power, pleasure, security or self-expression.
  • 4. Interpersonal motivation — the influence of people around you. We creatives love to think of ourselves as individuals, but you must have wondered why so many of us wear black T-shirts, write in Moleskine notebooks, and insist on using Apple computers. 🙂

Put the four motivations together in a matrix, and you end up with four basic reasons for saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to any project:


A dream project is the one that ticks all four boxes: you’re paid shed loads of cash to work on a fantastically inspiring project with famous people who turn out to be a blast to work (and party) with. When it’s all over, you see your name in lights and win all the awards going. Which leads to an inbox full of offers for similarly lucrative and sexy projects …

Well, I did say that was the dream project. 😉

More often than not, you find a project with a big tick in one box, smaller ticks in the other two, and bad news in the final box. So you have to decide whether the pluses outweigh the minuses.

Often, it’s not a problem to take on several projects like this — as long as the total pluses and minuses are fairly evenly distributed in all four boxes. So for example it’s fine to take on that boring proofreading job to pay the bills because it means you can afford to do that funky website job that won’t pay you much cash that will get your name noticed by the right people.

One of the critical skills in any creative career is making sure you get the balance right over the long term. Too many years working on cool projects for no money, and you’ll start to wonder if the stress is really worth it. At the other extreme, you’ll bore yourself rigid if you play it safe too often, doing routine work for a regular pay cheque.

The Four Questions You Must Ask about a New Project

1. Will I enjoy the work?

You don’t need me to tell you how quickly the hours go by when you’re doing something you love — and how the minutes drag when you’re not. This isn’t just about the quality of your working life. You do your best work when you’re enjoying yourself. And you have more energy to push through the inevitable problems.

Bottom line: a creative career is not sustainable, creatively or commercially, unless you are getting personal satisfaction from the work.

2. Will I enjoy working with these people?

Again, pleasure and performance go together: when you enjoy your co-workers’ company, you encourage each other and spark ideas off each other. You help each other out. When you don’t get on, the work suffers as much as you do.

Bottom line: when you enjoy the social interaction with other people on a project, you do a better job together.

3. What’s in it for me?

This is the nitty-gritty. Will you be paid? If so, how much — and when? If not, what else is on offer? Get specifics. In writing, if possible. Be wary of vague promises of future paid work or ‘opportunities’.

Bottom line: when you are clear about the personal rewards offer, and happy with them, then you’re free to focus all your attention on doing a great job.

4. Will I be credited?

There are times when a prominent credit can be more valuable than a cheque. The bigger your reputation, the bigger the future opportunities and rewards you can command. Is this project a chance to boost your reputation? If so, get written assurances of exactly where and how you will be credited.

And maybe there are times when you’d rather people didn’t know. So if you’re an avant-garde novelist writing trashy romances to pay the bills, or a film star advertising cigarettes in Japan, you may want written assurances that you will not be credited.

Bottom line: publicity can make or break your career — make sure you get the right kind of public recognition.

What Questions Do You Need to Ask?

Which motivations are most important to you in your career?

Which of the four questions do you most need to ask before deciding whether to accept a new project?

What questions would you add to the list?


About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a coach and trainer for creative professionals and innovative companies. He writes two popular blogs about the business of creativity, Lateral Action and Wishful Thinking. For bite-size tips and inspiration, follow Mark on Twitter.

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