I had a day off today, but not really according to my wishes. I was just settling into my morning when the power went out. Where I live, in the country, when the power goes out, it goes out all day (at least). So I packed up and went into town to work in a coffee shop. But I forgot my Macbook charger, and I was already at zero percent, so that was that. I decided to drive home and spend time with my family. Not without considering my options first, I'll admit.
It takes me a lot of time to adjust, mentally, when I had my mind set on one thing but then I have to do something else. It was really hard to leave the relative simplicity of my work life (sit down, do tasks) and enter back into the battle zone that is my family life (a two year old and a three year old are no small army when patience is involved). I love my family, but it is much easier to feel satisfied with a day in the studio, gettin' things done, than to try to distract my daughters from their extreme and unbridled emotions.
Do I sound like a deadbeat dad? I don't know. I think if you ask most parents, kids are exhausting, and sometimes, you don't want to be around them. Adult world makes a lot more sense, is much more accommodating, far less stressful. But what I really don't enjoy is realizing how utterly weak I am as a human. I tend to avoid anything that makes me feel like a failure. Perhaps that is why I work so much. Maybe I work a lot to avoid home life, because it challenges me in ways that I'm just not that confident in. Or maybe I work a lot to feed my family. I know there's a bit of both in there.
Kids need tons of love, tons of compassion, tons of patience. And if time with the kids is scheduled (as it is in the evenings and during weekends), it's a lot easier to muster these and give them freely. I can mentally shut down the business side of my brain and become more present. But when it feels like it's in conflict with my other plans, my big, huge, important, adult, breadwinning plans, then I resent the struggle, and I lose sight of what's important. Being verbally abused by my three year old because I cut her bread in the wrong direction can be comedic, but when I'm anxiously losing time on a short deadline, it feels like a punishment. Days like these, I take a lot of walks.
So I had a day off, by accident. I didn't work, but it wasn't a holiday either. But I think at the end of it all, I'm glad to have something bigger than me (in this case, the barrage of gale force winds that knocked out the power grid) step in and bump me out of my illusion of self importance. When things like this happen, I am confronted with a more real part of myself. Because a life focused on pleasing clients, peers, and heroes is only the shell of who I am. The truest meaning in my life comes not from those things I want to do, but those things others need me to do for them. And although I am not great at it, at least I I have the opportunity. I am so thankful for my family, and I am thankful for days like these, which, although not planned, are good opportunities to reflect on what’s important.
I did the unthinkable and took the entire month of August off. Just as clients were racing to launch their fall campaigns and prepare for all those busy times that lead up to the new year, I decided to close up shop, kick up my feet, and do absolutely nothing profitable. It was an important move for me and my family. Having had a rather hectic June and July, I was losing touch with the fun part of my job and not really feeling all that inspired. I was burning out. I was producing sub-par work and probably not living up to my clients' expectations. And I was being sorely missed at home. It was time for a break.
Taking the entire month off was a test. Was I willing to forego a month's worth of work — and all the opportunities those projects could lead to? Right into my first week, while we were staying on a farm in rural BC, I received two separate juicy illustration commissions — both for large US retail clients. And I said no to both. And you know what? It felt great to choose my family over work. No disrespect for these companies nor to downplay the significance of their marketing plans, but how on earth could any project compare to being with my family in the best days of summer? It took me a while to get to this point from my initial dismay at the denied opportunities, but when I did, I could feel a weight lifting from my shoulders.
That’s not to say it was easy from then on.
I am a workaholic. I gain my sense of self-esteem, my pride, my identity, and my sense of purpose from my work. I structure not just my day but my entire life around my career. From winning new work to creating the final art, and everything in between (even in administration tasks), I am completely preoccupied and enthralled by what I do. I consider myself richly blessed to do what I love for a living. So you can imagine that, after the novelty of unstructured time away from the studio wore off, I started to feel a little bit squirrelly. By the middle of the month, my days felt long and unstructured; I felt lost and useless in my domicile. My wife is by now well adapted to life at home with young children, but I was still pining for the so-called grown-up world. In spite of the amount of time I was spending with my toddler and baby daughters, I wasn’t happy at home. I was tired of their respective whining and crying and the long stroller walks trying to get them to nap properly. I was tired of feeling irritated at them. I was tired of finding ways to find ways of spending time so as to keep the kids from turning into monsters. It was at this point when I started to worry that time was getting away from me. It was a true conflict: how come I am not happy at home with my family? I even became depressed — something I haven’t dealt with in a very long time.
Shouldn’t I find my family more enjoyable than anything or anyone else in my life? Clearly, the answer is yes. But there are caveats: I truly believe that pure leisure time, without substantial structure or purpose, is unrealistic and unhelpful in large doses. Humans are hardwired to work, and hardwired to have a sense of purpose. When we know our purpose, what we are striving for each day, everything else seems to fit in its place, we are more content. I wasn’t used to my new purpose at home, so for a short period last month, in my family, things were falling out of place. Amanda and I were arguing more, I was on edge most of the time, and it felt like our two year old’s tantrums were worsening. The worst part about it was that this was supposed to be our happiest month ever because I was home and we were spending all this time together. It was discouraging, to say the least.
Fortunately, my wife and I are very poor grudge holders and anytime there was an issue, we talked it out and resolved it as soon as we could. What we found was that there are some dark and dirty corners in our lives that were easy to avoid in the midst of our usual routine. It’s so easy for us to hide in our roles, especially me at work, the striving illustrator winning work and meeting deadlines, providing for my family. I consider it a blessing that I had the opportunity to leave the protective shelter of my work life to work on life’s most important project: loving my family. I consider it a good thing, though not easy, to have faced some of my demons, to have my blind spots revealed, to recalibrate my sense of that which gives life its fullest meaning.
Now at the end of my epic month off, I truly am coming back to work refreshed. Yes, it is good to be back to a routine wherein I know my role, doing something I’m reasonably good at, and fulfilling a much-needed purpose in my family. But I am also renewed in mind, knowing that I can’t simply gain my sense of purpose and identity from what I do for a living. To not just avoid things I’m not confident at (i.e. domestic life) under the guise of being a breadwinner. My purpose is not to be a dependable source of income but a dependable source of love and security for my family. To invest more in them than in my work, because that is how they will know I love them — not by what I tell them (or fund on their behalf) but what I do with them, and how much. In that regard, spending the past month away from the usual grind to learn all this together with my family will prove to be priceless.
So a lot's been happening lately. In the last three weeks I have been working almost exclusively on illustration projects. (I do have some design projects on the go, and those are cool too!)
Some great stuff has come my way from a few really cool clients. One is for a really groovy fast food restaurant in the US (seeing some 800,000 customers per day nationwide), and another is for a pilot episode of a big network TV show. I've also been working on some more local projects that are equally rewarding. These are super cool projects that I am lucky to be working on.
My dream has been to take on more illustration work, but I would not have expected to be doing so much so soon after starting up my own business in September.
On the other side of the coin, it's a lot of work. A ton. I squeezed two months of work into about three weeks, which has put a lot of strain on me and my family. For the most part, I have no problem staying up every night until 2 AM working hard in the studio, but it definitely cuts into my ability to be a papa and a husband. So … I'm working on how to manage workflow, how to say no to jobs, even if they're awesome, and otherwise keeping a healthy balance of work and life.
I have a theory about the universe, that the world moves in waves. What I mean is, there can be nothing, no activity, and then suddenly everything happens at once. Here are a few examples:
- Just yesterday, my friend Jeremy and I were just talking outside his alleyway shop. There's nobody around. Suddenly, there are three trucks all coming to a head at the same corner, and two of them had to give way to the third. Why did all those drivers have to be at that one place at the same time?
- Another thing that happens fairly often is that I will be walking late at night. There's not a soul around. Then I get to an intersection, and suddenly it's me and another car, right there at that intersection. Why didn't the car pass before or after I got to the intersection? What is it about the intersection that attracts bodies precisely at the same moment?
- Similarly, work comes in waves. There can be a whole week go by that I have no action and I begin to doubt the viability of my business, and then suddenly everyone has a job for me.
- It is not unusual either for me to receive multiple emails, a phone call and a text at the same time.
I guess there's a reason for the sayings, "when it rains it pours", and "feast or famine".
All this to say, I am keeping busy and for the most part loving it. The only way I have been getting through it is through the support of my very understanding and loving wife, a bit of self motivation, and definitely a few "wind-in-my-sails" beers while working. I cannot wait to show some of the work I've been up to. Soon!