– So, I went to see your dad yesterday. He asked me if you’re well.
– Uh, yeah. I guess. Why did he ask?
– He said the last time he saw you, you never smiled.
– Oh. Well, maybe I was tired for the travel.
– Then he said he saw your cousin, and he also mentioned when you two met. He felt you were not well either.
– Oh, really?
This is pretty much when I realised there was something wrong.
I left Florence in 2011 to move to London and start a new career. And I thought in these few years, I had managed to build a life with everything I could possibly desire. A nice place to live, a well-regarded job with excellent pay, my wife joined me here too, I get to travel a lot…
I was also a very high performer, always succeeding in whatever challenge he’d jump onto.
So, what is everybody seeing that I don’t?
It was mid-December when my wife and I were having that conversation. So I thought, “OK, time for a New Year resolution this year. I will have only one: people see me struggling with my mental health, so let’s begin by making sure I’m happy.”
And that’s when everything started falling apart because I realised I couldn’t be farther away from the goal.
I made a list. Now, I’m not necessarily a list person (maybe I should be). But I needed to analyse this thing properly, and therefore I started writing down some high-level categories:
I split each of them into Good and Bad subcategories and started listing facts, events, statements and feelings. Trying to be as objective as possible…
Oh, my goodness. How did I overlook the many things falling into Bad all this time? When did I decide it was OK to compromise so much in order to achieve the “success” I was having in my career (whatever that means)?
Now, I’m not going to bore you to death with the details. But I’m giving you just one quick light example of the Bad I accepted…
There’s this TED talk by a Cambridge researcher, Daniele Quercia, who conceived “Happy Maps”. It’s a navigation app that, instead of taking you to the fastest route, tells you which is the “happiest” (considering factors like green spaces, art, pollution, etc.). In his talk, Daniele shows 2 pictures as examples of one happy neighbourhood and one unhappy… And the unhappy one is just around the corner from my house!
And yet I lived there, thinking, “oh it’s okay, we’re in Zone1 (central London) but it’s still affordable. The area is very well connected, we can go everywhere in no time. I can walk to work”…
A place that a foreign researcher, living miles away from London, would choose as the best example of unhappiness for his talk!
I guess immersing myself in such an environment for years might have had an impact.
There are, of course, plenty of other examples of stuff that fall into the Bad subcategory. And obviously, the impact everything was having on my mental health started affecting my relationships incredibly hard…
And all the people that cared about me saw how this made me feel. How could I not see it myself?
Acknowledging the truth
So it is true. Despite all I have, I’m unhappy and having mental health issues.
When I finally managed to spot the signs, I thought this was something embedded in my Creative personality… In the 5 Voices, the Creative is that individual who, when 90% goes well, always looks at the 10% that could have gone better. So it’s in my nature to always feel somehow unhappy.
Now it seems there’s a lot more to it.
But how do I turn this around?
Well, we still have a few months before we’re entitled to leave the flat we rent, so that’s medium-term. My relationships will eventually benefit from removing what makes me nervous outside of them anyway. So let’s begin this quest for a change with the easiest one: work.
In the London market and with my experience, that will be quite an easy change to make, right? Update my CV, put some of my work in my portfolio… Oh, hold on. I can’t put any new project in my portfolio: most of it is covered by strict non-disclosure agreements; then there’s the work that is still not published… Also, being a manager, the truth is that a lot of the work is done by my team rather than me…
So it’s proving difficult to leave my job in a short time as I might have to do some side project in order to fill it with relevant work. And I can’t just quit and search for a new house because I won’t have the financial backup to make agents accept my offer.
I start to feel like I’m trapped.
The downward spiral
That’s when I had my very first panic attack.
I have had episodes of depression in my life (or I thought they were just rare episodes). To some extent, having grown up within the Punk/Goth culture, it’s something you expect to be part of the package. But it never delved into anything serious.
Now I’m sitting on the bus, thinking of a few solutions for a hackathon I’ll participate in and how this could be featured in my portfolio because it’s a public event so no NDAs this time… And suddenly, I’m shaking; can’t breathe; and my hands are tickling; and it looks like the bus is imploding onto me!
I got off at the next stop and walked back home, almost in shock. I knew a fair bit about panic attacks, but still, I wasn’t prepared for that.
Depression, burnout, antisocial behaviour… What the f___ was happening to me?
And so I disappeared. My job allowed me the flexibility to work from home, so that’s what I told everybody. But the reality was that I couldn’t focus. And I was so confused and nervous that I would snap at everything. So I was at home. And frankly, I’m deeply sorry for all I made my wife go through. But I became a ghost for the rest of the world for weeks.
Considering all I wanted for myself only a month earlier with that New Year resolution was to be happy, I was failing miserably… The bloody damn perfect example of #epicfail.
The mind can play evil tricks on you. On the one hand, you decide all you want is to relax and have that little happiness for yourself. On the other, it starts putting pressure on you to reach that. All the tiny little things that don’t go the way you want build up performance anxiety.
Of course, the fantastic human beings I had for colleagues were very concerned, so they started reaching out to me. They were covering for the work I was unable to do. And the team I trained was top-notch. But they always had my well-being at heart, and I understood that well. So I started to openly discuss my mental health issues with them.
I am an introvert, but I’m also someone who always speaks his mind. And I’m very vocal at work. So it came easy to be completely sincere about what was happening.
It felt utterly good. The first time I talked about the panic attack and my depression, I was still shaking like that time in the bus. But the more I talked about it, the more that feeling started fading.
I started to fight back. I returned to work and engaged with my routines again, even successfully closing important deals with big clients. Something I thought impossible only a few days earlier.
And I kept talking about my mental health with pretty much everybody.
But I still had my initial goals perfectly in mind, and I wanted to turn my life around and leave my job at the first chance.
And I was far from accomplishing any of that.
With a little help from my friends
Cut to 3 months later, I flew to Barcelona for my annual appointment with the OFFF event.
I have known about the OFFF event since it started almost 20 years ago, thanks to Joshua Davis, who invited me to the first edition. I was one of the Italian designers with a good audience, having been featured in books and talked at conferences. And I was experimenting with auto-generative visuals — something Joshua is the undiscussed master of, just look up for his incredible work.
And OFFF has always been a joyful oasis for me. Same as other events, but this one is special. It’s a 3-day full-immersion into the most creative networking environment you can imagine. In sunny Barcelona, which is one of my favourite cities.
Somehow the stars must have aligned because there were a couple of talks that were exactly what I needed at this particular moment in my life.
In the context of a Design event, two speakers decided to give a much more personal talk. One touched on mental health struggles, burnout and getting out of misery. The other one was a whole hour of motivational push.
In hindsight, I can say that this article exists thanks to the indirect help of Tiffani Brown from Dropbox and the great James Victore.
I could relate to most of what Tiffani talked about. Even to the harshest events of her life and how these shaped most of her struggles. Only being in the audience to listen to her for an hour was very therapeutic. But then she also made herself available to discuss later and via email and was even more helpful. And from her, I learned about the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), which was quite illuminating.
James Victore probably doesn’t need any introduction. Still, this man is awesomely whack. And while his talk had aspects of the cliché American motivational speeches, he was also very funny and engaging. In particular, he did say something that definitely resonated with me as a mantra and still does today. He started shouting to the audience, pointing the index to people sitting around the hall (and me)… “Don’t go back unchanged!”.
Don’t go back unchanged.
I needed this.
Of course, I need a change because my situation is not sustainable anymore. And I’m depressed and want to do something.
And here in Barcelona, I’m in the positive, creative mindset to make it happen. There’s no reason to fear what could happen, because I’m already unhappy.
At least I will have tried.
And so I went back home after the event. The following week, I saw the end of my well-regarded job. No plans for the future attached, just this primal idea of freedom. This might sound scary, quitting my job without a plan. Still, I realised I made the right choice straight away, as the most common feedback I received from everybody was “I see you relaxed” or the more heartbreaking “I never saw your smile before”. From colleagues who had known me for a couple of years.
And my wife had been very supportive. She was adamant we could make it work for the benefit of us both.
There’s a perfect example to illustrate what I’m saying…
On my last week, I went with a few colleagues to a Peruvian restaurant close to our office (Coya). And here, just for fun, the staff put me in the street to prepare a Pisco Sour cocktail for passers-by…
They then took a picture of me (and shared it), which is so emblematic. Even my wife told me it was incredible to see me so happy in that photo.
Gosh, writing this now still makes me feel emotional.
While I was doing that, I felt it. I don’t know how to explain it, but that moment was all I was pursuing in these past months and what I’ll be chasing again and again.
I was happy.
Is this for you?
Obviously, this is not necessarily something everybody can do. And I’m not writing this article to suggest quitting is the obvious way to go. When others depend on you if you have kids or you’re the only family member paying for your mortgage or else… Simply quitting without a plan might cause even more mental health issues. And you might want to ponder the decision a lot longer.
On the other hand, if you are as unhappy as I was, those who depend on you will still suffer in the mid-long term because of how you feel. So you still probably need to take action.
Just seek professional aid. Don’t ask me for advice, as I’m not qualified to give any. Here I only reported my experience, hoping it would push others in the industry to come out and start talking.
Now, I don’t want you to think that my workplace was a sort of toxic environment that was draining the life out of me. And this article is not a way to give bad publicity to them. I had my highs and lows here like in any other work environment. And that is a healthy company on top of its game, with a salivating range of clients. Growing year after year.
But I was totally unable to fit in, and I eventually caused my own misery.
That’s the one thing that is clear in my mind now. Despite all I could say about what was around me, and all the excuses I could find, at the end of the day, it was I who had always had the power to change things or surrender to “adversities”.
I was my own worst enemy. And I was always seeing issues around me originating from somewhere else.
Anyway, I just needed to have a break rather than a breakdown. And so that’s the choice I made.
The next steps in my journey are still very much a work in progress.
I know that I’m not chasing success anymore (whatever that may mean), but I’m dedicating my efforts to pursuing happiness. For myself, of course. But also for the people around me and those I can touch with everything I do.
I’d like to create something that has an impact (the Designer’s dream). To be challenged to work with technologies I had never used before and to collaborate with people from all over the world. To get in touch with different cultures to enrich my own.
Funny enough, I don’t necessarily see this as related to Design now. Even though it’s what I have always done and have always been passionate about (and might be the surest way to go forward).
I always joked with friends about how we could end up opening our own food truck. Maybe… Who knows?
Also, with this sense of freedom, many new ideas started flowing. So maybe something will come out of them too.
I think the main idea right now is to travel as much as possible (and as far as possible). To immerse myself in a different environment and possibly let my creative sparkle light up again.
I’ll be open to offering consultancy to companies worldwide, in the places I’ll be visiting and anywhere else. So please feel free to get in touch if you have a problem in Design, UX, Strategy (or anything else in the Creative field) that needs solving. Or if you’re a young designer seeking mentorship.
I will also run photography workshops (possibly some 1-to-1 if you’re interested). I’ll advertise them on my Instagram profile, so check that too: @fabienb.
There’s a new me in town. Please come and say hi 🙂
Food for thought: the happy trend
Aside from my own experience, there seems to be a trend now, mainly from the US. From what I can tell, more and more people started being vocal about their search for happiness or about mental health issues in the Design industry.
Stefan Sagmeister released a film called “Happy” following his second sabbatical. Gary Vaynerchuk recently vlogged about the importance of being happy over many other aspects. Sseveral articles are popping up on social media (some say this is all a fad or that you should pursue meaning rather than happiness), etc…
It’s almost as if happiness is becoming fashionable.
I don’t know if this is very specific to workaholic cultures (US and UK above all), or you can tell this is happening in other countries too.
But I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on this. And to see more designers speak up, perhaps even contributing to Rob Ford’s Mental Health Insights on Linkedin.
— — —
Thank you for having read all this.
This is the most personal thing I have ever written. And it means the world to me that you read this till the end.