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This free resource will help you navigate your arts career, no matter where you’re at

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BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE


When was the last time you performed a gig, or taught a student how to play that challenging piece they’re working on? When was the last time you practised a scale, or sent an email about your next project?

As arts industry workers, it can feel like we’re constantly on the go. But here’s a question that might yield a more confronting response: When was the last time you stopped, sat down with a cuppa, and spent a decent amount of time just checking in with yourself?

Classical musician and arts industry mentor Susan Eldridge wants you to do exactly that — and she’s written a new guide to help.

Navigate Well, recently released through the Arts Wellbeing Collective, is Susan’s latest project that will give you a gentle nudge in the right direction — that is, the direction you want to take in your arts work. Ideally, that direction will be informed by your wants, needs, and boundaries, and will empower you to start taking control of everything from your schedule to your finances.

The free Navigate Well resource combines career guidance from Susan with interactive elements you can fill out on your own. So take a moment to stop and have a think about what self-care might look like for you within your arts career.

This interview with Susan — founder of Notable Values and author of Navigate Well — might just help you get started.

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Susan, your latest project Navigate Well was just released via the Arts Wellbeing Collective. Congratulations! In a nutshell, what is this resource about, and who is it for?

Navigate Well is a guide that has career concepts and tools for people working in the performing arts industry. Imagine if you had me as your expert career coach, but in a written form!

I want to acknowledge that the wonderful team at the Arts Wellbeing Collective has generously supported Navigate Well so it’s available free to everyone.

This resource helps readers navigate their work “at any stage of a performing arts career”. I’m interested to learn how you met the challenge of writing a guide that addresses the needs and situations of such a broad group of people — from performing arts workers who are emerging or established to those who have different paths inside the industry, be it music educator or solo violinist.

That’s such good insight. I often get people saying: ‘How did you know just the right question to ask me?’ And the response is that my work is not giving advice or telling people what to do. It’s the opposite of that. My work is asking really good questions — the kind of question that stops you in your tracks and makes you say: ‘I’ve never been asked that before.’

This guide is a set of questions that steps the reader through their own process of figuring out their why, and then their how. It’s not a guide that tells you what to do, it’s a guide that asks you to identify what matters to you, what you need, and then to write your own journey to get there.

It’s written from the perspective of somebody who works in the industry — don’t forget that I’m also a freelance classical musician!

With that in mind, how much of your Navigate Well guide was informed by your own career decisions, and the bold moves you made along the way?

Oh, Steph — so much! Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of strategies in there that I’ve learnt the hard way. But I think the biggest part that my personal experience plays in the guide is that we have to build a life and a career based on our values and our needs.

Trying to build a life and career by pleasing others, ignoring our needs, and seeking external validation is the road to mental illness and breakdown.

In case any readers don’t know my backstory, here’s the [low-down] of how I got to here: I had a very challenging time studying music at uni and failed my first attempt. So I ran away — not to the circus! But to a corporate career overseas. I came back to Australia, as a grown-up, and wanted to figure out what had happened to me at uni.

After a lot of inner work, I realised that there was nothing wrong with me. The system was the problem.

So I got to work fixing the systems. The work I do now supports organisations to improve the work culture and training programs for artists.

Thank you for sharing, Susan. Your guide also addresses topics that are hard to talk about — especially surrounding those issues of ignoring needs and pleasing others. One of your Navigate Well sections is called “Know your No”, in which you highlight the value of personal and occupational boundaries — from physical health to morals and scheduling. How would you describe that difficult area for arts workers in a gig economy, when saying “no” can often feel like turning down rent for the week, or closing the door to a future opportunity?

Thanks for picking up on this point, it’s an important one and there are two separate topics in your question. There’s the topic of values, and the separate topic of money.

We need to know why we’re saying yes or no, and that needs to be guided by knowing your values. I’ll give you an example. Something I care a lot about is the way that women and non-binary people are represented: this is a value of mine. So I don’t say yes to gigs where the repertoire is problematic in its representation of women. If I get asked to play in the pit for an opera where the women only suffer and die in the story then I’ll say no.

And that leads onto your question about financial precarity. The financial precarity is the symptom — the root cause is that people may not have had the support they need to take control of their finances. If one gig is the difference between rent that week, then the gig is not the problem, the big picture financial planning is the problem.

Working as a freelancer means that money flows into our lives in an unpredictable pattern, so we need support and skills to manage the flow. It’s not the unpredictability that’s the problem, it’s the planning.

You have designed space for your readers to personalise this resource, writing down their own experiences and start thinking about that planning. For example, you give space to document and refine values, then turn those values into action. How do you feel it’s important for arts workers to be aware of their wants and needs, and to accommodate those as a top career priority?

It’s everything! Imagine if you just got in the car and started driving. You don’t know where you’re going or why.

That’s exactly what happens when we don’t start with our values. We just get yanked around saying yes to everything.

I’m not suggesting there’s a problem saying yes to everything, as long as you know why you’re saying yes. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere you don’t want to be.

How important is it to take a step back and look at the bigger picture — even when it may seem like there’s no time to do anything but keep practising, keep teaching, keep performing?

I’ll come back to my previous response: if you don’t know why you’re doing this and where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere you don’t want to be.

I would encourage people to ask themselves why they are practising, teaching and performing. What does success at that activity look like for you? Is the practice, teaching, and performing leading you towards that success? Is the practice, teaching, and performing supported by time to look after your mind and body?

And here’s a mic drop question: What emotional need are you meeting by avoiding self-care and career planning?

You’ve spent so many years helping and mentoring arts workers; I wonder how you feel a positive mental space for the individual is essential for the industry as a whole?

Mental health and wellbeing is so important. We can’t make our best art if we are suffering.

I feel strongly that there’s a Venn diagram overlap between mental health and career planning. That’s why I’m so proud to have written a career guide that’s super practical, and also grounded in the principles that we know support mental wellbeing.

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What did you learn about yourself and your own values through writing this guide?

Writing the guide was an incredible experience, but releasing the book has been really challenging. As a classical musician, I perform other people’s music, so I’m used to being in the public sphere representing the creative voice of somebody else.

This time, it’s all my original creative work out there to the whole industry, and it feels very vulnerable. It feels like people are looking inside my head, and it feels like they’re underneath my skin. This might be the way that writers and composers feel as they release their work into the world.

It’s complex and difficult. I’ve realised I don’t have the right self-care tools or expertise to manage this on my own, so I’m going to start working with a mental health professional.

What are some changes you would personally like for your readers to make after reading this guide?

Firstly, I would say thank you to any readers for investing in themselves by reading the guide, reflecting on the questions, and responding truthfully. If they’ve done that, then they will have a set of detailed, individual steps to take.

One part that didn’t make it into the guide was some research about how to keep yourself accountable for change. That would be something I would like readers to do: set up systems to keep themselves accountable for self-care and taking forward momentum towards their version of success.


The Navigate Well guide by Susan Eldridge is available for free on the Arts Wellbeing Collective website — an Arts Centre Melbourne initiative.


CutCommon is a proud voluntary member of the Arts Wellbeing Collective.

This article is a general discussion and is not intended to replace tailored mental health advice. For support, contact your GP, call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or call the Support Act Wellbeing Helpline on 1800 959 500.


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Images supplied. Credit Lulu & Lime.

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