On Self-Employment, Workaholism and Getting My Life Back

05/23/17

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

-Mary Oliver

I could have titled this blog post What a Difference a Year Makes.

Or What Happens When you Really Lose It.

Or, simply, Freedom.

What I call it doesn’t matter. It just feels important to me that I write this down: part warning, part catharsis, part story of recovery.

I’m not telling this story because it’s at all unusual or because I think it’s in any way special. I’m telling it because the American ideal of busy-ness, success-by-hard-work, and the layer of bizarre importance we place on both social media & email — have the potential to be damaging. And I wanted to talk about how all of those things have impacted me and how I’m beginning to find freedom from them.

This is a story that started ten years ago when I left my job to begin making a full time living as an artist. But the important part of the story starts one year ago, almost to the day.

At the time, I was on a book tour on a stop in in New York City, and I was about to continue on to Minneapolis to deliver the 2016 Commencement Address at Minneapolis College of Art and Design and then do more book events the same week. I woke up in my friend Debbie’s apartment in Chelsea on a beautiful May morning, and came to the profound realization that I was done with the way things were in my life. I was exhausted, in physical pain, anxious and depressed. Something had to change, and this time was serious. I had hit bottom. I realized I could no longer sustain the intense workload and travel schedule that I’d been carrying for the past few years of my ten year career.

True fact: I used to be person who had a job and also thoroughly enjoyed her life outside of her job. I went to work (I worked for many years at two different non-profit organizations), felt committed and did my thing, but I didn’t bring it home with me. There was a tight container around work between the hours of 9 and 5. After 5 pm and on the weekends, I rested, swam, went hiking, hung out with friends, read books, slept in, went dancing, did some sewing and art projects, and relaxed in front of the TV.

Ten years ago in 2007, when I was 39 years old, I quit my job at the non-profit to pursue a career as an artist full time and, almost immediately, something inside of me shifted. As an artist just beginning her freelance career, I didn’t have an income yet, and I adopted a new mindset very quickly: time is money. I began to feel like even if I wasn’t working on a paid project (which I rarely did in the first couple of years), I had to be working on something — something that I could add to my portfolio for potential licensing, something that might spark some interest in my work from an art director (I started sharing my work online early in my career), or anything that might lead to something in the future. I also understood that because I was self-taught, I needed to work hard to develop my artistic skills and find my voice. If I wasn’t working, I began to feel like I was slacking. This mindset was buttressed by the fact that I was authentically excited to be making art full time. I loved what I did, and compared to an office job, I felt like I had hit the lottery, even before I made a penny. And this second factor was important.

As a result, I began working all of the time. For the first couple of years, I also opened a little store with my friend Rena to supplement my meager art income, but when I wasn’t there, I was making art and I began sharing it on the internet. For the most part, I stopped swimming regularly and I stopped relaxing in front of the TV, going dancing, sewing or sleeping in. When I was watching TV or “relaxing” in the evenings, I was doing it with a laptop or drawing paper perched on my thighs, where I was also working. In my mind, if I wasn’t working and sharing, I was losing a potential opportunity to get paid work.

This mindset served me well, initially. Within just a year or two, I began to build a following. As I drew and painted each day, I became a better and better artist. And from there, I began getting paid work. In 2008, I signed with a prestigious illustration agent. By early 2010 I signed a contract for my first book and began showing my work at a San Francisco gallery. I started getting regular illustration jobs, and I started making a regular income. (Eventually, I even wrote a book advising others how to do it).

And then in around 2011, things reached a new level — I call this my “tipping point.” At any given time, I was working on up to 15 projects at once, some small, some big. I said yes to literally every opportunity that came my way (and they began flowing in), including online teaching and public speaking opportunities in addition to illustration, publishing and licensing. Around the same time, my Etsy shop picked up steam, and I’ve made regular weekly sales ever since. I also consistently engaged in my own personal projects which I shared publicly as well, and which ultimately led to new professional opportunities. All of this stuff I was doing became a fruitful cycle. In my mind, even though it was often stressful, working 12 hour days and on the weekends was getting me somewhere. I was paying off debt, adding clients to my client list and building the career I had dreamed of having.

Looking back, I realize now that workload was already taking its toll, even then. I battled almost constant anxiety and I had terrible chronic neck and back pain from sitting at my drawing table and computer for so many hours. I had also started a relationship in 2008, and the weight of my workload caused tension for us as my career grew. I am so grateful that my partner (now wife) was so understanding, believed in me so profoundly and stuck it out with me. Ultimately, she had a huge part in helping me to walk away from the burdens of it. But aspects of our relationship suffered. I kept saying to her: “Look, if I work hard and often now, then in a few years we’ll be set financially and I will slow down and work less.”

The problem was, I was like a hamster on a hamster wheel who literally did not know how to stop the wheel and get off. Even though I was making a steady six-figure income and I could have taken some space, I had become addicted to working. I was also addicted to the rush that working and being acknowledged for the work brought to me. I was attached to the idea that it is the hustling that brings success. I began to feel more stressed when I wasn’t working, not just because I had so many looming deadlines, but because slowing down itself became uncomfortable. Despite early indications of burnout, I felt it was imperative that I continue in this way. I told myself, You can do this! You work fast! You don’t need much sleep! Someday you will be able to take a break.

To be clear, I also understood very deeply that this was all a choice I was making. While I wrote occasionally about my workload (including about how I was feeling overwhelmed) on this blog and on Instagram over the past six years, I was careful not to come off as a victim. I knew I had chosen this path. Mostly, I was outwardly cheery to my social media audience. In fact, in some ways, I wore my busy-ness as a badge of honor. I was busy, goddammit, and I was proud of it.

Somewhere in there, I got married, and two years later in 2015 we moved to Portland, Oregon and bought a house. Part of the decision to move was precipitated by a desire to have a slower lifestyle. We decided that moving from the frenetic work culture of the Bay Area of California to a city with a slower pace of life was going to give us a fresh start. But, like what happens anytime you say you are going to make a change but have no real plan in place or boundaries to implement it, we moved to Portland and nothing changed. In fact, for a time after we moved, my wife was working for me and then I hired an employee, and things actually got worse. My wife and employee were amazing and helped me with so many aspects of my business. But instead of lightening my load, I used having a team to help me with my workload as an excuse to take on even more projects for myself.

Fast forward to a year ago. I hit bottom. I was strung out, uninspired, anxious, and in chronic pain. I was miserable. For awhile, I thought about quitting all together. I fantasized about being a part time dog groomer or a gardener. I fantasized about crawling in a hole.

After I got back from that book tour, I began the necessary process of re-thinking my career and my life. Ultimately, I knew I wanted to keep working as an illustrator and writer. I just needed to get my workload down to a manageable size and I needed to start creating space in my life for rest and enjoyment and creative rejuvenation. About a year ago, I began to decline 80% of the opportunities that came my way. I said no not only to most illustration projects, but also to speaking engagements and some interview requests. I decided very intentionally to focus on only a handful of meaningful projects and speaking engagements for the next three years. I still had to finish the commitments that I’d already signed up for, but I set out to slowly relieve myself of responsibilities and start a new approach to living and working going forward.

You may remember that back in December, about six months ago and six months after I began the process of starting to lighten my load, I wrote this blog post about my burnout and the slow rebuilding. At the time, I was in the thick of the process of slowing down, but I was struggling — still really struggling — because even after I began making changes to improve the quality of my life, I still felt anxious and depressed nearly everyday. I didn’t know how to relax in my new-found time. I was still worried about what would happen next for me. The good news was that I was starting to feel inspired again — one of the worst side effects of my burnout had been a total lack of creative energy or motivation.

Fast forward to today: a year after starting this process, I am very happy to say I feel solidly on the other side. I am living and working differently, my depression is gone, and my anxiety is at an all time low. Most days, I feel great. My days are slow. I work and rest. I am starting to feel some sense of balance again. Here are some things about the journey over the last year that feel important to share.

  1. As I mentioned earlier,  I do believe the American ideal of busy-ness, success-by-hard-work, and the layer of bizarre importance we place on both social media and email — have the potential to be very damaging if we are not careful. I bought into them, and I suffered mightily. That said, I had to take full responsibility for not buying into them anymore, and that is ongoing work for me, every single day. If you had asked me a year ago to describe my existence I would have said, “I feel like I am trapped in a box and someone has filled every last bit of space in the box with rocks and trash.” The box was my life, and the rocks and trash were all my responsibilities and obligations.  I felt trapped underneath pressure, darkness and lack of space. I was suffocating. The choices I made put me in that box, and I was aware that I was also the only one who could get myself out of it.
  2. Just because you make an intentional, conscious and committed decision to change something, doesn’t mean you will see the positive effects quickly or that it will be easy. In fact, for me, my anxiety got worse before it got better — I had grown so accustomed to being in the world in a certain way, that change felt terrifying, even though it was clearly a healthy shift that I needed to make. But change happens slowly, especially when you are shifting mindsets and behavior that have been engrained in you for years. I used the same discipline to commit to slowing down and being present as I had used to hustle to build my career from scratch. I was literally addicted to work. And so breaking the cycle of constantly working was hard.
  3. That’s right. Once I did start to create some space, I had to literally relearn how to relax. As I began to finish up existing projects and take on fewer and fewer responsibilities, I began to see and feel space around me again. I was no longer trapped in the box! How cool, right? Um, no. It totally freaked me out! I was so used to filling space with work (even self-generated projects) that when my goal was to relax and slow down, I panicked. So I have approached it in several ways. First, when I am working now (because I still work), I focus on slowing down and taking my time — because there is no need to rush. I have more time! And that has made work feel more enjoyable. You can’t relax into work with you are rushing. Second, I also only check and respond to email and post on social media during specific times of the day now. I also post far less frequently on social media or on this blog. I’ve given up making art at “daily Instagram speed” — even if that means I post less often, or some days, not at all. I’ve given up being prolific and have simultaneously unplugged, both of which have been essential in finding some relief from my anxiety. Third, when I do have space outside of work, I think intentionally about how to use it. I read, take walks, mess around in my studio with no specific outcome, and go for long swims. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t. At first this intentional use of my new-found “free time” felt like torture. I was a nervous wreck! Read a book? Shouldn’t I just go back to work? I had to practice taking  slow walks in my neighborhood (which my dog helps me with since he has to stop and stiff everything in his path), going for long swims (instead of madly trying to finish my workout so I could get back to work), or reading an entire long-form article in the New Yorker (when I first started this process I couldn’t read more than a paragraph without losing focus). And I had to practice sitting with the initial anxiety that came with doing these seemingly enjoyable, relaxing activities. I am happy to report that I not only survived, but most days I am very good at relaxing now. I just have to engage my relaxing muscles again and not give up when it feels challenging.
  4. I had to redefine my definition of success. Previously, I aligned things like hustling and hard work with success. I had proven it myself over and over, and it became how I was wired. And while I do think there is a correlation between discipline, risk-taking and action with building a sustainable career as an artist, the stress of my own level of discipline, risk-taking and action had taken a huge toll on my psyche and creative energy. In the end, I decided to let go of the idea of success all together. So, now, I am beginning to think about and define whether I have a good life in terms of space and enjoyment instead of professional success. I am always thinking about how much figurative space I have around work projects, and whether I am actually finding any pleasure doing them. This perspective now also influences my decisions about what professional opportunities to say yes to and which to decline. If I am going to continue to have a career, I need to keep taking advantage of opportunities, so learning a new way of navigating them is important.
  5. Lastly, I can’t end this blog post without talking about something that has made all of this possible: meditation. Daily meditation has made all the difference for me. I have tried to mediate regularly for years, but I never followed through for more than a handful of days at a time because I never got past the “sitting in silence with my anxiety is torture” phase. But everything I read from Eastern religion to Western medical science espoused meditation as a real, long term relief for anxiety and living with more peace and calm. So, this time, to help me both with accountability and support, I began working with a coach and meditation teacher (best decision I made in the process). But here’s the thing about meditation: like with the other changes I made, despite the support, I didn’t see the positive results immediately. I had to practice meditation every day for 40 days straight before I noticed that in general I was feeling calmer and less anxious. I also had to redefine what it meant to be a “good” meditator. I had to let go of the notion that “thinking” or anxious thoughts during meditation were bad. Really, meditation is just practicing bringing your attention back to your breath over and over as the thoughts and anxieties arise. Magically (or maybe not so magically), the impact of 15-20 minutes of meditation a day on my entire 24 hour cycle has been profound. I have a long way to go in my practice, and I’m in this for the long haul.

You might be wondering, what am I up to now? I am working on two books, one that comes out in 2019 and one that comes out in 2020 — both with ample, almost luxurious timelines. The second book is a long term intensive project that will be my main work for the next two years. I am scheming a couple more video classes that I will roll out in the next year. I am making a lot of personal work. I have a book that comes out in October, and I’ll be having some book events this Fall. I have two residencies and one fine art show scheduled for 2018. Right now, that’s about it. And it feels great.

I also know I have to keep doing my other work: meditating, taking slow walks, going for long swims, participating in some activism in my community, protecting space in my schedule, and rallying against the notion that it’s all about the hustle.

I’m here to say, it just isn’t. It’s not glamorous to be busy. It’s just exhausting.

And I am done being exhausted.

Here’s to freedom!

Thank you for listening.

CATEGORIES: Personal Essays
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