I’m burned out. I’ve had a long and successful run as a designer, managing my own business, but for the last few months I’ve been feeling jaded, scattered and unfulfilled on a daily basis. This is despite working with a number of great clients (and an equal number of not-so-great ones) on many projects, large and small. My personal life is in a great place; I’m healthy and successful. I know the problem is with my work. How can I get my spark back? Is it time to call it quits?
Dear Burnt Out,
One of the saddest moments I experience professionally is witnessing designers losing themselves, day after day, until the very thing they love so much—their work—gets poisoned beyond repair. It sounds like you might be getting close to that point.
Even though you claim you have had great clients, my guess is that the good ones were not as good as the bad ones were bad. You have convinced yourself that working is its own reward and that being limited by what your clients permitted you to do as a designer was a pain you were willing to endure. Of course, this was never sustainable.
The choice in front of you is painful, no doubt: Either call it a day and give up creating environments that impact your clients’ lives—or decide that every aspect of your business, and your approach, must change from here on out. Great clients must nourish you enough to want to take on the next, and the next, and the next.
Does this sound like you: Your aspiration as a designer is to, say, work only on whole homes, but you have convinced yourself that partial projects pay the bills. After a while, you give up on what you want and convince yourself that your ideal client will never be yours. When a client shows up that does want the whole home, you do not know how to talk to them; so they run you over and create a miserable experience. In the end, there is a limit to how much work you can take on, and you are left with only those that want you to “help” them with their spaces, not with the projects you want. Marginal impact—sure. Total transformation? Never.
You may be so far removed from Beginner’s Mind—that is the feeling you had when you knew how much you wanted to be a designer—that the jaded you, who has lived a derivative version of yourself, will never permit the intrinsic joy you need in order to move forward. If this is the case, give yourself permission to call it quits. The world needs the best of you, the one convinced that your work matters deeply to all involved. If design no longer gives you that conviction, move on to find a new place where you might find meaning again.
But if you can see your way back to the passion and desire to create for your clients again, give yourself permission to be radically different. What would your daily life look like if you did not compromise? If you knew that what you did was far beyond the beautiful result, but instead about the journey leading to that result—and that the journey was yours alone to decide? You would discover the power of conviction, the determination that clients who seek and receive only your best reward you as much as you transform them. Only then will you be able to move through “The Dip,” as author and former business exec Seth Godin calls it, and come out on the other side far stronger than you are today. You will then be able to remake everything about your business in a way that will support your art—and not the other way around.
My final piece of advice to you is to acknowledge that you are, in fact, lost. You must decide to stay or go. The answer is not going to reveal itself, nor will great clients magically appear. You have to do the work.
Sean Low is the 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 EAL, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Shoot us an email—and don’t worry, we will keep your details anonymous.