raise your bar for risk

Raise your bar for risk: do something scary and don’t die

I’ve got a vulnerability hangover.

I recently finished a launch campaign for my new course on building an audience and marketing specifically tailored for creatives who (think they) loathe marketing.

You might not know what I mean by a “launch campaign” (I sure didn’t, the first time I found myself running one, back in early 2016), but you’ve definitely seen them in action.

From the outside, a launch campaign looks like this

Someone you follow or subscribe to starts ramping up their email schedule, getting super excited, sharing constantly on social media, and you go, oh man, here it comes.

Maybe there’s a webinar: a training followed by selling what they’re gearing up for. I’ve signed up for a lot of those. After a while, I know whose are worth going to for the content, no matter whether they’ll sell to me or not.

Then the wave of sales emails hits. Daily, for a while there. If you’re like me, you read a lot of them, because they’re full of compelling stories (that, if they’re any good at it, make me want to buy the thing even if it had never crossed my mind before). Suddenly, the thing they do feels so present and urgent.

And then, whether I buy or not, just as suddenly, it’s over.

From the inside, it’s a lot different

I had been working on the content of my course and program since July. (Since mid 2017, actually, since that’s when I ran a first mini-iteration of the course, but actively since July.)

I wrote it from July to October, then rewrote it with the editorial help of Anaël Verdier from December to February. It clocks in at about 70k words + workbooks. A medium-length book, essentially.

I ran a pilot cohort in the fall, with weekly 2-hour meetings for a couple months.

Lousine Boyakhandjyan designed and redesigned the visual landscape of the course, and Annette Tomei aligned all the versions, and supported the existing and new students. I read it all aloud and Colin MacIsaac edited and polished up the audio.

And that’s just the course.

The marketing for a course like this (especially the first time you do it, when there are no existing assets to repurpose) is essentially the same volume and intensity of work as building the actual course.

I did extensive interviews with most of those students to improve the material and get testimonials.

I worked with Lacy Boggs to write all the emails (about 15k words) the sales page (8000 words) and all the other marketing bits and pieces: ads, social media content.

I worked with Lou again on the webinar deck, the sales page design, the social media campaign…

Lou and I did all the tech setup and hooked all the pieces together into a giant Rube Goldberg machine…

Annette scheduled all the emails, checked all the links, and helped chock the gaps when there just weren’t enough hours in the day.

In the 6 weeks leading up to the public-facing part, I spent practically every working hour on this, and my team of 5 other people spent at least 25% more time than they usually work for me in any given month on this project.

We all poured our hearts into this, and it was amazing and exhausting…and that’s BEFORE the actual launch…launches.

The event itself is a ten day marathon of non-stop visibility. Putting all the things we’ve been working so hard on out into the world and facing the reality of PEOPLE seeing it—and then they get their say.

Facebook lives, the live webinar, seemingly-endless emailing and responding, sending videos responses to questions (so much easier and clearer than typing sometimes).

The impending vulnerability hangover was looming over me right from the start

I end up feeling scraped raw, and as out on the wire as I get…

I have taken major creative risks in my work for as long as I can remember. But it’s only now that I realize, all that time, I was avoiding the bigger, scarier risks. Those risks aren’t in making the work, but in sharing it.

But for me, the work (whether a comic or a painting or a course) isn’t complete until it becomes a part of someone else’s life.

Art, and creative work in general, is about taking thoughts and ideas and emotions from inside my head, and putting them into someone else’s head, in as intact a form as possible.

That means that when I wimp out on marketing, I’m failing myself and my work. I’ve done that too many times before.

Never again.

Short version, the launch was a success.

Authentic Visibility enrolled an incredible cohort of new students who are diving in, getting involved, and making major changes for themselves and for each other.

But what those students are there for, is to learn how to pull up their socks and face their fear of visibility.

What kind of teacher would I be if I didn’t go first? In the spirit of authentic visibility (lowercase) here’s a little of what a launch is like, from the inside.

The rollercoaster

Here’s what our email subscriptions looked like in the week before our Wildly Obsessed webinar the training and opening of the enrollment for the course, and the week after, when we sent out daily sales emails.

I know what this is about: Curiosity about the training, followed by, Nope, not for me.

OK, I get it.

My logical Vulcan brain says, this makes sense. And we netted 450 new subscribers, so it was a win-win! (I know, my Vulcan brain would never say win-win.🖖 )

OK. …but OUCH.

Vulnerability Hangover in 1...2...3...

The haters

I know that from the outside this Authentic Visibility campaign probably looked like a juggernaut. Lives, webinar, ads, emails…coming at you every day.

But on the inside? it feels way more emotional and personal than anyone wants to talk about.

As your work gets bigger and you do more, people start to think you’re faceless, a machine.

Or they try to contain and shame you into not doing what you know is right for your work and your people.

…so here I was, less than 24 hours until I close enrollment for my new class, and I’m staring at the email in my inbox. It says, “Leave me ALONE.”


Vulnerability Hangover impending-- intense emails.

When I look inside my email system, I can see this guy has opened most of my emails.

I’m confused. Why does he want me to leave him alone?

I talk to a few friends who’ve launched courses and programs before, and I feel myself relax and let it go as friend after friend says, It’s not you, it’s him.

You’re triggering something in him.

He has not been taking action on what he’s wanted to do. He’s told himself it’s not possible, and now you’re all up in his face, bringing up that painful subject, saying, This is actually possible.

But he’s convinced himself that it’s not possible, and it’s easier for him to believe that. Your emails are making him feel bad.

I don’t want to make him feel bad! But now he’s making ME feel bad.

He’s not the only one.

I’ve got someone trying to shame me for pushing my readers to make a decision.

I’ve got someone trying to keep me in my lane by saying I’ve sold out because I’m not making my living as a cartoonist but as a “guru” (bleurgh 🤢 ) because he’s a disappointed artist who wants to believe his unrealistic fantasy of gatekeeper-blessed success has been unfairly denied him.

Someone insisting I should give away my creative work for free, because they can’t afford it.

Someone who rails at me that talking about the value of what I offer and asking people to buy it is somehow doing damage.

I don’t want to overemphasize this. I’m literally listing just about every message of this nature I got in the entire week, while I got WAY MORE great-encouraging-excited emails.

It’s intense: I get love notes, sob stories, tortured decision emails, deep conversations about life goal emails…but also a few “leave me alone,” (which I almost never get when I’m NOT actively in a campaign) and those stick like cactus spines.

Trusting the process

I’ll admit: While I’ve written ones I’m very proud of, it’s not comfortable for me to send sales emails.

Sales emails are pushy by design. They say: Here is something I believe in, that I know has value. I think it’ll help you. What do you think? Are you in or out?

And if I’d listened to any of those people trying to keep me from following through because it makes them uncomfortable—if I’d allowed them to shame me—I would have quit as soon as I finished my webinar on Friday and fell off an emotional cliff for a couple of days.

I would have quit mid-week, when enrollments were slow, and not sent those intensely uncomfortable THREE emails on the last day.

And if I’d given up, there would be a couple dozen of people—who absolutely need to be in Authentic Visibility—sitting out in the cold.

How does that help anyone?

As much as I wish everyone who wanted to join my program would just see my first email and join, a lot of people need more explanation, more information… more time.

Mostly, they need a hard deadline and a lot more reminders than anyone really feels great about in order to make that big decision.

Here’s my phone screen literally the last hour of the enrollment (which ended at midnight Eastern).

…and I am so happy these last people decided to trust the offer, and more importantly themselves, and do it! It’s already amazing, and will get even better.

And remember, I was not alone in this: Here’s what it felt like to be part of the Autonomous Creative team during the last few months

On the Rollercoaster of Life, do you scream in terror or enjoy the ride?

Once you get over the whiplash, it’s time to check out those rollercoaster snapshots.

For the Autonomous Creative team, the floating stars and circling birdies have [mostly] dissipated, and I asked them to share their perspectives from behind the curtain with you.

Lou: design, tech, social media, and all-around support

Hi! My name is Lou Boyakhandjyan, and I take care of graphic design, technical operations, and other miscellanea over here at Autonomous Creative!

I started working with Jessica back in 2018, while I was still in her illustration program at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

As I’m sure you’re aware, it takes a metric buttload of work to get your projects out there in the hands of your audience, and Jessica is certainly no stranger to this dilemma (the grit is truly astonishing).

So, what started out as an icon-design gig quickly morphed into an “omg, I have help now??” gig, and suddenly I found myself helping with marketing analysis spreadsheets, migrating our email list from one provider to another, course launches, automations, branding for the Autonomous Creative Collective, social media, emails… you name it.

Even with all that experience under my belt, this launch was intense.

We had just hired two new members of the ACC to work with us—Annette and Anaël—and even though they had to learn a lot on the fly, they made this whole thing possible. Suddenly, my job title wasn’t “uh, I just do like, things?” anymore.

I was able to create a more concrete role, and work harder at the things I was best at. It made me realize what a huge step it had been for Jessica to hire me, too. It was taking that leap that allowed us to grow.

In the spirit of being authentically visible, I wanted to share what my experience of the launch was like from a design standpoint. Even if that means I too end up with a vulnerability hangover (worth it!).

Mostly, it was a lesson in overthinking.

I felt less vulnerability hangover anxiety and more impending creative/existential meltdown anxiety in the beginning...

Launching Authentic Visibility marked a serious learning experience for me as a designer. In the past, when I developed the visual assets for the Creative Focus Workshop, I was just a little icon-making noob. My icons made sense because I built them up from a fun visual metaphor (based on the life preserver logo Jessica had already done). I was lucky enough to have a knack for doing that kinda thing well (ok, maybe it’s talent versus luck, I’ll bite 😅 ).

It felt super-natural—though it took a long time to do because I was just learning how to use Illustrator— and was really, really fun.

Authentic Visibility presented me with a new challenge

In the fall of 2020, we ran a pilot version of the AV course in our community, The Autonomous Creative Collective. In the ACC, we have a sort of Soviet constructivism visual conversation goin’ on, but it just didn’t fit for Authentic Visibility. It felt too one-dimensional, somehow.

Pre - Vulnerability Hangover excitement...

Initially, I defaulted to Jessica’s illustrations from Out On the Wire as a sort of safety net. But those were too specific: microphones and audio mixing. It didn’t speak to the larger idea of “visibility.”

When the preparations for the full launch began, I was at a loss as to what to do.

It felt like the visual idiom had to be a lot more intentional.

I was intimidated by the scope of the program, by all of the hard work put into it by my teammates, and felt like I had to make sure I didn’t disappoint my team or Jessica! After all, I was now allowed to focus on what I was best at, right?

Authentic Visibility is something we’ve always been about here at Autonomous Creative. To me it means transparency—but with boundaries, and presented in a way that helps people learn from what we’re sharing.

It means being real, and honest, and still fun.

I seriously overthought it.

I forgot the fun.

I felt like I had to have some super-concrete and deeply thought out visual metaphor.

We got excited about the idea of cyanotypes (photographic prints made by putting objects on photo paper that’s then exposed directly), which could have been really fun. It’s a pretty cool process and there are a ton of variables! It can be wacky and weird and experimental, and really evokes the ideas of authenticity and visibility.

And then…

Some internal rigidity that I was unaware existed within the black hole that can be my brain kicked in. I took an approach that was absolutely the most stodgy angle possible: Anna Atkins’s 1800s cyanotype photographs of British algae.


They’re pretty, for sure, but like… SNORE. The colors were muted and tired. It all looked like a mid-2000s depressed indie band album cover. Some real CocoRosie-type stuff. Ok, you know what? I’ll just show you:

My logo:

Authentic Visbility logo (old)


My logo:

Authentic Visibility logo (old)


It's not a vulnerability hangover if it's just straight up embarrassment...and that's what I'm feeling looking at these logos.

EUGH. Then, as the time-crunch really started kicking in, I was like… This isn’t us at all.

I’d strayed so so far from what our identity is in search of some evanescent BS about “visibility.”

I was deep in the Dark Forest, and too anxious about not having found a concrete visual metaphor to communicate with my team about how stuck I felt. My brain had already run through a ton of scenarios and it was like I already had a vulnerability hangover without having said anything or shared anything in the first place!

I felt like I couldn’t ask for feedback yet because what I was doing didn’t feel worthy of feedback.

And so I was stuck in an endless loop of procrastination, anxiety, and feeling uneasy about what I had managed to get done.

Luckily, even though I felt like I was trapped, I had a support system in place. Other creatives who knew exactly how I felt.

I couldn’t avoid the conversation any longer. We had a meeting about visual assets, and I was forced to admit my gut feeling—that I had to go back to the drawing board, so that we could go back to our roots.

Bright colors aligned with our existing identity.

Overlays, offsets, and transparencies echoed what we already used but were brighter and more “look at me because I know you want to.”

Just a simpler, more honest presentation.

But here’s the thing about the Dark Forest—painful as it is, it’s necessary.

I would never have ended up with the visual identity that I’m so proud of now without trudging through all of the things that I hated, or without making myself vulnerable to critique.

Here’s the full journey:

Vulnerability Hangover Fodder

Like, I’ve felt pretty burnt out the last two weeks and I keep thinking “Why?? I’m not doing as much work as anyone else on the team! What I’m doing is the EASY stuff! this is just natural and easy for me! I’m cheating at life and work!”.

I still have to remind myself that making images and design decisions takes brain power and emotional energy! The ever-lurking beast that is imposter syndrome doesn’t make the rules. This is work.

Vulnerability hangover - worth it

And I feel way better about it.

I wouldn’t have made it through this launch without our new teammates, Annette and Anaël. Even though so much of this was new to them, they’d been through the Creative Focus Workshop. They were incredibly supportive and made things way more manageable for all of us.

Seriously, I would still be staring at the customer support inbox with horrible email anxiety for 2 hours a day if it wasn’t for Annette, and if Anaël hadn’t joined us, I wouldn’t be able to find my own nose on my face.

Speaking of my awesome teammates, here’s Annette’s experience…

Annette: community leader, customer support, and administration

Hi, I’m Annette Tomei. I joined team Autonomous Creative part-time in mid-November 2020. I was still in mid-pivot.

I met Jessica when I signed up for the Growing Gills Book Club just before I lost my first big client (a cruise line. It was spring 2020.)… great timing! Big changes were necessary. I joined the Creative Focus Workshop and found my happy online home in the Autonomous Creative Collective. When the Authentic Visibility pilot was offered, I knew I had to jump on this new path.

I’m no stranger to white-knuckle rollercoasters in my career. I was a chef for most of the past 25 years. Fast moving chaos doesn’t scare me (much). But this was all very new to me.

I was still in the Authentic Visibility pilot program when I started working with Autonomous Creative. My first impression was that I stepped into a blend of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory and Wonderland.

“She actually DOES all the THINGS.”

The lessons of CFW and AV aren’t just a bunch of concepts you learn about, cherry-pick the easy bits, and forget the rest.

I was about to apply all lessons many times over. Sometimes all at once. Or at least it felt that way.

For several years leading up to this, Jessica and Lou had done it all themselves. Now, they were in the midst of creating a new course from scratch, challenging themselves to up the engagement within the Autonomous Creative Collective, launch a brand-new podcast, do a couple of quick joint venture programs, hold a flash sale for CFW, AND hire and train two new part-timers spanning across 8 time zones (that would be me and Anaël).

I'm in danger

At least we already spoke the Autonomous Creative language.

Jessica mentioned having a Vulnerability Hangover. I’m just getting over mine from starting this new adventure.

I love to jump into new things with both feet. I’m happy to learn as I go. But this was a huge ocean of firsts for me. It required every skill I learned over the past year to weather the storm of learning all new work platforms (including my nemesis, Notion), learning the behind-the-scenes of the ACC, and doing my best to support this dynamic creative team through some uncharted water.

So, all those things I learned in Growing Gills, The Creative Engine, Creative Focus Workshop, and Authentic Visibility?

Between starting and running my own business and working with Autonomous Creative, I’m pretty sure I’ve tested every theory and every tool in the past 90 days. Since (and during, honestly) Authentic Visibility, I’ve been acquiring new clients, teaching classes, and pinning down what I’ll be offering in the future despite the pandemic.

I feel like living proof that this system works.

Most of my work on the launch involved managing the content of the email campaigns (proofreading, scheduling, cataloging & tabulating the statistics afterward), answering lots and lots of questions, and making sure all the ACC community-related engagements continued smoothly. Also, getting the curricula updates into the course platform as quickly as Jessica was writing it!

My biggest takeaways read like a vocabulary word list from the ACC…

  • Imperfect action beats no action every single time. I can’t stress this enough. As a life-long perfectionist and procrastinator, this is my favorite lesson of all.
  • Community matters: I couldn’t have done this without my ACC friends, co-working crew, and accountability partner. We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t all believe that the community Jessica has created is absolutely essential.
  • Knowing what my aligned week looks like helps me stay true to myself when it is absolutely impossible to live by.
  • Building and nurturing strong habits, guardrails, and standard operating procedures makes difficult or complex projects so much easier.
  • Knowing my Big Why frees me to say no with confidence and yes with excitement.
  • Knowing the difference between a project and a task seems simple but can be a game-changer. Most tasks on your to-do list are really huge projects in disguise.
  • If you want something, you have to end every story, every post, every email with a CTA (call to action).
  • Open loops, Should Monsters, and Dark Forests are inevitable, but to be avoided whenever possible.
  • Defining your limits in your own mind and being clear on your motivations before you start anything new keeps the message clear.
  • Rock your own weird color and celebrate the weird colors of others. Your people are the ones whose weird color complements yours!

We are all feeling pretty lucky to find such a great rainbow of complimentary weird colors!

Meanwhile, in France…

Long-time ACC member Anaël Verdier was tasked with helping Jessica sort through all the course updates and refinements that had come out of the pilot run in the fall.

Anaël joined Team AC at the same time as Annette in November 2020. That made for some challenging team logistics with Lou and Jessica in Philly, Annette in Seattle, and Anaël in Bordeaux. Eight time zones, 24-hour round-the-clock work schedules!

Anaël is a self-described cephalopodic author, coach, parent, teacher…whoa 🐙 So, great fit! Right?

Anaël: the Content Wrangler and Notion wizard

During the launch, I got sucked into a big black hole of content.

No vulnerability hangover here?

Don’t worry, I LOVE that, this is my favorite part of the creative work: handling loooooooooots of data (research, structures, chapters, notes…).

Mostly, I was dealing with the first iteration of AV and the various interactions with the pilot members to see what could be improved and added or subtracted from the original course material.

During the long hours it took me to find my way through that project, I was reminded of core aspects of any creative work:

Iteration on imperfect action beats overthinking

It’s much harder for creatives to iterate on existing content than it is to create new content, but it is through the improvement of existing pieces that we get closer to what we intended to be doing in the first place.

It’s harder, too.

It’s so thrilling to start anew: we’re facing an infinity of possibilities instead of the drudgery of going through something we already know and its dreaded imperfections.

But starting anew means we still need to make all the creative mistakes that are inherent to making something up.

Plus, when we start anew, most of us have a tendency to get lost in thinking and trying to predict what will have the most significant impact on our work. Whereas, when we iterate, we have actual data to look at and analyze to make informed decisions.

One Goal rules!

The risk when going through so much content is to get overwhelmed. Add to that the constant flow of emergencies that come with a launch (“Hey, can you check this piece of marketing out?” ; “I need your input on the emails!”), plus the already existing tasks and projects that I had to shove aside while I dedicated my time to the AV course.

It would have been super easy to get derailed if I didn’t have my One Goal clearly in mind at all times.

Whenever a new task would pop up in my Notion Dashboard, I’d ask two questions: is it a launch related emergency? (the only reason I would derail from the AV course) and will it help me getting the AV course project done?

If not, I’d simply ignore the task (knowing I’d have to get to it later) Priorities, ONE goal, TOP 3s are the key to keep overwhelm at bay.

Paper and scotch tape and scissors are my best friends

This one is probably very personal but I also prevent overwhelm by going analog.

When my brain can’t keep everything in, I just put it out in the world (usually by printing it out) and start hacking through it (actually cutting and pasting old school style)

This means when I need something, I just have to remember where it is physically in order to find it. Super easy!!

Did I mention iterations?

Iteration iteration iteration. I went through every piece of content I interacted with at least 3 times: one to encounter it, one to hack through it, one to put it back together. That beats (over)thinking about what to do.

In other words: imperfect action stacked on imperfect action.

And community.

As Lou likes to remind us: “autonomous” doesn’t mean alone — quite the opposite. True autonomy is when you understand and acknowledge your needs, and know when to ask for help. Being part of the team of the AC (and we were pretty much figuring what that meant as we went along) was a HUGE part of staying on track. I never felt alone.

The flipsides of teamwork are accountability (I had to report, something I’m very bad at), and guilt when I felt I was taking too long or I judged myself for how imperfect my work was (alas, knowing the value of imperfect action doesn’t make it easier to accept imperfection). But the warmth and motivation and emulation beat that 10000x.

If you’re interested in visibility

My main filter to choose what to do with content was the overall message of the pieces: who are they for, what are they for, and what should they say. Efficient marketing relies on ultra clarity of message.

To get it right, guess what? You need to iterate on it.

You’ve probably now gathered that we are all the type who enjoy the ride— even when we’re screaming with terror on the inside! And we have the feeling you’re kinda like that too.

After all, when you’re constantly tempted by new, shiny projects, tormented by your abandoned pursuits, and frustrated to tears by whatever you’re actually working on, you have to admit that you’re actually quite the thrill-seeker.

The more I do this (“this” being develop programs and then orchestrate marketing for them), the more I realize how much a project like this has in common with the kind of major creative projects, like theater productions, art exhibitions, or graphic novels that we help shepherd through in the Creative Focus Workshop.

Why does this matter to you?

Maybe it doesn’t. But if you make major creative works, then find yourself stymied by trying to put them into the world, maybe this is why: because when you do, you’ll be facing a major vulnerability hangover.

But I always say, the best way to raise your bar for risk is to do something and not die.

We survived, we made it through the vulnerability hangover, and, hey, my cortisol levels are almost back to normal!

We are immensely proud of what we pulled off, as well as of all the amazing people in our new cohort.

It was worth it.

Meet Jessica Abel

Meet Jessica Abel

Author. Cartoonist. Teacher. Coach.

I help people whose imagination and creativity are the ultimate source of everything they do in their professional life stop grinding and start carving out the deep focus needed to finish—and launch—the game-changing work they want to be known for.  Discover my Courses, Join the FREE Creative Engine Workshop or find out more about me.

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