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Are you on the hamster wheel of being overworked and underpaid? How one neurodivergent artist created a path to success

The Autonomous Creative Incubator

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    Listen to Deirdre’s story in her own words:
    Deirdre Colgan Jones

    When people talk about being “stuck” professionally because of constant overwhelm in their life, Deirdre Colgan Jones understands.

    Deirdre is a professionally trained artist, architect, and teacher who struggled to make a living doing what she loves.

    “I was caught in this hamster wheel of doing things that I thought would earn me an income, only to come up empty-handed or underpaid.”

    When Deirdre joined the Autonomous Creative Incubator (ACI) program in January of 2022, her mother and son both had health issues that required constant attention, and her recent diagnosis of adult ADHD made completing tasks even more challenging.

    “I was struggling with how I could be an artist sustainably. That’s the truth of it. And that’s where I found myself back in January, thinking about the program as a potential next step for me.”

    Deirdre isn’t one to let life kick her when she’s down. She is—for all the Enneagram fans out there—an Enneagram type eight: a CHALLENGER.

    And now, 9 months later, she has signed up her first two creative coaching clients, loves the work she is doing, and is generating a sustainable income—not by avoiding the overwhelm, but by finding a path to success through the midst of it.

    Are you choosing between doing what you love and what makes you money?

    Woman Ascending Deirdre Colgan Jones

    Deirdre’s path is one that many creatives will relate to.

    She was professionally trained as an artist, earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in fine art. But she ran into the quintessential problem shared by many in her field; “I couldn’t figure out a way to make money as an artist,” she admitted.

    She tried architecture, teaching, pursuing public commissions…but found that none produced a sustainable income.

    Have you felt stuck on that hamster wheel? Deirdre was trying everything she could think of to earn money doing what she loved, with little success. She completely abandoned her creative work when her son was born because all her creativity went into raising him until he was six years old.

    Then, when she did get back into it and had the opportunity to have a studio outside her home again, she was forced to ask her husband for money and permission to pay for the studio, which was demoralizing.

    “I was earning very, very little for the amount of work I put into creating materials for my students, even though I really loved teaching,” she said. “All the opportunities to exhibit that I received were unpaid and were coming out of our family’s purse, which was really frustrating.”

    And that is where Deirdre was when she read about the Incubator program.

    “The Incubator looked like a chance to do things the right way—turn things around and find out what people would pay me to do, then design a business around that. I loved the fact that I could do something that I love doing and that I’m good at… [The concept of] a business that I could develop myself, based on this very practical idea that it’s something that people want and that they’re seeking, was very appealing to me.”

    A life-changing diagnosis, and a program that understood

    At first, Deirdre worried about completing the course; she had attempted courses in the past but struggled to finish them.

    But a diagnosis of adult ADHD in her late 40s shed new light on her struggle to complete coursework.

    “It was life-changing to realize that a lot of the problems I’ve had in the past were treatable. And now that I’m being treated, I know how other people can get things done more easily than I ever could.”

    Deirdre was attracted to the Incubator program because it wasn’t a “typical” course composed solely of modules to complete and assignments to submit.

    It included numerous interactive factors that supported her needs, including coaching, accountability, and community.

    “The Incubator was a program where I could be more interactive and get face-to-face time with [the coach and other program members]. I’m a kinesthetic learner so I learn by doing, and the fact that I could test something and try it out within the confines of the course was something that really made a lot of sense to me and was very appealing.”

    For Deirdre, her ADHD is a reality that will always be there. But now that she was empowered by her diagnosis, she could look at challenges and how to navigate them from a new angle.

    “I may as well be doing this in the storm.”

    There is fear in any big investment, of time or money. Fear is a human response to challenge.

    The deciding factor in success is what you do with your fear.

    “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to meet the workload or show up for the things that needed to get done. Those are the things I have the most trouble with. And learning new things is very difficult for me. So my fear stemmed from the logistical part. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to go through with it or that I would have to drop out.”

    The tipping point for Deirdre was when she asked her husband, who she describes as highly skeptical and analytical person, if he thought she should sign up for the Incubator, and he immediately saw the program’s potential for her.

    “When he heard me describe the course, he was like, ‘Oh my God, sign up.’ He didn’t even question it. That was huge.”

    Once she started the course, Deirdre had to be realistic about the life issues competing for her time and attention. “I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew, and if the timing was not right. But if the time’s not right now, that’s never going to change,” she said. “This is just my life.”

    That’s why she decided to develop a business model that was feasible despite those circumstances.

    “I had to develop something that would be resilient enough so that it could weather whatever storm came along because that’s just what my life is right now. And so I may as well be doing this in the storm. I started the Incubator at this very messy time in my life.”

    For Deirdre, the Incubator program was a journey of self-discovery. It was about accepting—and embracing—her neurodivergence, and coming to terms with that part of herself and with her identity as someone with ADHD.

    This acceptance led her to find new methods to stay on track and complete tasks, including a co-working group inside the program and as well as coaching sessions.

    “One of the biggest things that happened for me was the co-working group that I became a part of,” she said. “I got so many things done, so many difficult things that I could never have done by myself. That was huge for me.”

    Personalized work with a coach not only provided accountability, but challenged her to find new ways of working and making money.

    “I needed to find out what people would actually pay me to do,” she said, “And I loved the concept of designing a business around that. The idea of having a service business that I could develop myself, based on this very practical idea of ‘this is something that people want and that they are seeking.’ That was very appealing to me.”

    Getting paid to do what you love shouldn’t be a dream — it should be a reality.

    Deirdre had a clear goal when she entered the Incubator program: to make a sustainable living doing what she loves.

    Six months later, she is living the fulfilling life she envisioned as a creative coach.

    “I have two new clients . . . and my studio rent will be paid right through the end of this year, which is just mind-blowing for me. My revenue has really increased and become a proper income. I have gone from this slightly humiliating position of having to ask my husband to put money in my business account to a business account that actually has funds coming directly from my clients! It sounds silly, but that’s never been the case for me before, so it feels really good.”

    She’s finally able to find the balance between doing work that she loves and getting paid well to do it. She finally has the freedom to make the kind of artwork she wants to make without feeling like a drain on her family’s financial resources.

    “I would recommend the Incubator to anyone who’s feeling frustrated about doing the same thing over and over and expecting something to change, like I was. Somebody who’s feeling kind of hopeless about how they’re going to get a gallery contract or win a commission, feeling like they are doing their creative work as a chore, or have been sucked into a cycle of having a million adjunct positions and no health insurance. This is an opportunity to make life better for yourself.”

    “I planted the seed.”

    There is no magic pathway to success. Sometimes success involves a change in mindset, other times it requires new processes and tools.

    It requires us to override the natural, internal resistance we each instinctively feel when challenged to do things differently and do the hard work of self-discovery and self-awareness.

    Deirdre did all of the above, and she is now doing the work she loves, and earning a sustainable living doing it.

    “I planted the seed. And finally I was seeing not only a green shoot . . I was seeing it burst into flower.”

    Be as proud of your business as you are of your creative work

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    The Incubator is the artist-centered program where self-employed creatives design a sustainable, profitable business rooted in their creative expertise.