Wednesday, March 12, 2014

signs of burnout

I have been a little bit off the radar-- no newsletter the past two months, one blog post, very little on the social media network--but there is a lot of things happening behind the scenes right now.

As I step back into a routine of making pottery-- and I use the word "routine" very loosely here because for every day I manage a whole day at the studio there is probably a week of barely getting in there-- I've been re-imagining and and re-designing a bunch of components that make up my creative life. My creative life is also the engine that powers my livelihood, so it's a lot of work. Everything from redesigning my website, business cards, and the way I process the orders I receive; to deeper work around the way I create, how I approach my work, and what I put into the world.

I recently hired a business/life coach to help me stay on track with all of these different paths, because it gets pretty thick and I don't know what I'm doing.  I just know where I want to be. But I keep running into this question: where is the joy? Right alongside that question is: are we having fun?

Joy and fun are the reasons why I started making pottery. It was fun, that gave me joy. I never questioned whether or not it was a good idea to turn pottery into a money-making enterprise. When I was in the process of creating my business, I was in my 20's and if someone had asked me that question, I would have thought the question was stupid. Why shouldn't you make money doing the very thing that brings you so much happiness? It would have never occurred to me that there would come a day when making pottery could be as much of a grind as cubicle work (whatever that is) and I would be as worn out and empty as any other person burned out on teaching, lawyering, climbing the corporate ladder, or working any job that requires us to show up day after day.

My coach asked me for my personal signs of burnout, and here they are:

  • Boredom: not excited by the work I am making.
  • Resentment: toward difficult customers, toward the work I have to do, toward pieces not coming out as planned.
  • Rushing: trying to get it over with rather than being present with the process.
  • Procrastination: we all know that one. Procrastination equals avoidance.
  • Anger: when anger starts replacing my other emotions, like sadness, I become a ball of fury that is downright dangerous. Cars get kicked when they cut me off on my bicycle, fights get picked with people who can kick my ass, the cat starts hiding under the bed, my husband wonders why he ever married me. 
I doubt these signs are unique to me.

What I'm learning about myself is that I take my creativity for granted, I use it up. I'm like a teenager who borrows the parent's car and burns all the gas with no thought, because the assumption is the parents will just re-fill the tank. And they do, until they get totally sick of being taken advantage of.

I've started feeling pretty sad for my inner artist, who gives and gives and gives to the taskmaster-- me-- and is rarely rewarded with the things that will keep her inspired. I'm a hard-ass boss. The more I look at that picture, the more I don't like it. I want to protect my inner artist at all costs, always yielding to that little voice that pipes up, "I think I've had enough for today, let's go have fun somewhere else." Yes, sometimes that voice pipes up at 11 in the morning.

I know a lot of artists and creative types read this blog, so what do you do to keep your inner artist flowing,? Or are you just a taskmaster too?

21 comments:

  1. All of this kind of runs together for me. I have what I call a "woo-woo therapist" and she has called my attention to two very important things.
    1. I have all the time I need
    2. my spirit keeps calling out, "is this all there is?"
    What have I done about it? I have just started listening to that artist more, letting her lead. If I go to take photos and have an idea, I follow it. If I am in the studio and have a burst of inspiration, I follow that too. for me, it has become about listening. That artist is who led us here, and without her, we would be nothing. If she is screaming at us to change, we better! good luck Whitney, I have been going through so much of the same. love & happiness to you!

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    1. I LOVE woo-woo therapists. I also love that she has given you the "all the time you need" thing because just in the past couple of days as I have been losing my mind with the time crunch thing, I suddenly decided to stop fighting it, to just say, "I have the exact right amount of time I need right now." It's helped a lot.

      I have been reading "The Artist's Way" for probably the 10th time in the past 20 years, ad one thing I ALWAYS skip is the "artist date" because I always have something else "more important" to do. Boy, have I paid for that. I've been on two artist dates in the past 2 weeks, another scheduled for tomorrow. The artist must be protected and coddled at all costs. Sounds like we are on the same track right now. Lots of love right back at you!

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  2. p.s please excuse grammatical errors and redundancy. I have only had a small amount of coffee.

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  3. I am a taskmaster too. But I've been re-assessing that in recent months too, after last year spent working 7 days a week. I gave up my teaching job, which was hard, but the newfound time for myself has been a great gift. In my case I was giving and giving too much time to other people, but now I have it back for myself. It's hard to say no to people, there's a lot of guilt to deal with. At the same time, I know it was the right move. I also gave myself a clear production goal per week, still lots of pots but slower than I was working last year, and when I meet that goal I force myself to take the rest of the week off. Last year, I was like "can I just have one day to sit down and do nothing?" Now I have those days regularly. This has all been really good for my mental state, it's much easier to spend those long days in the studio.

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    1. I'm sure you've heard this one, "Saying no to someone else is saying yes to yourself." I used to do that 7 day a week thing many years ago, the toughest thing about it is you lose the ability to relax, you always want to work. I'm glad you are working on your strategy, awareness is the key.

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  4. Whitney, One simple thing to do might be to go to your doctor for a check up. Get your hormones/thyroid checked. I was having a lot of your feelings and was at a point where I was considering anti-depressants but it turned out my Thyroid levels were off. After I started taking a supplement, I felt better, happier, more energetic than I had in years.

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    1. I recently got checked and I am ridiculously level. I will keep it in mind though because I am definitely at that age where things get wacky.

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  5. Your post hits home with me. Several years ago, I was creatively burnt out (2009 to be exact) and at a loss as to how to make a decent income in clay. What did I do? I went to graduate school in a different discipline - landscape architecture. I thought life would be better when I found a job as a landscape architect without the stress of having to make something - really a lot of somethings - every day. Just report for work and get rewarded for it in the form of "job well done" and a steady paycheck. The funny thing is about 1/2 way through school (I LOVED being a student and I'm a pretty darn good one too) I realized that I really missed clay, but I didn't have any time to even dabble because I was so busy between school and family obligations. I interned for a really creative landscape architect and later worked for him after I graduated. Throughout this experience, I really tried to become one with my new avocation and job. More than once, as I stared at my computer screen and worked on a mind numbing CAD file, I asked myself what the hell had I done? I thought I'd be working with plants, interacting with clients and making the world a better place. Nope, just me in front of a screen while we designed virtually, passing off the finished project 1/2 way around the world to the contractor/installer.

    Where am I going with this? I wish I had really sat with my frustration and creative road block back in 2009. I wish I had taken a sabbatical, maybe enrolled in some workshops, traveled. I wish I had done what you are doing right now - exploring my psyche - the creative/task master roles of working with clay.

    Last year, I decided to return to clay. In some ways I'm starting all over, though it's sort of like riding a bike. Grad school did give me one thing - stamina to do the repetitive tasks that start to feel like the grind. Having experienced a "real" job now, I know that I'm suited for self employment. I like having control of my schedule and life + when I want to take a tangent, I can. I don't beat myself up if I need down time and don't need to justify it to someone else. I recently read a business book and part of the general gist is that starting a business is all about freedom and value. This really resonates with me.

    Finally, I try to do take creative field trips. Not clay related, though sometimes they are. It's inspiring to me to see what other people are doing and how they express themselves. I also signed up to volunteer at a transitional women's organization - where I learned the obstacles other people face to become self sufficient, I'm reminded that I am lucky to have choices.

    I apologize for the length…I totally get where you're coming from.

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    1. Cynthia, I totally understand what you are saying. One thing I've become more attuned to is that burnout is not just for artists, it's for everyone (yay!) and I even know a landscape architect who has had her own business for years and she definitely deals with burnout. All of us humans need juice to get the job done, whatever the job may be, and you are so right to say that we are very fortunate to have choices. I can forget to have gratitude for my relatively luxurious life.

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  6. This is such an interesting discussion. I'm a professional potter and I can identify with most of these feelings and issues. The one thing I don't really see being addressed though - is how do keep paying your bills, when you slow down/take a step back etc? The main problem as I see it is that our work is undervalued(financially) and there is no real solution for that. Sorry if that sounds negative.

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    1. The money thing is a whole other issue. For me, I've been saving money for years and while I did not relish the thought of spending it all to take time off, I got to the point of realizing that my sanity was worth it. I'm also set up in other ways-- I have a production line that is slipcast so I don't have to sit at the wheel throwing every single order, and an assistant to help with the glazing and packing and shipping. I also get residuals from a production line that is manufactured overseas. Thankfully, while I did not make a whole lot of money last year, I also did not dig myself into debt or spend all of my precious nest egg.

      If you don't have money on hand or a way to keep money flowing while taking time off, you can get creative in how you approach the whole thing. Maybe taking a step back is just taking a day off once a week rather than a whole year. I think all of us have to take our own needs and obligations into consideration to find the solution that works for us. But don't give up, you are a creative person and you can figure it out.

      I think the artist is always going to struggle with having their work valued. We all have to find out way through that one and it is a journey. While I can get pretty pissed when I feel undervalued, I also don't really focus on that at all because I value myself and my work and whether other people do or not-- I have no control over that and I can't spend too much time thinking about it.

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  7. I went through a period of burnout about 10 years ago. I am an artist working in polymer clay and I worked really really hard preparing for shows every weekend in the fall and countless custom orders to finish by Christmas each year. I got to the point I resented my work (which I had always loved so much) because I had NO TIME for anything else. Luckily, I have a very supportive husband, but artistically and financially, so I was able to walk away from that rat race, reassess what I wanted to do with my creativity and return a few years later, newly inspired with a whole new outlook. Rather than cranking out multiples of the same design, I now work on a much larger scale, and do one of a kind works. I ENJOY getting into the studio and working now. I had the luxury of being able to walk away and still be able to pay the blls. I know everyone doesn't have that. And as the previous commenter noted, handmade work is seriously undervalued for the most part.

    Thank you, Whitney, for such an honest post! We've all been there for sure! It's just important to step back and remember why we are artists and to find that joy in it again.

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    1. Yes, I've really learned that while production pottery was challenging and fun and profitable when I first started, I've lost interest in it now. While I'm barely getting anything done at the moment, I'm having lots of fun just making random objects. Like I used to when I first started!

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  8. i read your blog because of a post on a friends page. i know what it means to burn our and i have found a solution that has worked for me for 30 years. i divide my time between three areas, sculpture, pottery and teaching. i do large scale sculpture, primarily in clay but now i have moved into mixed media, stone etc because i am unable to pick up heavy clay work anymore. i have worked hard to be successful in this area and to generate income. i also love pottery which was what first drew me into clay. i throw exclusively every year from sept. to nov. i literally open my studio throw for the pure joy of throwing and hit the sales at its peak Christmas season and sell almost everything i make. i really do only throw what i want and in the way i want and do it for all the reasons i first did it. i shut my studio the last week of nov. and literally only set in it several times a year for nostalgic reasons. i also teach at the university level which is wonderful being around all these young minds with their naiveté and raw energy. what makes teaching so wonderful is that they see an actual working artists and that is very attractive to them so you get their respectful attention. at one time, 30 years ago, i was trying to be a full time potter. i made one of a kind objects, won best of show at the fairs and would sell $89 worth of pots. very heart breaking. i had to find a way to do what i love and still make enough money to live with a wife and 4 children. so i just worked hard at finding ways to do the things i loved. i loved pottery but i loved other things as well but the constant in it all was that i was an artist. it has paid off. three of our four children are artists, we travel all over the world building sculpture and i am about ready to retire. clay is very hard on your body. so my advise for burnout is to diversify. do all the things that an artist does that you love to do and find ways to get people to give you money for it. "i don't want your money i only want your money to flow across my creative endeavors" christo

    hope this helps

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    1. It sounds like you have figured out a way to make it work for you and I salute you sir! It seems to me that you went into it with a mindset that a solution had to be found to feed your soul artistically, not a solution that would simply feed your family. Working hard to find a way to do what you love is the bravest thing any of us can do, and I love that everyone here is trying.

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  9. After University I decided to go whole hog in launching my pottery business getting a small retail unit and a loan and ended up burning out pretty quickly.

    So then I decided to try teaching and did my teaching qualification but did a placement as part of the course and honestly say I hated it working 8 hours a day 4 days a week teaching (that doesn't include my planning times) and the 5th day learning, plus assignments I had to do.

    I came back to ceramics late last year, I have been enjoying it and considered it time to relax and enjoy making. But every so often friends try and encourage me to work for myself again and I will consider it but just end up feeling anxious.

    I feel like I am so bad at working for myself I am uncertain I want to do it even though I could do it while working around my children and work.

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    1. I can understand the fear and anxiety around working for yourself again after what you went through. From my perspective, it may not be that you are "bad" at working for yourself at all, it's that your previous experience is totally coloring your feelings about it. The fact that you understand what went wrong on that first foray-- launching into a retail business with a loan which is a LOT of pressure, leading to burnout-- could inform your approach for next time if trying again is itching at you. It's okay to build slowly and gradually rather than jumping into the deep end. That way you can deal with your anxieties without feeling like the stakes are so high, and enjoy the process rather than having a bank breathing down your neck!

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  10. I have found that by reducing my needs I have freed myself from the stress of making money. I now do a mix of self employed activities and a little teaching which pays quite well at university level (even if the hours are ridiculously small, this term 3 hrs per week) To keep my creativity alive I love my after school classes with children. The younger they are the less self conscious they are and the greater delight they express when they have and explore an idea. We could all learn a lot from these little people. Working with them a few hours a week gives me enjoyment, energy and a little bit of money

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  11. Whitney - I am a latecomer to your excellent blog. Sonya Philip pointed me to it. How I admire the way you articulate what it is like to be an artist making your living at what you love and all that comes with that. Brava!

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  13. Stacy5:12 PM

    I found your blog today. Oh boy do you hit on a lot of my same thoughts. Might I say I admire that you dont flower things up, you just say it as it is. Brilliant!
    How I break stress, frustration: Whistle for my dog, which is an instant signt to him we are headed outside to play a bit of ball, that happy boxer face, some outdoor time resets me a bit. If that doesnt work I clean and straighten things until I get hit w/the creative bug. Plop down with some magazines totally unrelated to clay/creativity and then again there's nothing wrong w/a wineglass of your favorite liquid on the table beside you. It's a thing of beauty to see a wineglass with slip on it.

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