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You Are Not A Machine. You Are Not Alone.

Many of us struggle silently with mental health problems and many more are affected by them, either directly or indirectly. {Geek} Mental Help Week1 starts today and we would like to help raise awareness with a couple of articles exploring these issues. – Ed.

It was pouring with rain and I found myself driving. I didn’t know where I was going. I just needed out of the house. I needed to escape. After what felt like an age I found myself parked outside my parents’ house, just staring at their front door. Eventually I got out of the car, rang the doorbell and burst into tears the moment my mum answered.

Me, a grown man. A respected figure in my field. A success. Standing on the doorstep of my parents’ house, crying to my mum like a small child. This was the breaking point for me, the minute I finally realized I had depression. In fact I’d been depressed for over a decade. Burnt out. Used up with nothing left to give.

It had started back in the late nineties when I took a job with a dot com. I had a boss who was a bully, plain and simple. He shouted, he threatened, he manipulated. I stood up to him, but it drained me. Every day was a battle.

He was replaced, but the next guy wasn’t much better. He used to put me in a room with the company’s investors and make me present to them. He knew I was a good presenter, so when things got tough he would wheel me out. But he would sit next to me through the meetings kicking me under the table when I said something he didn’t like.

In time, the dot com bubble burst and I found myself forced to make people redundant. People I knew. People I considered my friends. Worse than that was having to make redundant people I didn’t know, people who worked for companies we had acquired. When you have to make a friend redundant at least they know you find it hard, that you don’t want to do it. When you fire a stranger, you are just an evil hatchet man.

From bad experiences, good things grew. Following the dot com company folding, I and two colleagues set up Headscape, the agency I run to this day. I love Headscape. I love the people I work with. But the stress didn’t dissipate – if anything, it increased.

I remember standing in a newsagent’s, wasting time before a big pitch. I was terrified. Terrified of not winning the work, work we needed as a company to survive. The last thing I wanted was to have to make people redundant again. I was so worried that I vomited, right there in the middle of the shop.

I love working for myself but every month is a roller coaster. Either we have too much work and I fret about delivering, or not enough and we worry about going out of business.

Then there is the pressure to keep up. The day I read Jeffrey Zeldman’s book Designing with Web Standards was one of the most terrifying of my life: the sudden realization that the table-based design I had built my career on was about to go away; that I would need to relearn my entire skill set.

Not that this was the end of the changes. The demise of Flash, the rise of user-centred design, content strategy, the mobile web, responsive design. The list goes on. Always something new to learn. Always the pressure to keep up.

Even now, twelve years into Headscape, things are hard. Like many agencies right now, we had a bad first half of the year. The sector feels like it is changing again, and so once again the pressure is on.

But this time is different. This time I will not end up on my parents’ doorstep in floods of tears. Because along the way I have learnt something. I am not a computer. I am not a machine. I am a human being.

We demand too much of ourselves as web professionals. We lie to one another, all living in a consensual delusion we build together. We talk about digital being our passion. We tell each other how great our jobs are. We work every hour in the day either in the hopes of getting bought by Google, or because we have convinced ourselves we enjoy it. Maybe we do and maybe we will be bought by Google, but is it healthy? I can tell you from experience it is not.

I realized that I was not a machine able to work 24/7. I realized I had times of insane productivity and then periods where I needed to rest; that I could not expect to churn out high quality work without stepping away from time to time.2
I realized that I was not a machine able to work 24/7. I realized I had times of insane productivity and then periods where I needed to rest; that I could not expect to churn out high quality work without stepping away from time to time. (Image credits3)

I realized something else, too. I realized that I could be human with my colleagues, that I didn’t need to pretend to be a machine. This I discovered when I told my co-founders I was burnt out; they understood and helped lighten the load. When I shared my depression online, nobody laughed at me or thought I was weak. Instead they thanked me for allowing them to talk about their struggles.

In fact, I found huge support from total strangers, people who suffered or were going through the same difficulties as me. Far, far more than I ever could have guessed, based on the way we talk online. If you believe what we post online, we are all happy, successful and rich.

And I had one final revelation. I realized I wasn’t a machine stuck in a preprogrammed routine. I could change things. I started looking after myself both physically and mentally. I found friends outside the web. I took regular walks, found other interests, and spoke up about my struggles. I even stopped working long hours, screw the consequences. As it turned out, I just learned to work smarter. Long hours are not a badge of honor, they are a sign of failure, pure and simple.

As part of my job I meet hundreds of web designers every year, either at conferences or as part of my work within organizations. Many are contractors who never get a holiday and worry about being able to pay the bills. Others are in-house web developers so beaten down they are resigned to being trapped in their organization forever. And yet what do you read online? You read about successful startups, acquisitions, and competitors with their amazing client lists.

You might think this all sounds rather depressing but, you know, it isn’t. It is meant as an encouragement, that if you are struggling you are not alone; that there is not something wrong with you, there is something wrong with the industry.

This post gives you permission. Permission to stop being a machine and become a human being. Permission to spend some days in your pants watching daytime TV rather than working. Permission to be honest about your fears and stresses. Permission to tell somebody you are struggling and get help.

For those of you reading this thinking “Well, my work is my passion and I am happy” then good for you! But it won’t always be like that. There will be times when it gets tough. They won’t last forever but they will happen. I ask you to remember one thing when those times come… You are not a machine. Allow yourself to be human by cutting yourself some slack and getting help.

If you’d also like to get involved, please don’t hesitate to submit an article4 and share your experiences. We’d sincerely appreciate it.

(il, og)

Footnotes Link

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SmashingConf Barcelona 2016

Hold on, Tiger! Thank you for reading the article. Did you know that we also publish printed books and run friendly conferences – crafted for pros like you? Like SmashingConf Barcelona, on October 25–26, with smart design patterns and front-end techniques.

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Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

  1. 1

    Thank you so much for writing this, it is so spot on!

    • 2

      Hi Paul, thank you for rescueing my mind at the last minute … it is happening to me now and I thought I was losing it … I work hard, I found new clients and now my brain is empty … no creativity just going through the motions and slow at that too … I am afraifd I am going to loose everything includng my self respect. I have been considering leaving the profession and work at the grocery store or coffee shop so to regaing some peace … not sure what to do next.

      • 3

        Wow, do I know that feeling! Sounds like you need to step away for a bit. You might find that hard because of deadlines, but it has to be done. Tell your clients there is a personal emergency which means you have to put things on hold for a week. Even that little time will help.

        • 4

          I think you’re right … must plan this carefully though as the loss of income might put me in dire situations … thanks for the quick reply :) I will share this as much as posible and keep following what happens. A bit of sanity … priceless!

      • 5

        Henk C. Meerhof

        October 27, 2014 9:07 pm

        Stefano, time to pull some emergency brakes! All alarm bells are ringing and you have chosen not to listen up to now. Like Paul I ‘been there and done that’ and so on. On the end of this road you are on, you won’t find any danger signs, no water barrels to stop you, not even concrete ‘the end’ blocks. This road is ending in no man’s land without warning. And it took me more than a year to get back.

        If you don’t have the possibility to ‘jump ship’ for a while. Do at least the following. Talk to your spouse and/or friends you feel secure with. Review your calendar,and start planning ‘me-time’, and plan it a lot! Use this me-time to get to your inner self, get help of a coach if you need. Get in touch with nature, do some gardening, or walks in the park and allow your mind to wander off – just not wander to work again ;-)

        And most off all focus on the positive things, pick a positive thing from yesterday and treasure it, even if it is just a ray of sunlight, or a little bird singing a song.

        Take care!

        • 6

          Henk, thank you so much :) Yes “jump ship” will be very difficult at this point but I can plan for it in the near future and implement the “me-time” advice and focus on the positive right away as you said. Great insights, thanks!

          • 7


            Please remember that sometimes the best way to get out of that state is to get help of a professional – a doctor.

            Psychologist/psychotherapist can help you to understand what’s going on with you and what is destructive.

            A general practitioner/primary care provider/family doctor or psychiatrist (depending on the health care system in your country) can prescribe drugs that will help you to recover (warning: it’s VERY important not to stop taking these kind drugs just like that because even larger depression can return). Just like Kristy have written in a comment below: “I first of all went to my doctor and got on medication to balance out my chemistry.”

            If you feel like that for over few weeks and those ideas that were suggested by Paul and Henk does not work (or it seems that it’s better but only at the surface) then it’s time to get help by a professional.

      • 8

        Same here. Thankfully, I have already started considering a way out. Thanks Paul for enlightening me with your experience.

  2. 9

    Wow. Saw myself in that article. Thanks for writing it.

  3. 10

    You are a brave and wise man, and I will keep this article in mind the next time I start to lift too much hay with my pitchfork (literal translation of Dutch proverb…)
    Also very nice to read something not code/design/business related on smashing magazine (although, then again, it is in a way).
    Thank you very much for sharing your experience and wisdom!

  4. 11

    Thank you for sharing this Paul! I have been in the web business since 1995, had my own business that fell apart during the dot com crash, built it back up, worked for some people that made my life, errr… interesting.

    I hit bottom about 4 years ago. I was in the same predicament as you. I pushed myself too hard. I worked long, insane hours. I was totally burned out. I agree that it’s a constant battle keeping up with the ever changing technologies. I used to constantly spend my evenings learning all of them. My productivity started dwindling. I was depressed, had severe anxiety issues, etc. I first of all went to my doctor and got on medication to balance out my chemistry.

    Now days, I choose a few select ones I feel are interesting, what I am involved in, etc. I make more time for my faith, family, friends, dogs, hobbies, etc. Once I did all that, I feel 110% better. I WANT to learn new stuff now. I want to do my best in everything I work on.

    We are NOT machines. Companies and clients need to realize that.

  5. 13

    Thank you, so much.

  6. 14

    Great read! Thanks!

  7. 15

    “Others are in-house web developers so beaten down they are resigned to being trapped in their organization forever.”

    This. This is exactly me right now. I work as the sole developer for a resort company, and we have been migrating our sites to a new CMS and technology base for the last year. 9 sites, completely rewritten from scratch, by me. Plus the day-to-day operations that can randomly consume weeks at a time. I haven’t had a vacation in a year. I have only had a handful of days off. And I am working on average 50 hours a week. Oh, and did I mention no one above me plans anything and just likes to make requests on whims, a day or two before they want it live?

    Yeah, I’m burnt. And you are right, it’s good to know it isn’t just me.

  8. 17

    Yes. Respect to Smashing Mag for bringing this truth under the spotlight here.

    Around me it’s obvious that the cost of the human-as-machine paradigm (tied to the entire economic system we’ve chosen) is becoming unbearable. Time to grow up as both individuals and species.

  9. 18

    I saw your name in the byline Paul…. knew it was going to be great. It was. Thanks for this. Life in the modern age requires coping skills. Spot on.

  10. 19

    Thank you.

  11. 20

    Excellent post! As someone who has been in the graphic and web design business for 20+ years I too can relate… Thank you for sharing!

  12. 21

    David Maciejewski

    October 27, 2014 4:54 pm

    Paul Boag, thank you so much.

  13. 22

    Thanks for writing this Paul, all too much of it is all me. In fact I had a breakdown earlier this year – working a regular day job and then freelancing on the evening…every evening, every hour I could stay awake to work to finish projects. If that’s not enough, going through a marriage breakup, where a couple of small kids are involved, tipped me over the edge…a full-on, standing in the middle of the office in front of my colleagues, crying my heart out, breakdown. I got help though, medication (on-going) along with 2 months enforced rest, no work, no freelancing, just rest, helped to put me on an even keel. I am still recovering though, and will be for a long time to come, but have learned to not take things so seriously, don’t work 25 hours a day…and try to enjoy life!

  14. 23

    Bravo, Paul! As you said, most web developers out there (me included) can completely relate. Your article really helped me feel better.

  15. 24

    Thank you for your vulnerability on this Paul. Brought some sanity to me. Really appreciate the time and thought you put into writing this.

  16. 25

    This kind of article was needed more than any design news, css tricks and so on. Thank you Paul Boag

  17. 26

    Giovanni Di Gregorio

    October 27, 2014 5:30 pm

    This is myself, right now. Thank you very much, your words help me feel better.

  18. 27

    This is a great article! So I hate to be the contrarian here, but I think the statement that long hours are a sign of failure is overly broad.

    I enjoy my long hours. I’m always working on creating something new, and I can’t get enough of it. It’s not uncommon for me to leave the office at 5am because I can barely keep my eyes open despite that I really want to press on.

    I don’t work 20-hour days all the time, only when I want to. I have my downtime, too. I take vacations every month, whether it’s a few days in Disneyland, some time in the mountains, or a trip to Vegas.

    While I can’t speak for others, I can say that this is true for me: Working long and hard doesn’t burn me out, and I keep desiring it, because I take frequent breaks to play as well.

    • 28

      That is wonderful to hear but it sounds like you don’t work long hours because you take vacations every month. Working in intense bursts is fine, as long as you have downtime too.

      The other problem is that just because you enjoy something doesn’t mean it is good for you. I love doughnuts but I shouldn’t eat them all the time. Just because you enjoy your work (and don’t get me wrong that is wonderful) doesn’t mean you should do it all the time.

      • 29

        I certainly understand your point. I guess it depends on how define long hours. I would say a 20 hours work day is long. I would say working 20-hour work days consecutively for long periods of time is something different. I’ve done that before too.. I didn’t enjoy it, but I also didn’t enjoy the work that I was doing. So I’m not sure if I would enjoy it if I liked the work I was doing.

        “Good for you” and “should” are both subjective though. If by “good for you”, you mean “physically healthy”, then I would probably agree. But the goal in life isn’t physical health, it’s happiness (see Aristotle :-) ). Physical health can enable happiness because it allows you to live longer without suffering painful ailments and thus experience more happiness. But it is not an end in itself.

        I think there’s also a good barometer available to tell if something furthers one’s long-term goals. If I eat a box of jelly doughnuts, I might enjoy it in the moment, but I’m going to feel sick and regretful shortly thereafter. When I work a 20-hour work day (which I try to do at least once per week), I not only enjoy it in the moment, but feel a high that lasts for days about the new things I’ve discovered and accomplished. BTW, I’m 36, in good physical shape, and feel like I did when I was 18, so empirically this is working for me. :-)

    • 30

      I followed a link on Twitter to this because I didn’t agree with the statement about working long hours and wanted to add my bit to the conversation. Having read through the replies so far and then Finding your take on it Nick, which I’m in agreement with I realised, after reading your reply, that the difference is working long hours isn’t a bad thing as long as it is in moderation (like good whiskey or donuts). You seem to have a good balance, work the hours but take suitable breaks to renew the energy and enthusiasm for what we do. It’s a bit like design… it’s all about balance and composition.

  19. 31

    Design is fun and challenging. But challenging can also be draining, and that drain can be very persistent. I really appreciate the article and your insight.

  20. 32

    Ouch- Long hours are a sign of failure!!

    There are blessings in our line of work, but also troubles. When getting out of the house is an event and not the norm, I know i could be a fuller human being. Thanks for being real.


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