I basically have 3 jobs. Let me walk you through them real quick.
Firstly, I’m the Director of Product Design at All Turtles. All Turtles is a venture studio supporting startups focused on the future of work and health. I manage a team of six design thinkers.
I’m also an independent game developer. I’ve made a variety of works over the past 10 years, some of my work has been shown in museums which is cool. I’ve also gotten some grants! My most recent two titles are Breakup Squad and SweetXheart.
Last but not least, I’m a co-organizer of Game Devs of Color Expo. It’s an annual conference that just wrapped up its 7th year the week of September 15. We gave out $90k in game dev grants — thanks to Bungie for sponsoring us, and for hosting this amazing event!
This is my first IRL event since March 2020. Being in a room full of people to deliver a talk after you’ve been the equivalent of a Twitch streamer for conferences two years in a row is WEIRD.
I’m going to talk about something kinda personal in this presentation. It is a keynote so hopefully you’ll be inspired by the end too, but it’s also gonna be bleak for a hot sec because of the subject matter.
This talk is about burnout, rediscovering meaning, and figuring out what’s next as you dig yourself out of an emotional ditch. I will allude to our hated panini but keep it as light as possible.
I think we’re all aware of this: being a designer during hard times is… Freaking weird! People often talk about design as a superpower because you can illustrate the future. And it often is quite magical. But it gets confusing when your skillset doesn’t feel immediately relevant to your survival.
In my case, I’d been in the tech industry for over 10 years, working as a digital designer. In January I’d just started a new job as a Staff Product Designer. Then came March 2020.
Gut punch! Airhornnnnnn!!!
We all know the story very well, so I won’t recap it. I’ll just say that being in NYC while it all went down left me feeling especially existential. I imagine it’s the same for folks in the Seattle area — I see y’all. 😭
My experience was something like this:
I would be in a Zoom call, getting my work critiqued, as a handful of ambulances passed my apartment with unsettling regularity. Other times, a major protest would parade by my door. The most I could do is bang pots and pans in solidarity, then get back to my Figma designs and resolve stakeholder feedback.
I felt like I should be doing more; like I should be out there, fighting for my rights and expressing my voice. But I was just making changes to task management software! This is a great combination that will make you feel pride in your work (just kidding).
Most days, I alternated between doing my best to deliver customer (shareholder?) value and watching endless bad news come in from across the internet. My anxiety spiked. I felt numb.
This was not good for my productivity at my (still new) full-time job. I heavily considered taking medical leave, but as time went on, I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to take enough time off to recover.
So, I worked through mental messages like:
“Does it matter if the button is primary or secondary when you’re afraid for your safety?”
“Who cares if the user flow could be more efficient when your democracy is at risk?”
What should creatives do in a world on fire — how does one find peace of mind and purpose?
This hopelessness extended to my other jobs, too. I wondered why I should make video games when I could be doing something else with that time. I wasn’t sure what would be meaningful enough, but I knew there had to be something I should do instead.
The reality is that I’m not rich. I live in NYC, one of the most expensive places in the world. I need to eat and pay rent. My will to survive and continue living in my birthplace was stronger than my temptation to give into the depths of my constant overwhelm.
Can I just point out how messed up it is that anyone has to choose between these two things? I got really angry about capitalism during this time, and I’m still mad.
I decided to follow my gut instinct and find ways to get out of my funk so I didn’t lose my new job. This was important since I’d volunteered to drive the design for a major new business venture — in other words, a zero-to-one project. I wanted to see this project through and deliver at a quality I knew I was capable of.
So, I leaned on my therapist harder than I ever have in my entire life. If you don’t have a therapist and you can afford one, change that. If you can’t afford a therapist, I’ll add that to my pile of disdain for capitalism.
My therapist helped me introspect. I spent a lot of time documenting my feelings — every day, I described my feelings in depth and explained the causes behind them. This analysis helped me understand my triggers and identify potential next steps.
A monumental realization that came from this process was how disconnected I was from all the reasons I started making things in the first place. I was stuck, I hadn’t learned anything new in a long time, and I felt completely out of control. COVID was part of the issue for me — but I was also becoming unsure about my career direction and following the path I thought I should follow.
Something I didn’t know is that my journey back closely maps to the seven types of rest, a concept by Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith. Thanks to my coach, Iyo, for sharing this concept with me recently.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the types of rest…
Physical - Combat symptoms of physical exhaustion like muscle pain and tension.
Mental - Rids your brain of the feeling that it has turned to mush.
Emotional - Needed when you have suppressed or avoided your true feelings.
Social - Helps you feel less socially exhausted.
Sensory - Reduces the feelings of sensory overwhelm caused by too many sights, smells, and sounds.
Creative - Gets you through creative blocks and refuels your energy to prevent burnout.
Spiritual - Builds the feeling that you belong and your life has meaning.
I was feeling physically, mentally, emotionally, sensorily, creatively, and spiritually exhausted. Here’s how I handled it.
First, I took breaks to recharge.
I drew my surroundings—including details from books—instead of pressuring myself to create new content. I also stopped pressuring myself to make a game on other people’s timelines. And I went for walks every day before breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
I instituted a rule where I took at least 1 week off every 3 months. Before holiday weekends, I would either take a half or full Friday. And in the winter, I took 3 weeks off.
This was all possible thanks to my employer’s generous paid time off policy. Without it, I would’ve quit.
Next, I set better boundaries.
I started saying “no” and setting better expectations with my team by ruthlessly prioritizing my work. Social media made me feel helpless and outraged, so I took a hiatus from Twitter—and then re-upped on my mute words. Finally, I consumed news through slower formats like traditional media and RSS feeds.
Putting myself first helped me reframe my relationship with my work—it was something I chose to do. Previously, I spoke about work as if I had no control. But I have agency. I recognized that I’m selling my labor to employers, and while I still want to do a good job, my job is intentionally not a life-or-death series of decisions.
Third, I invested in my education. I wrote a list of classes I wanted to take and signed up when they were open for registration.
I took a class with DesignerFund called Business Essentials for Designers. The number one thing I learned is that the backend of business is often guesstimation. You hear people talking about TAM and all these other phrases that sound so official; it’s fancy talk for “I dunno, maybe this”!
That made me feel less pressured to have all the right answers. Literally no one does!
SuperHi runs an online class about project management, so I took it and used what I learned to contribute to more strategic planning at my job.
I signed up for On Deck Design and met with people to discuss navigating our careers every two weeks. It was super healing to hear others’ struggles, and I loved seeing our progression.
And I learned about angel investing through a program called Pipeline Angels. This unlocked a part of me that I didn’t know was there, and I proceeded to invest in a few small startups by people of color at the end of the program.
Fourth, I became part of something bigger.
I signed up to knock on doors for candidates I like, joined a local political association, and did election work. Investing in community made me feel more whole.
On the design side, I decided to mentor a fledgling designer. Seeing her growth led me to more mentorship, including an investment in a mentorship product called Merit.
All of this community connection showed me I needed to connect directly with more people. Not in the shut-in way, but in the way of seeing the impact I was having.
I’m a designer because I care about people. The project I was working on at my employer — it was a 6-month slog, and we were mostly guessing. Once it was in the world, I started to read customer feedback as often as possible. That helped me recognize how much the little design decisions matter.
Another focus was accountability. Like gym buddies, but for creativity!
I scheduled time with with friends to work on our creative projects. One friend and I meet up over video every month for 2 hours. And I meet with another approximately every week. This has made a major difference in my game development work.
Through this experience, I learned a lot about myself!
These realizations helped me ease the pressure I was putting on myself. The biggest thing I learned is that I can’t control everything—I can only control how I react to the world around me.
I recognized that my work has a positive impact on people around me. It’s not life-or-death, but the details have meaning. And I’m contributing to a bigger picture, in my own way.
I became comfortable with taking years to finish my next game instead of pushing to follow the previous hype—and I stopped comparing myself to others as much. I still do it sometimes, but way less — sorry, no one knows what they’re doing out here. We’re all just guessing and that’s ok.
After 12 years of hands-on design work, I also decided to make a change to people management. Some people say it’s harder to see your impact when you’re a manager, but I’ve experienced the opposite. I get to see my impact every day! I’m designing systems to support a handful of extremely talented people.
Despite all of what I’ve shared, if I’m honest, my burnout isn’t completely gone. Even after I took two months off between jobs! It’s going to be a continuous journey filled with rest and reinvigoration, and I accept that.
I’d like to leave you with some messages in case any of you in the audience need to hear them.
You can only control what’s in your control.
You are contributing value in your own way. You have unique talents. Your contributions don’t need to look like others’.
You are on your own path. Your rest might look different from others’.