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The Creative Compliment: Hard Skills for Artists

Eleven months ago I stood on a podium in the middle of the NorthPark Center, a shopping experience in Dallas, Texas that includes an impressive collection of 20th and 21st-century art, a 1.4-acre garden, a large movie theater, and, of course, hundreds of stores and restaurants. As a guest conductor with The Dallas Opera, we were presenting a community concert featuring operatic excerpts.

The images of that day now feel surreal. I conducted a full orchestra. There were no plastic barriers between players. No one wore masks and the musicians weren’t socially distanced. The singers interacted with each other naturally, even touching at times.

And there were people. People seated next to each other in the audience, crowds lining the railings of each floor above us. This memory has become more treasured with time because of its normalcy—music and a job that I love, placed in the middle of an everyday gathering place—and yet now it feels foreign to even think back on such an atmosphere.

Crowds are seated and line upper level railings to listen to The Dallas Opera orchestra perform at the NorthPark Center

A year ago none of us could have foreseen the industry-devastating impact of a pandemic that has taken the lives and health of many. With constant streams of cancellations and closures, the lives and livelihood of artists everywhere have been upended. As I’ve spoken with artists across the industry, two losses beyond paychecks are recurrently mentioned: creativity and confidence.

How could it be otherwise? While creative moments might occur in solitude, creative inspiration is drawn from the larger context of our lives which has been drastically reduced. Additionally, when immediate anxieties like “How will I pay my bills?” or “When will I have work again?” take up headspace, finding room for anything but the essential becomes increasingly difficult and emotionally taxing. And confidence? Take away anyone’s ability to support themselves and it will inevitably take a toll.

Our message to every artist at every stage is this: you are of value with or without your creations. And while your work may be paused and the future unclear, your role as a creator has not been diminished. It will evolve and change through this time, as will your understanding of or desire for that role.


We will all have different takeaways from this pandemic period. I hope that as artists we will gain a better understanding of the necessity and value in developing hard skills. They are the ultimate compliment to creativity and build confidence in a concrete way.

General confidence is difficult to quantify and is more effectively understood as we evaluate what we have confidence in. Below are some personal examples of mine and each of our lists will vary significantly.

I am confident in my ability to learn new skills.

I am confident in my ability to face problems with both realism and positivity.

I am confident in the past choices I have made.

I am confident that my future choices will align with my personal values and life priorities.

I am confident that I will fail.

And I am confident that in failure I will learn, grow, and gain increased experience.

I am confident that I can manage a budget and make proper decisions to invest in my business.

I am confident in my ability to work in any Microsoft Office program.

I am confident in my ability to create effective slideshows and presentations.

I am confident in my ability to write clearly and correctly for technical business documents.

I am confident that I can communicate in multiple languages effectively.

I am confident that I can make mistakes in any of the above, identify them, and improve.

Our skills and the track record we build with them provide a foundation for our overall confidence level and empower us as business owners and as artists. In our educational programs, we frequently ask artists to consider themselves as the CEO of their artistic business and take 30 minutes to list what hard and soft skills they bring to the table for their company. I’d encourage all artists to do the same! It doesn’t need to be immediately comprehensive but is designed to aid the process of self-evaluation.

Confused about the difference between hard and soft skills? Consider the following:

Hard skills can be defined as a teachable ability or skill that can be quantified.

Nobody is born with them.

Soft skills are subjective skills, also known as people skills.

They’re part of your personality, but you can also learn them.

In the confidence statements above, you will notice that the second set consists primarily of hard skills while the first alludes to soft skills.

As you make your own list of skills, consider this piece of good news: many skills that greatly benefit employees across industries are soft skills typically embodied by artists. For those who might feel both simultaneously overqualified and horribly under-qualified for a job application or for those who feel they don’t have adequate skills to even make this exercise worthwhile, 2019 ALI Fellow Stauney Hansen assembled this meaningful and informative infographic that can provide a breath of hope.

And there is more good news! All those hours of work refining your craft taught you far more than your craft. You are now skilled at developing skills! This is instrumental as you learn or develop the hard skills—many which you may already have a handle on—that can help you get the job and make you more effective in managing your artist business. These hard skills serve as building blocks for our confidence and success in both the workplace and our everyday lives.

One problem that often faces us as we begin to consider our skill development is knowing what skills might best serve us and where to focus. We founded Women’s ALI because we want to empower women to develop more leadership skills and business acumen. We want to help them take the next steps in their career sooner, more decisively, and with confidence. We’ve learned a number of skills along the way and hope that our experience can help inform how you approach your business.

Below is a sample list of some of the skills we leveraged to create Women’s ALI:

You, like many, may be applying for a job in another industry during this pandemic period or taking on a new role within the arts. Evaluating your skills with this systematic approach can be especially insightful. With a careful reading of a job description and its required skills, you can see areas where your strengths will be valued assets and identify additional skill sets that you would like to develop. An informational interview will be even more telling! Find someone in a similar role to one you are considering and ask them to expound on what skills they have most heavily utilized in their position.

For our ALI Fellows and all who engage with Women’s ALI, we stress this: no ambition is incorrect. No career path is wrong. The term artist may be best exchanged with creator. We are the creators of our art, of our lives, and of ourselves. In this creativity is our greatest power and our ultimate confidence. Build the skills that will allow you the creative expression to do so!

I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it. -Pablo Picasso

Join us for the 2021 Summer Leadership Intensive held August 11-14 for focused workshops and presentations on leadership and skill development for artists!

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