On Getting (and Using) Another Chance

04/16/13

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Last week, you may recall, I stopped blogging for a few days. My life has become chaotic recently, and I needed to let a few things go temporarily. To compound the overwhelm, I was feeling like a failure. Last January, after two years of a packed work schedule, I decided that 2013 was going to be different — that I would take less work, be less busy and just do less in my life in an effort to enjoy myself more. You can read the post I wrote about that decision here. I had a great opportunity in early January to make that happen. At the time, I was working on only a few projects and I was set up to have a year of balance. As a freelancer I am lucky: I get to decide what work I take and what work I decline. No one forces me to take a job when I don’t have time in my schedule. And that’s a great thing.

But something happened. Sometime in mid-January, a whole bunch of work, including two book offers and six illustration jobs, landed in my inbox. And I said yes to all of them, in a flash, without much thinking. Two of the books are huge endeavors. One because I’m writing it (and not illustrating it) and another because it includes 900 illustrations (which I had 4 months to complete). Last week, things came to a head and the impact of my workload (and being way out of my comfort zone) made me realize I had made a huge mistake. I had done everything I said I wouldn’t do. I had taken on too much, was busy and overwhelmed and miserable.

A former coworker calls those moments when you realize you have made really bad decisions “come to Jesus” moments. I am not religious, so for me this is was not literally a “come to Jesus” moment. But figuratively it was. Now is the time I have to step back and face the facts. I have to attempt to learn from the impact of my decisions. The impact was that I was working 11-12 hour days, 6 days a week to meet all of my freelance work obligations. All the while, planning a wedding and trying to be a good partner to Clay. The impact was insomnia, not eating well, bad anxiety, exhaustion.

There was a time when I asked the universe for “a lot of work.” I thought that’s what I wanted. When you are starting out as a freelancer and you have very little work and struggle to pay the bills, often times “a lot of work” is the goal. And, on top of that, you want great jobs and clients. Over time, I got all of that: a lot of work and amazing clients.

So what happened? I think the main problem is that I am still learning how to say no to exciting opportunities in service of a better quality of life. I want to do it all. Last week I attended the TYPO Design Conference in San Francisco. Designer Satsuki Shibuya gave a great talk on this very topic. A bout of frightening illness caused her to totally re-evaluate her work/life balance. She reminded us simply that we cannot do it all. Humans are not bionic. And, that, in fact, our lives (and our work) will be better if we take on less. DUH, I thought. It’s such a simple concept, so why is it so hard for so many of us to grasp? Do I live in fear that if I say no, I’ll never have a great opportunity again?

Which brings me back to January. I can’t rewind the clock. I made commitments to clients that I need to fulfill. And I need to do my best work for all of them. So, for now, I’m still working a lot. And I’m still pretty tired. But what I do get is another chance. I can decide never to let this happen again. I can decide to start over once this hectic period ends in June.

I love what I do. I love being an illustrator and I love working hard at it. I love my clients, and the vast majority of the work I’ve had in the last three years has been incredibly exciting and fulfilling. I want to keep doing exciting work for great clients. But I’ve realized I’m not going to love my work anymore unless I also have time for breaks from it — to hang out with friends and my partner, gather new inspiration, make personal work, play, explore, be adventurous.

Thank goodness for second (or third or fourth) chances. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

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