It’s no secret that creative careers are not the path someone might want to go through if their goal is to have a peaceful work-life balance from the get-go.
However, there’s something quite addictive about working in the industry — an endless dopamine rush when you get great feedback from one of your biggest clients, you get invited to an exclusive artists-only event, or when your campaign gets nominated at Cannes Lions. Even laying by the pool at your local Soho House reading a book (ironically, it’s always a self-help book) does taste like success. It seems you have ‘made it‘.
But for quite a few of us, something feels off. An underlying feeling of tension. Fatigue. Hostility. Like a papier-mâché wall about to crumble down, threatening to blow up everything we worked so hard for. A Black Mirror-esque theatre function that doesn’t seem to end.
As a fellow creative and brand strategist, that’s how I had been feeling for the past few years. Growing up in a humble North African household, success is all I ever wanted. All was ever asked of me. Additionally, it felt good to dedicate my life’s work to creating narratives; and as a natural overachiever, I thought that meant that I should constantly push myself to say yes to everything, to live permanently outside of my comfort zone, impress everyone I respected, compare myself to the top 1 per cent, work overtime, obsessively check my emails or move my entire life overseas (multiple times) for work. I was getting promoted fast, and I was getting to meet inspiring creatives around the world.
Not bad for a first generation immigrant woman, I thought.
Until the wall came down. Aggressively, in the form of a severe panic attack at the agency where I worked, one which landed me in hospital. And just like that, the function was over. Years of built-up pressure, paired with an extremely toxic workplace, and my impetuous need to meet expectations to overachieve, be overly perfect and over-deliver, were the perfect concoction to obliterate everything I knew to be true. My mind had been trying to desperately let me know that success (as I knew it) was a lie. I thought the awards, achievements and the global campaigns would be the magic wand that made the sacrifice worth it. But it wasn’t.
A great majority of industry professionals have been in the same shoes: and the statistics show that we are suffering from a ‘burnout epidemic’ and mental health is at an all-time low. The truth is, career paths are quite diverse and not everyone faces the same struggle. Research shows that only 16 per cent of creatives come from the working class, and difficulties double down in the case of women and POC (people of colour), making it extremely difficult to secure a creative job or project, inevitably entering a vicious cycle of unfair comparison with the remaining 84 per cent.
A system set up for failure
The reasons are wide but systemic: networking is quintessential for your survival as either a freelancer or agency creative, making social life a part of work and a challenging task, rather than the much-needed selfless social interaction it should be.
Life has to be delicately curated for success — perfectly choosing what events to attend, what city to move to, and even your choice of friends. Massive FOMO takes over like a hurricane, wreaking havoc if you so much dare to lay low for the weekend. It seems like everyone’s getting ahead of you, when everybody is actually struggling to keep it together.
Agencies continuously prioritize profit over well-being, on top of over-servicing clients and toxic work environments; leaving no time or energy for wellness or self-care. It’s a nepotism-based system set up to be ruthless, where climbing the ladder becomes a rather rocky and sacrificed journey, making professionals forget the reason they even started climbing: self-fulfilment.
The consequences are here, we are currently witnessing the Great Resignation take place: thousands of professionals going freelance, or entirely changing their careers for roles that connect more with their true selves and allow them to escape the corporate world, such as yoga teaching or writing. Brands and agencies are desperate for quality talent, but money has ironically lost emotional value in the midst of inflation. Peace of mind is the new Bitcoin, and everyone wants in.
Companies will have to implement big changes in their approach to leadership and culture if they want to recoup some of the lost talent. Skilled creatives that went through this know that, although successful, they are not likely to find fulfilment while stuck in the middle of a long array of departments and executives. But it’s a paradox: isn’t success meant to, at the very least, make us feel fulfilled?
Perhaps it should mean something else, and not the hypercapitalist-win-it-all-Everest-summit of life meaning we gave it.
Featured image: Self-portrait by Yasmina Stitou, who is also a photographer