Last month I was invited to speak at Creative Mornings in Edinburgh on the theme of “taboo”, and decided to talk about mental health and self-care for the creative soul.
You might have see a diagram of the creative process online that includes this list:
- This is awesome
- This is tricky
- This is shit
- I am shit
- This might be ok
- Oh wait…
- This is awesome…
Despite the scary patch in the middle when we think we’re going to lose our marbles, we know we’ll get off safely at the other end, with a big smile on our face.
So we keep on riding the creative rollercoaster.
But what happens when that’s no longer the case?
What happens when riding the creative rollercoaster makes you sick, and you stop loving your job?
Or harder still, what happens when you stop loving yourself?
There’s a yin to the yang of creative life that people don’t often talk about… creative burnout, depression and mental health.
I’m going to share my experience of burning out, going freelance, and putting my life back together again, and some ideas for making creative life a bit less stressful.
But first—and because the theme of this talk is ‘taboo’, I want to make a confession or two.
It’s was really stressful writing the talk.
Which is pretty ironic considering the subject matter.
In January I moved from London back to Glasgow. The main reason for moving back to Scotland was to improve my lifestyle.
The idea was:
- Less time commuting.
- Less stress.
- Lower living costs.
- More time for running my own experiments.
But since then…
I’ve ended up starting a wee graphic design studio by mistake, and subcontracting other freelancers for the first time.
So there I was last weekend, stressing out about writing a talk about looking after yourself as a freelancer, because… I had too much work on.
Then I got stressed by the fact that I was stressed about it.
Here’s my second confession:
Things got so bad that I started fantasising about firing all my clients, then changing my email address and phone number so they couldn’t contact me ever again.
I just wanted to get that off my chest.
Because I was short of time, I decided not to do slides for my talk. (Which I’m glad of now, as it also meant people could focus on the story I was telling). Most slides for talks are pretty predictable anyway…
- There would have been a photo of me looking really unhappy.
- A few meaningless platitudes centered in massive type.
- Lots of photos of people riding bikes.
- A gratuitous cat photo or two.
- Oh, and I did this clever thing of adding a “U” after the “O” in the Creative Mornings logo, to make it “mournings” as in the thing you do at funerals.
(By the way, if you do want to see any of those slides, you can see them at greig.ccc/creativemornings).
The worst year of my life.
If that sounds a bit full-on, don’t worry… it has a happy ending.
About 5 years ago I was working at a design studio down in London.
I started to get panic attacks after my lunch break. The studio was on the first floor, and I would stand at the bottom of the stairs, looking up, and dreading going back to my desk.
I ignored these feelings (I’m a man, after all), and they got worse.
Until one day, I physically couldn’t go to work.
I got off the bus on the wrong side of the river, and wandered around in a daze.
My doctor told me I was depressed. I turned down the medication he offered me, and decided to start doing therapy instead.
It’s hard to describe depression in words.
I can tell you that I cried a lot in those first few weeks. And it was two years before I was able to write about it on my blog.
Depression is like a silent scream, that eats you from the inside in tiny gnashes that you don’t notice, until suddenly there’s a huge chunk of you missing.
But now looking back, there’s something funny about that painful year of mine… it was also one of the best years of my life.
Inspired by the street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, I started taking photos of interesting people with their bikes.
I enjoy it so much, that I started a blog called CycleLove as a home for the photos. And I enjoyed that so much I started blogging about bike culture in London and beyond.
Much to my surprise, it took off, and I was featured in Design Week, photographed for the Rapha blog, took part in a talk at the V&A in London, and was even asked to speak on BBC radio during the Olympics.
That same year I also quit my job, went travelling across the US by train, and became self-employed. So despite it being a really painful year, it also triggered a lot of changes in my life for the better.
I think it’s because things had gotten so bad, that I was willing to put my usual beliefs on hold (like “I’m shy”) and act differently from usual.
Things were so bad, and I didn’t have anything left to lose, so I just went for it.
If you’re listening to this and thinking “Yup that’s me, I’m feeling burnt out”, I just want to say this…
You are not alone.
And things will get better, I promise you.
Not many people talk about it, but everyone has these feelings at some point or another.
I know for sure, because I’ve become an accidental agony aunt for graphic designers.
The year after I started CycleLove, I also started writing about my relationship with the design industry. It started with an angry rant that I published titled ‘How to stop being a graphic designer’.
It got waaaaay more attention than anything else I’d written so far about being a designer.
And I realised that I’d struck a nerve.
Yes you can bitch about clients or your boss down the pub on a Friday… but there’s no safe place for designers to discuss their feelings about work honestly.
So now people who google “I hate being a graphic designer” or “Quit graphic design” end up on my blog.
And readers have started emailing me to say thank you, and share their stories.
I’m not claiming to have any magic solutions.
A lot of time, I fail to follow my own advice, which is pretty stupid. That’s what we do though, right?
It’s pretty complicated being a human…
But I’ve found that sharing my inner monologue on the creative process helps other people too, as well as myself.
And over the years I’ve started to spot some patterns in the emails that people write, and have come up with three categories: tired, mired and expired.
So I thought I’d paraphrase a few examples of the kind of things that say…
Tired: when you still love your design job, but you need to give yourself a break
- “I love design and what I do — but I’m on the edge of having a meltdown”.
- “I’m exhausted, and even the thought of making a switch overwhelms me”.
Mired: when your work has started to feel meaningless, and you’ve lost sight of your purpose
- “I spend too much time making other people’s ideas… and not enough time making my own”.
- “I still want to design, but for something more fulfilling”.
Expired - these are the painful ones to hear - when you’re completely burnt out
- “I’m afraid I’m losing what’s left of my sanity… I’m looking for a way out”.
- “I feel like there’s nowhere left to go — is there life after graphic design?”
Wherever you might sit on the tired/mired/expired scale… I think there’s always something good that can come of it, if you look at your situation the right way.
So a question I’ve been asking recently is this… what if there’s a positive side to creative burnout?
Doesn’t the fact that you’ve burnout out in the first place show that you still care deeply about what you do?
And yes, that is a leading question…
How to be a ____ without losing your sanity
Last year I started writing a book, inspired by Adrian Shaughnessy’s “How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul”, which I felt was missing something.
His book covers the practical side of being a graphic designer, starting a business, and running a studio.
But what about looking after yourself? Especially in a world where the lines between work and home are increasingly blurred.
So my book is going to be called “How to be a graphic designer without losing your sanity”.
Feeding your soul is so hard…
How the hell do you feed something which is invisible? That you can’t feel or touch?
But the answer is obvious, if you think about it.
If you soul is invisible, you need to feed it invisible things:
Let’s talk about compassion quickly, without getting into the realms of hippy-dippy self-help, if we can…
Google “Love yourself like your life depends on it” and you’ll find a great book about a guy called Kamal Ravikant who went through an even deeper, darker depression than me, and found a way out.
Without giving too much away, his solution is very simple.
You just need to spend a few minutes looking at yourself in the mirror every day, saying over and over again: “I love myself”.
This sounds a bit crazy, but it does work, if you say it like you mean it.
After all, if you aren’t willing to love yourself, how can anyone else?
Don’t be a dick to yourself. How you treat yourself is one of the few things in the world you have complete control over.
That said, I must admit that I struggle with this. I’m too hard on myself a lot of the time, and I beat myself up when stuff goes wrong, instead of practising self-forgiveness.
Would you want the voice inside your head as a friend in real life?
If not, you need to do something about it. It’s not an easy thing to fix, but I’m working on it…
Meditation. Meditation is easier than you think, and you don’t have to treat it as a spiritual practice unless you want to.
Just close your eyes, and focus on your breathing for a few minutes. Observe all the thoughts swimming around your head. Let them wash over you, until the waves calm down, and you find a few moments of calm.
(Guided meditation tapes, or apps like Headspace are a really easy way to get started.)
Book a holiday already I’ve started going off the grid from time to time. Hiking without a mobile even. I spent 4 days on Eigg with no internet or phone reception earlier this month, which is a record for me.
But even leaving your phone at home for an afternoon can help your brain to disconnect. In a world that’s always on, a little bit of time-off is becoming more and more precious.
Get a pet As my friend put it…
“I feel like I learned so much about my own anxiety issues after getting a cat. It taught me a lot of empathy.”
And yes, I recently got a cat, in case you hadn’t noticed.
If you’re working from home: With more and more people working alone from home, another can of worms has been opened up.
For some reason the obvious stuff goes out the window when no-one else is watching us work.
So you have to do the basics like…
- Get dressed.
- Brush your teeth.
- Not eat chocolate biscuits for lunch. (Ahem, yes, that’s me).
Also remember this… it’s your home, not a prison… so…
- Leave the house every day, even if you don’t have to.
- Create an errand for yourself if you don’t have a real one to run.
- Try a pretend commute — I used to cycle around in a loop around my neighbourhood, and take re-entering the house as a cue to enter ‘work’ mode.
Over the past five years I’ve been working my into something I’m calling “Undesign.”
There are two reason I chose ‘Undesign’ for the name.
Firstly, because the Undesign process is the opposite of the usual design process. By this I mean:
1) There’s less structure, and more experimentation. Because a wee bit of chaos every now and again is healthy.
2) There’s less pixel perfection, and more rough drafts. Because the Undesign process only works if you keep testing new ideas at a rapid pace,
Secondly, there’s an old English definition of the word which I like, and that’s undesigning as an adjective to describe a person, meaning “frank” or “straightforward”.
(If you haven’t already guessed, I’m a big fan of honesty… because I think it makes life both easier, and more interesting).
The Undesign process only works if you’re willing to be honest with yourself.
So what is Undesign exactly? In short, Undersign is a toolkit for creative people at a crossroads in their career.
And it’s designed, or undesigned rather, to gives you three things:
Perspective. By that I mean a clear sense of not just who you are and where you’ve been, but also who you could be. (And I should add a quick disclaimer that it’s not about “following your passion” which I think is a limiting concept… I’d much rather we embrace our multi-potentalities.
Action. A concrete list of next steps to explore your career options. Or to-dos that you actually can do.
Support. A community of likeminded people who will support you, help you figure out what’s next, and offer advice on overcoming barriers you’re facing.
You can join the waiting list for the Undesign course on my website at greig.cc/undesign.
The easiest thing to do is also the hardest
Lastly, I want to finish on the same topic I started with: our mental health.
There’s only one way to stop mental health being a taboo subject… and that’s for us to start talking more about it.
When I wrote my blog post about depression, I discovered that lots of people I knew had been through something similar.
But they’d never talked about it before.
It was only when I hit publish on that article that they opened up to me.
I’m not saying that you need to publish a warts and all confessional on Medium. There’s enough of those already.
But do try to open up to someone about a painful experience you’ve had. And see what happens.
You’re more powerful than you think.
And I think you can make a tiny ripple in your inner circle of friends and family.
Talking about mental health is the easiest thing to do in theory, but it’s probably the hardest in practice. So we have to keep working at it. If you can be brave enough to take that risk, to open up about some of your darkest and most painful thoughts, we have a chance of turning those ripples into a wave.
I think our mental health is something that deserves to be talked about openly, instead of it being taboo.