I remember asking people about how it was to work as a freelance artist. I did often, way too often, desperately trying to gather information about it before making the jump, leaving my studio job in an attempt to improve my life. It was dire, they said. Overworking oneself was the norm, and accepting all gigs was assumed since, you know, work might come in irregularly and some months you might have nothing to do, forced to live off your savings. Plus out there, the world was hard, a jungle full of wolves, cannibals, zombies...
That's what they said. And I believed it, for a while.
Then I said NO to a commission, and the universe didn't implode. It was for moral reasons, actually: it was decently paid and in some way could have been motivating and, hell, I needed the money, but my guts spoke the truth, and you can't ignore your guts. I felt stupid at first, but soon I realized I did the right thing, and that feeling was absolutely worth it.
The second time it was long after that, once I have already been in the industry for a while. My commissions were not very well paid, so I had to take so many of them, that when I was approached by a new client, the only option was to decline the offer. You know, you absolutely don't want to close the door for a potential new client, so you can imagine how much it hurt. At least, at first. Soon after, I told myself "dude, you just had to reject a new project because you have TOO MUCH work", and I smiled, remembering all those dire predictions, all those ghosts that haunted me before and after I first walked into this jungle. It was hard, yes, but no zombies, no post-apocalyptic badland, no times when I was forced (again) to live off rice and tuna cans. I was far from being a successful artist, but I could make a living and, more importantly, I had a steady flow of incoming projects, and looking at all that it felt so DAMN GOOD.
Lately, my working schedule has become something I'm pretty unfamiliar with: longer, bigger, better paid projects, which set a totally different pace to the way I work and organize my calendar. Also, for the first time since I started my freelance career, I have been in a position that required me to plan my schedule months in advance, which actually included the need to say no to a lot of incoming projects. That's a bitter-sweet feeling, because some are really interesting, highly motivating, or have the potential to become an interesting business relationship. The sweet part, though, it's actually worth some consideration: this kind of schedule allows me to dedicate more time to a single commission, ensuring that I'll learn more, improve my skills, and deliver better quality material. Plus, when it comes to my life outside work, it also helps me planning things, like travels or just time off with friends, knowing that no last-minute commissions will force me to cancel. It's, I'd say, empowering.
This is my own personal experience, and I'm pretty sure it's different for many of you out there. My point here is: it's ok to say no to a commission from time to time. Choose your battles, pick the ones that are going to add something to your skills and your portfolio, rather than those which would only put money in your pocket. That is, if you are in a suitable position. In any case, have a plan, or even several plans, and don't simply go with the flow to the point where you lose sight of your personal goals.
No, it's not enough with "I want to work for Blizzard one day!"; mind your steps, work on your skills and portfolio and, if a project takes you somewhere you don't want to be as a professional, consider the option of saying no. Who knows? Maybe your goals will change over time, but if they do, let it be so because it was your own decision.
Summarizing, it's ok to say NO sometimes:
If you feel sorely overworked.
If a commission goes against your morals.
If you think it's underpaid.
If it clashes with your professional goals.
If the conditions of the contract are unfair.
If it'd mean not attending your son's birthday, or cancelling that wonderful weekend plan with your boyfriend.
Trust me, the universe will not implode.