business advice | Jun 4, 2024 |
I’m so burned out that I’m considering quitting design entirely. Am I making a mistake?

Dear Sean,

I love your columns and could use some advice. I used to work at a superyacht company, then decided to move to a global architecture studio, but now I feel as if interior design isn’t the career for me. I’m not sure if it’s burnout—the work is always intense, and long days come once or twice a week—or maybe it’s the feeling of being unappreciated as an interior designer in an architect’s world.

I’ve tried to adjust my work environment, disengage from the circumstance, and address design as a whole, on a deeper level, managing projects with a director’s oversight. In a company where there should be many opportunities to learn, I also feel I’m not—I’m often pigeonholed into furniture and materials, areas I don’t enjoy.

Maybe I shouldn’t be a designer at all. What kind of designer dislikes fabrics? I have never wanted to have my own design business, and I don’t think I’m a natural designer either. I want to find something new where I feel genuinely connected to people and know that I’m really helping them with my work.

I am creative, with a love for painting and writing. I am a great presenter, often inspiring and motivating. I love conversation and easily connect with people. I’m positive and organized too. Do you have any suggestions?

A Lost Soul

Dear Lost,

The only question to ask yourself is whether your art matters (mostly to you) anymore. If it does not, your answer is clear: Stop. Today. You can put it on your employer to have robbed you of your desire to be a designer; however, nobody has that power unless you give it to them. And you are a natural designer. You say how much you like to help people—how much you enjoy creating, presenting, inspiring and connecting. This is the work of a designer. Design is about the conviction to help others see and manifest what they cannot, which is exactly what you say you love to do.

Perhaps you are simply in the wrong place, though I suspect it is far more than that. Are you really willing to have your voice heard? To work for a firm that demands your opinion first, loyalty and service second? Those firms are absolutely out there. The courage of conviction is within you, and you are defeated because you have allowed it to remain hidden. What if you did not? I am fairly certain that your solution lies in showing up for yourself.

Quitting is messy no matter how you do it. There is no easy way to end what you have spent a lifetime building. So just stop and deal with the mess.

If you give up design, the reality of a financial, physical and spiritual crisis awaits. However, the ability to truly let go, acknowledging all of the embarrassment, upset and upheaval is the very space you will need to navigate to find your way back to center. What do you want to share with the world, and why? Art truly does transcend its medium if you allow it to. You might think this has been taken from you or that you have lost it. But you have not—you have chosen to hide in the pain you now live in. Please do not run from anything; only move toward something else.

The certainty of pain is almost always more tolerable than true uncertainty. Think about that for a second. You could live in an endless, vicious cycle of telling yourself that if only you do this, that or the other thing, things will be OK. But ultimately that avoids confronting the reality you need to accept: I am dying a little bit each day, my voice a little quieter, more generic, more diluted, and it is only getting worse. Pain denies you the permission to move on until it is forced on you, while uncertainty asks you to make a choice. Choose to stop. Zombies do not change the world, artists do.

The path to freedom is never for the faint of heart. You were called to introspection the moment you decided to take this job, and every resulting action you’ve taken has failed to fix your malaise. Now you are asked once again what you wish to share and with whom—whether you do that as part of another firm or in another industry is irrelevant.

Choosing freedom means living in a better kind of uncertainty—one that carries hope, opportunity and the ability to tell a great new story. The future you imagined never was, so now you have to give yourself the ability to dream again. Choose yourself, choose your gift, choose art. The rest will come.


Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

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