I’ve wanted to write this for a while but needed to gain enough separation and perspective to approach it the right way. The following paragraphs contain no advice or solutions, only experiences. I recently did an audio interview with Joey Korenman over at School Of Motion and we touched on the subject, but the brevity and my awkward delivery possibly undermined the severity of the topic. The immediate response to that section overshadowed everything else so I think there’s room for me to expand here. I have a huge respect for everyone who has written or spoke about burnout over the years, whether publicly or privately. I’m certainly not going to drag anyone back into the discussion but you know who you are, and thank you.
Before I start let me assure you that at this point I'm really fine, I'm absolutely not looking for sympathy or any kind of personal response. It's evident that we all deal with this at some point, to different degrees and with varying results, but it's a problem that we share and should probably talk about it more. I'm not great at writing, but I'm even less great at talking, so here goes...
A SLOW BURN
It’s been well over two years now since I realised I had burned out, luckily it feels like a lifetime ago. Before this I thought I could confidently catch any warning signs and right the ship when necessary; throughout the years I had heard plenty of first hand accounts from heroes and peers, how could it possibly happen to me?
Stepping back a little, I arrived in the design world a bit later than I would have liked; I didn’t figure out what graphic design even was for a long while after leaving school and awkwardly stumbling through a frustrating year of an art course at university. Once I did I was excited and ambitious, but also felt like I’d missed out on opportunities and had wasted time getting there. As such I worked hard, seriously hard, in order to make up for this. A short time later I discovered motion graphics and the game changed again. The vernacular increased ten fold, the amount of new things to learn was exhausting but exhilarating. I had a great time throughout college/university: working on school projects, learning software, bar tending, part time design internships that turned into part time day jobs, freelance work, personal projects. I was even still playing in a band for the first year or so. Spare time was an unmentioned phenomenon.
I recall a co-worker (not a creative, incidentally) saying to me during this time “I don’t know how you do it”. Aside from caffeine and youthful enthusiasm, I have no idea. I actually don’t regret that period of time for one second; I can pinpoint specific, important opportunities in my early ‘career’ that wouldn’t have arose without the relentless attitude. I made everything matter. Over the years I had seen friends apply their addictive personalities to negative things and wanted to do the exact opposite with mine.
IDIOMS FOR ADDICTS AND IDIOTS
Old habits die hard, etc. Fast forward a few years and my schedule hadn’t changed much; commercial work replaced most things and I was filling the rest of the gaps way too tightly with other projects. Often it was collaborative projects, or just trying to help out friends when I could. I came of age in the punk scene, and once everything started to settle in it really started to bother me that I made a living by adding to the noise that I have such contempt for. It felt kind of gross that I was part of the advertising industry, it was a tough pill to swallow. I wanted to create work that made people happy, or that had some semblance of cultural substance. I also cared far too much about the quality of work I was producing in contrast to the realities of client/agency/studio relationships; everything bothered me more than it should so I looked for other outlets where I could be in control. Unfortunately the original frustrations didn’t wane.
I want to mention at this point that I have never really felt overworked by other people, least of all Zeitguised. This is an important distinction to make because some people I’ve spoken to about this were in situations ostensibly outside of their control. It didn’t feel like it at times, but I had complete agency over my time and energy (depending on your standpoint on free will). The mistakes I made were my own. Of course there were a few late nights, more than a few during some projects, but on the whole this issue was managed exceptionally well and I feel fortunate for that. Still, I had an overwhelming feeling of not having enough time to do the things I wanted to do, creatively or otherwise. Long before I took notice of any emotional or physical breakdowns I can remember thinking only in terms of hours in the day, with little regard to energy.
At some point that issue became manifest. I found it increasingly tough to look at a monitor and pick up a Wacom pen. My creativity took a huge knock, I relished more mundane tasks such as modelling, things with finite scope. I had endless ideas ricocheting around my brain but lacked the motivation to realise them. In lieu of creative output I started filling my time with other things. I couldn’t accept that I found it hard to make the work that I wanted to so I poured myself into feeling useful in any way possible, for example the technical articles on my site. Luckily the outcome of this was actually really positive, I got so many nice comments about those things and that helped a lot.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the feelings of frustration, disappointment and guilt started. It was a very slow process and I ended up in a dark place for a pretty long time. I’m a huge proponent for good and honest communication, but by the time I gained the courage to talk about what was happening it had already started to change me. Out of all the negative feelings I think guilt is near the top of the list and it acted as a catalyst; I was working on amazing jobs, I lived in an amazing city with good friends, at the time I was in a stable and supportive relationship. This made me desperately angry at myself for having the impudence to feel sad at all. Measuring one’s own problems against others’, whether locally or globally is unhealthy but unavoidable.
In work I tried to cover things up with humour, which as a British dude is often dry and sarcastic; a toxic mix when accompanied by a stormy and reactionary attitude. I imagine my subconscious probably wanted something to snap at some point, continuing on the same path would have been an impossibility. Late night emails in response to feedback included increasingly exhaustion-fed passive aggressive tones. I couldn’t shake recurring thoughts that I was in this objectively amazing situation and I was still dissatisfied and pissed off. I could foresee only a decline in circumstance and was worried about how I would cope in light of how I was failing to at the time. Ridiculous, really, but the depression caused by my burnout was pretty damn good at clouding rational thought. At home I let it consume me; I was generally too busy to even try to deal with it, even when I was suffering I kept overloading. I was short sighted and my attitude caused irreparable damage to relationships with people I love. Inside I was a car crash, on the surface my behaviour was often egregious.
You’re unlikely to meet a more demonstrative spokesman for communication than me. In my experience almost every problem during projects can be attributed to a breakdown in conversation or poor articulation from one or more parties (I make no exception for myself here). It’s therefore devastatingly ironic that it took me so long to be honest with myself and others and talk about it. As soon as I did my world changed. It is of course a long road that probably has no definitive end, but just talking about it with the right people immediately gave me the opportunity to change things.
In the past I tried to mentally separate commercial work from personal projects, but in the wrong way. I tried to convince myself that my side projects didn’t use the same amount of energy, I refused to see that the hours, days and weekends I used up were so valuable. The biggest piece of advice I got, in summary, was to simply work less and let things go.
Working less is the result of saying no more often, usually to myself. It sounds obvious, but of course it’s easier said than done. The other (possibly more manageable) point is to actively compartmentalise commercial work and personal projects in a healthy way. Advertising is what it is, it’s how we pay rent and eat. We can try our best to make it amazing, in fact in reality that's a very real possibility a lot of the time. But advertising is not art.
Recently I’ve been approaching commercial work with a very different energy and attitude, and I’ve been so much happier. The current project, whatever it is, doesn’t define my work as a designer. It unequivocally does not define my work as an artist. Sometimes the next project will be worse than the previous one, and it just doesn’t matter. I take responsibility for the things I can control, I’m accountable for my performance, but I no longer get upset about other people’s decisions that affect the final result. This frees up so much mental capacity for things I want to pursue, creative or otherwise. Finally, from the other direction it was important to admit that personal projects take up the same resources as anything else and deserve the respect that this entails.
This post turned out way longer than I anticipated, for which I tentatively apologise, but it still feels like a brief summary of events. Even though I planned to write it for a long time it is a tough decision to post it, nobody wants to bring baggage into their career. However, in response to others who were brave enough to talk about it in the past I really wanted to contribute to the pool of information because my experience was fairly severe. I am currently in a wholly positive space, I’m excited about work and life in healthy, proportionate amounts. It’s a long road, and something that must be constantly worked on, but I’m in a better position than I can ever remember being in before.
Thank you to everyone who has helped me, given me chances and opportunities, I am without doubt a better person because of this. Thanks to the handful of people who made it to the bottom of this post, it means a lot. If you think someone you know could benefit from reading it then please share it with them. More importantly just talk more.