You Are Not A Machine. You Are Not Alone.
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.
Further Reading on SmashingMag:
- Dealing With Loud And Silent Burnout
- Mental Health: Let’s Talk About It
- Feeling Stuck? Design What You Don’t Know
- Spotify Playlists To Fuel Your Coding And Design Sessions
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 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 article and share your experiences. We’d sincerely appreciate it.