Managing a Mind

On 21 May 2013, I woke in a hospital bed feeling exhausted, disorientated and ashamed. The day before, I had tried to kill myself.

It’s very hard to write about this and share it. It feels like I’m opening up the deepest recesses of my soul and laying everything bare, but I think it’s important we share this as a community. Since starting tentatively to write about my experience, I’ve had many conversations about this: sharing with others; others sharing with me. I’ve been surprised to discover how many people are suffering similarly, thinking that they’re alone. They’re not.

Due to an insane schedule of teaching, writing, speaking, designing and just generally trying to keep up, I reached a point where my buffers completely overflowed. I was working so hard on so many things that I was struggling to maintain control. I was living life on fast-forward and my grasp on everything was slowly slipping.

On that day, I reached a low point – the lowest point of my life – and in that moment I could see only one way out. I surrendered. I can’t really describe that moment. I’m still grappling with it. All I know is that I couldn’t take it any more and I gave up.

I very nearly died.

I’m very fortunate to have survived. I was admitted to hospital, taken there unconscious in an ambulance. On waking, I felt overwhelmed with shame and overcome with remorse, but I was resolved to grasp the situation and address it. The experience has forced me to confront a great deal of issues in my life; it has also encouraged me to seek a deeper understanding of my situation and, in particular, the mechanics of the mind.

The relentless pace of change

We work in a fast-paced industry: few others, if any, confront the daily challenges we face. The landscape we work within is characterised by constant flux. It’s changing and evolving at a rate we have never experienced before. Few industries reinvent themselves yearly, monthly, weekly… Ours is one of these industries. Technology accelerates at an alarming rate and keeping abreast of this change is challenging, to say the least.

As designers it can be difficult to maintain a knowledge bank that is relevant and fit for purpose. We’re on a constant rollercoaster of endless learning, trying to maintain the pace as, daily, new ideas and innovations emerge — in some cases fundamentally changing our medium.

Under the pressure of client work or product design and development, it can be difficult to find the time to focus on learning the new skills we need to remain relevant and functionally competent. The result, all too often, is that the edges of our days have eroded. We no longer work nine to five; instead we work eight to six, and after the working day is over we regroup to spend our evenings learning. It’s an unsustainable situation.

From the workshop to the web

Added to this pressure to keep up, our work is now undertaken under a global gaze, conducted under an ever-present spotlight. Tools like Dribbble, Twitter and others, while incredibly powerful, have an unfortunate side effect, that of unfolding your ideas in public. This shift, from workshop to web, brings with it additional pressure.

In the past, the early stages of creativity took place within the relative safety of the workshop, an environment where one could take risks and gather feedback from a trusted few. We had space to make and space to break. No more. Our industry’s focus (and society’s focus) on sharing, leads us now to play out our decisions in public. This shift has changed us culturally, slowly but surely easing every aspect of our process – and lives – from private to public. This is at once liberating and debilitating.

If you’re not careful, an addiction to followers, likes, retweets, page views and other forms of measurement can overwhelm you. When you release your work into the wild and all it’s greeted with is silence, it can cripple you.

Reflecting on this, in an insightful article titled Derailed, Rogie King asks, “Can social popularity take us off the course of growth and where we were intended to go?” He makes a powerful point, that perhaps we might focus on what really matters, setting aside statistics. He concludes that to grow as practitioners we might be best served by seeking out critique through other avenues, away from the social spotlight.

On status anxiety and impostor syndrome

Following my experience I embarked on a period of self-reflection. I wanted to discover what had driven me to take the course of action I had. I wanted to ensure it never happened again. I wanted to understand how the mind works and, in so doing, learn a little more about myself.

I’ve only begun this journey, but two things I discovered resonated with me: the twin pressures of status anxiety and impostor syndrome.

In his excellent book Status Anxiety, the philosopher Alain de Botton explores a growing concern with status anxiety, a worry about how others perceive us and how this shapes our relationship with the world. He states:

We all worry about what others think of us. We all long to succeed and fear failure. We all suffer – to a greater or lesser degree, usually privately and with embarrassment – from status anxiety. […] This is an almost universal anxiety that rarely gets mentioned directly: an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser.

We see these pressures played out and amplified in the social sphere we all inhabit. We are social animals and we cannot help but react to the landscape we live and work within. Even if your work receives the public praise you so secretly desire, you find yourself questioning this praise.

A psychological phenomenon in which sufferers are unable to internalise their accomplishments, impostor syndrome is far more widespread than you’d imagine. The author Leigh Buchanan describes it as “A fear that one is not as smart or capable as others think.” As she puts it, “People who feel like frauds chalk up their accomplishments to external factors such as luck and timing, or worry they are coasting on charm and personality rather than on talent.”

At the bottom, this was all I could see. I felt overwhelmed by others’ perception of me. Was I a success or a failure? Would I be discovered as the fraud I’d convinced myself that I was? These twin pressures – that I was unconscious of at the time – had lead me to a place of crippling self-doubt, questioning my very existence.

The act of discovery, of investigating how the mind functions, led me to a deeper understanding of myself. Developing an awareness of psychology and learning about conditions like status anxiety and impostor syndrome helped me to understand and recognise how my mind worked, enabling me to manage it more effectively.


Make it count

Reflecting upon my experience, I began to regroup, to focus on what really mattered. I’d taken on too much — as I believe many of us do. I was guilty of wanting to do all the things. I started to introduce pauses. Before blindly saying yes to everything, I forced myself to pause and ask: “Is this important?”

Our community offers us huge benefits, but an always-on culture in which we’re bombarded daily by opportunity places temptation in our paths. It’s easy to get sucked in to a vortex of wanting to be a part of everything. It’s important, however, to focus. As Simon Collison puts it:

I cull and surrender topics. Then I focus on my strengths, mastering my core skills.

We only have so much time and we can only do so much. It’s impossible, indeed futile, to try to do everything. Sometimes we need to step back a little and just enjoy life, enjoy others’ achievements, without feeling the need to be actively involved ourselves.

As Mahatma Ghandi put it:

A ‘no’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.

Young India, volume 9, 1927

We need to learn to say no a little more often. We need to focus on the work that matters. This, coupled with an understanding of the mind and how it works, can help us achieve a happier balance between work and life.

Don’t waste your time. You only have one life. Make it count.

About the author

Christopher Murphy is a writer, designer and educator based in Belfast. Creative Review described him as, “a William Morris for the digital age,” an epithet he aspires to fulfil, daily. The author of numerous books, collectively covering a multidisciplinary approach towards design, he has written for: Five Simple Steps, 8 Faces and The Manual; in addition to publishing the world’s most compact typography journal, Glyph.

An internationally respected speaker, he has spoken at conferences worldwide, including: Build, Industry and, most recently, on the topic of mental health in the technology sector, at Brooklyn Beta.

You can follow Christopher’s journey via Twitter.

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